Over the last few years cricket’s distant Olympic dream has steadily been gathering pace.
I’ve never met Matt Cowdrey. I’ve never spoken to him on the phone; never received an email from him. I’ve never even seen him walking down the street.
Even if he walk past me did, I’m not sure that I would even recognise him.
That’s not because Cowdrey is unrecognisable, per se. The 24-year-old was born with a congenital amputation to his lower left arm. By nature, such a change to what the rest of the world might class as “normal” certainly makes him recognisable.
Yet away from the television and outside of the pool, few would recognise him. Few would know who is he is and what he does. Heck, there might have even been some who didn’t recognise his name from the moment this article began.
Truth be told, Cowdrey is arguably Australia’s greatest athlete ever. He’s already secured the mantle as Australia’s greatest ever Paralympian.
Since picking up three gold, two silver and two bronze in the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games, Cowdrey has left a mark in his sport that few other athletes around the world — able-bodied or not — can attest to.
At the Australian Open swimming titles in 2005, Cowdrey won seven gold medals and two bronze. At the Australian Championships a year later, he won another three gold medals, as well as two silver and two bronze. Like so much of his career to date, those three gold medals are all world records.
Cowdrey would go on to represent Australia in another two Paralympic Games (Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012 respectively). From those two competitions alone he walked away with 10 gold medals, five silver, a bronze, and a staggering five world records — taking his career total past 11 gold medals and thus making him, officially, this country’s greatest ever Paralympic athlete.
No athlete has more gold (or total medals) than Cowdrey. And he’s only 24.
If we were to list all of his achievements in the pool, the truth is that this article would be six times longer than it is now. We haven’t even begun to mention his 20-plus IPC Swimming World Championships gold medals and world records, nor we have drawn attention to his world record-breaking performance at the 2006 Commonwealth Games either.
Yet while simply listing his achievements was a move born out of necessity and simplicity, it’s also one that perhaps puts Cowdrey in the spotlight that he desires.
And that’s to be considered as just another swimmer, not a swimmer with a disability.
“To view my disability,” Cowdrey said in an interview via ABC Sport prior to the 2012 London Paralympics, “I have to turn around and ask ‘what is a disability?’ The word says that, basically, that it’s something that stops you from doing something. And in terms of missing half an arm, I don’t see that as a disability because it hasn’t stopped me doing anything in life so far.”
“Maybe except the monkey bars”, he added with a laugh.
And then he added an important clarification—”inside the pool or outside the pool”.
After all, what he has done out of the pool is just as substantial (and certainly just as important) as anything he’s done in it.
He’s travelled the world, been awarded an Order of Australia Medal. He’s gone to university, he’s made plans for the future.
The so-called “disabled” athlete has even been a contestant in the CLEO Bachelor of the Year Award.
What’s more, Cowdrey has given so many of our athletes with a disability a hero. Those already in the national team; those struggling to get in; those who might be too young to do anything other than stand and admire his achievements — all have a hero and a man to look up to in this super-fish from Adelaide.
And in many ways, that’s more important than whatever records he might have.
“Being a champion is about more than winning gold.” says Matt Cowdrey on the Play by the Rules website — an initiative run by the Australian Sports Commission and all state sport departments to encourage and sustain the participation of children in sport right around the country. “It’s about playing fair and including everyone.”
There seemingly couldn’t be a better embodiment of this philosophy than Matt Cowdrey. Find him on Twitter.
December 3 is International Day of People with Disability. In NSW, this day is celebrated with the Don’t DIS my ABILITY campaign. Now in its 10th year, Don’t DIS my ABILITY about promoting positive perceptions and building an environment that encourages active participation in careers, leisure pursuits as well as social activities. Find out more.