My Brother the Champion {guest post}

On numerous occasions, I have heard my friend Shalee proudly talking about her cousin, Aran, who is a world champion swimmer and also happens to have Down syndrome. I love celebrating all the amazing things young adults with Down syndrome are doing in the world, so I shamelessly asked Aran’s family if we could feature him on the blog this month. A very big thanks to Aran’s sister, Narelle, for writing a guest post and sharing some of Aran’s many achievements with us x


I still remember the moment when Mum and Dad told me that I was going to have a sibling. I was 19, nearly 20. I was still living at home and working, prior to going to Uni. I walked in from work one day and Dad told me to sit down as they had some big news to share. Little did I expect that it would be that Mum was pregnant. There are no other siblings, just the two of us. I was excited but also worried about Mum. We excitedly prepared for the baby’s arrival.

Five weeks early, on 21st June, I received a phone call at work to tell me that Mum was in labour. Dad was working down the West Coast and couldn’t make it to the birth in time. By the time I arrived at the hospital, a tiny little five pound baby had already made his entrance. Later that day, doctors spoke to Mum and Dad advising them it was highly likely my new brother Aran had Down syndrome, and testing soon confirmed this. I remember looking at Aran later that day and thinking that no one could put him in a box with a label – how little did I know the truth behind that.

Aran grew up swimming, thanks to Mum and Dad having a pool in the backyard, and entered his first competition at age 10, in the Special Olympics. I remember walking in to the pool area and looking for my family. What I saw was Aran swimming and Mum walking down the side line cheering him on to victory. He won other races that day and that was just the beginning.

Aran continued to swim competitively and, in 2011, went to the National Down Syndrome Championships in Noosa where he came home with four gold medals. This was also a qualifying event for the World Down Syndrome Swimming Championships in Loano, Italy. Due to his success, Aran was chosen to represent Australia. Over the next year, Aran and Mum prepared to head overseas for the first time. We did lots of fundraising as the team has no sponsorship and all costs are paid personally. We were blown away by the generosity of our local community, both individuals and businesses. Everyone got behind Aran and supported him.

Aran with President of South Esk Swimming Club, Jayne Shepherd, at the annual SESC awards Gala. Among many awards, Aran won overall Club Champion.
Aran with President of South Esk Swimming Club, Jayne Shepherd, at the annual SESC awards Gala. Among many awards, Aran won overall Club Champion.

In late October 2012, Mum and Aran left for Italy with no expectations other than for Aran to try his best. I’ll never forget that first message – a gold medal! Wow. Four more quickly followed and Aran returned home from a very successful championships with five gold and four silver medals, both individually and from relays. The Australian team once again was very strong and won overall.

2013 saw the National Down Syndrome Swimming Championships held in Sydney where once again Aran was successful and secured a spot for the 2014 World Down Syndrome Swimming Championships, this time to be held in Morelia, Mexico. With massive support yet again, significant funds were raised to send Aran and, yet again, he had great success with six gold medals, two silver and a bronze!

The 2015 National Championships were held in Sydney and again Aran was selected to represent Australia in July 2016. He would be heading to Florence, Italy, to compete in the World Championship swimming event to be held as part of the Inaugural Trisome Games.

Aran pictured with Head Coach Ketrina Clarke from South Esk Swimming Club.
Aran pictured with Head Coach Ketrina Clarke from South Esk Swimming Club.

With Mum was unable to go with Aran due to Dad’s ill health, this time Aran went by himself. Thankfully, we were kept up to date through social media and text messages by the coaches, support staff and families. Every time we saw photos of Aran we could see by the twinkle in his eyes that he was having a great time. He was loved on by many people in the absence of his own family, for which we are very grateful.

With an interrupted preparation due to family issues, we were not expecting medals this time around. However, Aran had different plans and kicked off the meet with a gold medal! Eight more followed plus one silver. Six of these were relay gold and there were a few world records in there too.

Over the years, Aran has also achieved world records for swimmers with Down Syndrome across both short (25 metre) and long (50 metre) course formats in events at home. Having Aran as a member of the South Esk Swimming Club has had a significant impact there too with coaching staff upgrading their skills, the club implementing their Inclusion Policy, as well as providing inspiration for all the swimmers having a world champion and world record holder in their midst. In between national and world events, Aran continues to train hard with the South Esk Swimming Club and New Horizons Club and world records continue to fall.

Over time, many people have and continue to ask us if Aran will ever swim at the Paralympics. The answer is yes, people with Down Syndrome can swim at the Paralympics but, due to the classification system, they are not competitive. People with Down Syndrome compete in the S14 classification which is a category for people with intellectual disabilities. However, Down Syndrome also causes physical disabilities, hence the inability to be competitive with someone who has (only) an intellectual disability. Therefore, the Down Syndrome International Swimming Organisation (DSISO) and Down Syndrome Swimming Australia (DSSA) are lobbying to have the classification system changed so that people with Down Syndrome have an different category, so they compete against each other. Momentum is building…

The Australian team that has swum at the last three World Championships have won overall. They have achieved more records and gold medals than our able bodied athletes yet they get minimal recognition and pay all their expenses personally. These athletes train as much as able bodied swimmers and the sacrifices are similar.

After winning Gold in Florence, Italy.
After winning Gold in Florence, Italy.

We are very proud of Aran, our champion, who has achieved so much over his life and we’ve no doubt he’ll continue breaking records and smashing stereotypes for years to come.

Narelle is sister to Aran, wife to Jamie and Mum to Bethany and Mia, who also swim with South Esk. She works as a Teacher and is also a Registered Nurse. Outside of work, swimming takes up a large part of their family time, with Narelle playing an active role in the club as Vice President, Team Leader and Uniform Coordinator. You can follow Aran on Facebook, as well as support Down Syndrome Swimming Australia (DSSA) and Down Syndrome International Swimming Organisation (DSISO).

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