“You’re not in the official squad Toby. You don’t get swimmers and uniform.”
This announcement from the head coach was in front of 30 of the best water polo players in the country – some of them my great mates. All of us were striving to be a part of the Sydney Olympics just 2 years away.
We were in the briefing room above the pool at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra for an Australian Men’s water polo training camp with Serbia.
When the coach asked if everyone had their gear, I was the only one who put my hand to say I didn’t.
I was on scholarship, living and training at the AIS at the time. The training block in the lead up had been the hardest I’d ever trained. I’d put everything into it but still hadn’t been selected in the official squad.
It was a completely fair response.
“You can join in the conditioning work and be part of the warm ups. But you won’t be getting game time. You can watch and learn.”
I wanted to crawl into a dark corner and hide.
I sucked it up and showed up to the sessions to do what I could.
At the end of the week, everyone was back in the same briefing room. The group was heading to Sydney for official games.
“Does everyone have their travel and accom details?”
I didn’t, so I stuck up my hand again.
“You’ll have to make your own arrangements if you’re going to come Toby.”
Another stinger in front of the group.
There wasn’t much point staying in Canberra by myself. So I organised a lift and one of the Sydney squad offered me a bed at his parent’s place. We’d be able to get to the sessions and the official games together.
One of the assistant coaches put me on video duty in Sydney so I recorded the training sessions and practice matches.
Then it was time for the first official game.
A minute, a few words and an old t-shirt
We were out at Homebush Aquatic Centre, built specifically for the Sydney 2000 Olympics. This was an important Olympic preparation event. The whole squad was in a room beside the pool running through game strategy. I stood up the back listening.
Dry land warm ups were done then it was time to go poolside.
As I left the room, one of the most senior players grabbed me in the hallway. I’d only known him for about 3 months since he’d returned from playing professionally in Europe. He was at the AIS too and had been in the Australian team for 4 years. He was considered one of the best players in the world.
He took me aside and handed me a shirt with the Australian Water Polo logo on it. It was an older version, but very similar, to the ones the squad had been given.
“I want you to have this. I think you deserve it. I know one day you will be a part of this squad.”
Then he walked out to the pool deck. It was all over in less than a minute.
What stands out is the impact this had on me as a person first and foremost, and by default on my water polo career.
It wasn’t something that I sought out, or could control at all. I couldn’t ask for help with it.
At a time when I just kept on showing up, seriously doubting what I was doing, and seriously doubting whether I would ever be good enough, he took a minute, a few words and an old shirt to inspire me forever.
I didn’t make the Sydney Olympic team, but revisiting that gesture kept me going in the next 6 years in the lead up to Athens.
Paying it forward
I’ve kept looking for the chance to do the same for others whether that’s through a t-shirt or some other modality. I’ve become increasingly aware of the responsibility of the privilege of my experiences and opportunities.
In fact, it’s how I see this writing.
It’s definitely not easy. Sometimes writing feels like open heart surgery. I know I can’t please everyone, every time. But if I hear it’s had an impact, then I’m stoked.
So thank you.
I appreciate the fact you’ve read this far. That you might let me know if you found it useful, or share it with a friend or colleague who might, or challenge my thinking.
I plan to keep showing up because I’ve found it’s a way to take a gift, a lesson or a moment in time and pay it forward.