That night I slept soundly, but the night after I couldn’t rest. My stomach was alive, my mind paced. I watched the clock: 12.30am, 12.53am, 1.12am, 1.24am, 1.58am… I was excited, not afraid. I couldn’t wait for my turn on the stage.
My heat swim was solid. It put me into Lane 3 for the final, next to Sam – exactly where I wanted to be. I had always been a pm-er, so lifting for my moment that night would come naturally. I had to touch first or second to make the team. I had to swim under 2.30 to make the qualifying time. John Konrads was in the stands. I wondered if he knew that he’d been talking to me for the last 12 years.
Media were everywhere, cameras beaming the event live to lounge rooms around the nation. Everyone I had ever known filled both sides of the grandstand. My whole extended family was there; even those whose bodies could not traverse the distance were holding their breath on the other side of the globe for the telephone to give them a thumbs up or a thumbs down. Ursula had cancelled training for the afternoon so the entire club could be at Homebush. Many of the youngsters had volunteered as basket carriers and they cheered for their older club-mates from behind the starting blocks with baskets for competitors’ clothes in their arms.
‘I wonder what they’ll say, if I’m the one to break the drought. Foul mouthed, boy-crazy Olympian…’ The thought made me smile.
It seemed strange to imagine that some of those youngsters could be looking up to me the way I had adored Megan. A humbling thought. I had never considered that Megan might be a person like me. She was only ever a goddess in my eyes.
Tension built and I started seeing the evening in snapshots. The crowd. The pool. The cameras. The announcements. The warm air. The dazzling light. The pounding in my chest. The tremble in my gut. The smiles. The rituals.
There are moments when the world slows down for us, when time expands so that we can feel, see, smell acutely that instant, and we become aware that these few moments will change our life. I had a thousand thoughts that stopped rushing for a few minutes – just long enough for me to swim four laps of the pool that would play host to the Olympics of the millennium. All I felt was joy extending from my chest to the still, deep blue expanse winking before me. My feet were not connected to the earth. The passion of people in the grandstand radiated, and louder still was the itching of my muscles and the drumming of my heart in my throat. As I stepped from the marshalling area to parade along pool deck, surrounded by the very people I had visualised would be there, wearing exactly what I had imagined in those weeks before, smelling the chlorine mingling with Dencorub, they were playing my song over the PA.
“Give me one moment in time
When I’m more than I thought I could be…”
I knew this was going to be a beautiful night.
Eight people on the blocks; a lifetime of dreams calling each one of us. Doubts, fears, hopes and courage clashing in the subconscious minds of every mother, father, sibling, friend and fan.
Suck in three last deep breaths.
Right arm stops shaking.
Toes curl tight.
World champions. Commonwealth champions. The world record holder. All eight of us capable of world-class times. All of us with world rankings. All of us fighting for two places.
The TV commentators call the race:
“Riley in front, Nadine Neumann in the yellow cap is there with her, and also Brooke Hanson. This is a good swim by Hanson and not far away too is Linley Frame, and beside her Rebecca Brown. Through the 100m they go in a time of 1.11.33 – less than a second between the first five.”
“Nadine Neumann looks great in this race. She is keeping up with Sam Riley. Sam Riley is the second fastest swimmer in the history of this event, and Nadine Neumann is keeping up with her!”
“Neumann really is challenging. She is in a clear second position. They go through the last turn, the 150m mark. It’s Riley in front of Neumann, back there in third place it’s Hanson, then Brown, then Frame…”
And 40m to swim. It was deafening.
“It’s the girl that suffered the broken neck, in the come-back now. Nadine Neumann, Brooke Hanson, Riley – three of them in the middle of the pool. Neumann in front of Riley, Hanson trying to challenge Riley… with 15m to swim and it is Nadine Neumann that’s going to cause the boil-over here! Neumann! Neumann! In goes Neumann! 2.29.65! She’s off to Atlanta!”
When your mind is still and your body is free to do what it knows best, you don’t really hear with your ears. The thunder of the crowd coursed through me like a flash of inspiration and there it was: the indescribable song I had chased for so many years, through darkness into this moment of exhilarating light.
I have no recollection of bounding out of the water, hugging Greg, beaming joy in his nerve-ravaged face. I don’t recall doing a jig on the way to the poolside interview, but it was all over the papers the next morning! I don’t remember being interviewed by Laurie Lawrence, but my consciousness returned when I found my dad. I hugged him and the world embraced me. This was real. His tears were real and for once he was crying for the right reason. We had actually done it!
Collie howled out of control, running her nail-chewed hands through her long brown hair in an attempt to regain her composure. At 16, you don’t want to be seen on TV wailing and screeching like a madwoman, but what else could she do?! My mum trembled as though struck by lightning and she held her chest and her mouth alternately in wonder. She was speechless and tears filled her sparkling blue eyes. My aunts, uncle and cousins couldn’t stop laughing as though this were a moment too absurd, too bizarre to be true. Sean coughed his dry, nervous cough, not sure what to do with an overwhelming moment like this. He couldn’t wait to get his hands on me!
After cool-down, dancing an absurd ring-a-rosie dance with Jade, accepting congratulations from everyone and anyone, I floated, bursting with joy, through the throng of young well-wishers, all wanting an autograph from the latest local hero. It took over 45 minutes to move through them, I signed my name so often that I forgot how to spell it. My face ached from grinning and the next day none of the fervour had died down. They all wanted the story of the broken neck comeback kid. It was the kind of thing that was perfect for the end of Today Tonight on a slow news day and every station wanted a version for their back-up shelves. I soaked it up, every flattering ooooh and aaaaah.
I floated in a dream and I never wanted to come down. We drank champagne. We laughed and relived the telecast over and over and over. I ate pizza and danced in the lounge room. I smiled, wide-eyed in bed, adrenalin keeping me wired. I stared at myself in the mirror and asked my reflection, ‘Did we really do that? Was that really me?’
And on the last night of the Trials, as they announced the team, gave us our first item of Olympic clothing and walked us, one by one, along the pool deck, past an honour roll of swimming greats lined up to welcome us to the club for the best in the world, I shook his hand.
He said, “Congratulations, Nadine.”
He patted me on the shoulder.
And I smiled, speechless.
John Konrads welcomed me to the Olympic Family, no longer in black and white.
(Wobbles – An Olympic Story by Nadine Neumann)