Five years after becoming Australia’s first gold medallist of the Rio Paralympics, Lakeisha Patterson is remarkably hoping for the same honour again when the Tokyo Games’ swimming events start on Wednesday.
The 22-year-old, who’s affectionately known as ‘Lucky’ has been anything but fortunate in her lead up to Tokyo, and the defence of her S9 400m gold medal, one of the first events on the program.
In Rio, a win in world record time was the first step in a successful and packed campaign that ultimately yielded two gold, three silver and one bronze medal.
But ill health in the lead up to Tokyo, as well as complications around the pandemic, mean this is her only event on the program.
“She has been extremely unwell but nevertheless she is fully prepared,” her mum Sherryn Patterson told the Caboolture Shire Herald this week.
“She always rises above any challenges that come her way, all the athletes have faced different challenges during the pandemic, but a continuing regression in her condition has left her with a few health complications that have held her back.”
Her local council pool north of Brisbane shut down and she’s had to train in neighbours’ backyard pools and open water near Bribie Island, where she grew up.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment of all for Lakeisha is the inability of Sherryn to be by her daughter’s side in Tokyo because of COVID.
Her mum missed out on Rio as well and was preparing to make up for that in Tokyo before the pandemic struck.
Lakeisha revealed the extent of their bond in a deeply personal piece she wrote for The Roar’s sister publication AthletesVoice two years ago, as she was preparing for the initially delayed Games.
On Lakeisha’s fifth birthday her parents split up.
“Mum was going through treatment for thyroid cancer at the time. She was doing her best to raise the three of us, including caring for me and my cerebral palsy.
“My condition meant I had developmental delays and was constantly visiting the hospital and doctors for physio, OT and specialist appointments.
“During this period, I began falling over all the time, just out of the blue, which suggested something else was going on. Soon we discovered those falls were drop seizures and I was diagnosed with epilepsy. A lot was happening.
“I think it all became too much for my father to handle and an abusive relationship towards my mum formed. It got to the stage where there was some abuse towards me and my sisters, too.
“I don’t remember much of that time because I was very young and also because the epilepsy affected my memory. But I do remember what it felt like – like my whole world was falling apart and there was nothing I could do to fix it. It was a very tense time for us all.
“Finally, my mum made the decision. She packed us kids and the cat in the car. She had $50 on her. We had a little tablecloth, which became our core piece of furniture.
“It was our dining table and our place to do homework. We ended up staying with friends until we got our own place and started again.”
Sherryn and her three girls moved around before settling on Bribie Island: “our little island paradise”.
Her mum and sisters Tehlia and Kiarna made sure Lakeisha never focused on her disability, while the local community did the same.
“The result was that, from a young age despite a tough beginning, I didn’t feel much different to everyone else,” Lakeisha wrote. “There were challenges, for sure, and it would take me longer to do normal everyday things.
“But I felt encouraged and well supported. I like to say that I’m not disabled, I am ‘uniquely able’ and those challenges taught me to become adaptable and find innovative ways of overcoming obstacles.”
Lakeisha was born breech – “meaning my bum was first instead of my head” – and due to her incorrect position she was deprived of oxygen and suffered a stroke, requiring resuscitation.
The birth trauma led to a diagnosis of cerebral palsy left hemiplegia, which affects movement, coordination and balance on the left side of her body.
As she grew, the pool became her happy place, as well as a place that helped her manage her pain and aid mobility.
“It wasn’t until swimming came into my life that I found I was on a near-even setting with my sisters,” she wrote. “I felt free in the pool and the water on my skin felt magical. I had a sense of belonging, which was a new experience.”
When Lakeisha was 13 she discovered the Paralympics, watching the London Games on TV.
“I remember sitting in the lounge room and saying to Mum that I was going to compete at the next Paralympic Games, in Rio, and I was going to win a gold medal.
“Mum was like, ‘Ah, OK, well, if you work hard, then maybe!’ I was 13.
“I think she was quite surprised and thought I was very ambitious. But she was always willing to support me in any way possible.”
Her rise was rapid and within two years she was on the team for the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games and two years after that she made good on her promise to her mum.
Along the way she has been the victim of cyber-bullying.
“It began way back in 2014 when I was only 15, almost as soon as I started competing internationally,” she wrote.
“I think it was because I came onto the scene pretty quickly, which led some people to question my ability out of jealousy.
“As I got faster, it became worse. Sometimes the abuse has come from social media accounts that have been set up with fake usernames, sometimes it’s from disgruntled parents, most of it’s from overseas but unfortunately home in Australia as well.”
Sherryn will celebrate her birthday on Wednesday, separated from the girl she once couldn’t bear to let out of her sight.
Lakeisha told her her she would try to bring home a gold medal as a present, but Sherryn told the Caboolture paper she wasn’t fussed about the result.
“I’m just excited to see her race, after the challenging year that she has had,” Sherryn said.
“My mum is the glue that held us all together,” wrote Lakeisha. “She literally started again from scratch. We all restarted our lives and, from then on, it was just us girls.”