Making of an Olympian: Champion swimmer goes all the way

By Mike Scott

In the final part of our series, the spotlight falls on Paralympian Cameron Leslie, who has never been allowed excuses, writes Mike Scott.

To push through hours of mind-numbing swim training Cameron Leslie repeats his two-word mantra.

"Do it."

It's a simple motto.

"Do it. Do it."

Yet in Leslie's life just 'doing it' has been anything but simple.

Born in Whangarei without fully formed arms or legs meant a life full of obstacles.

His life required a special attitude - one he developed thanks to his parents Ross and Theresa.

"I was fortunate my parents didn't treat me any different to my brothers and sisters.

"And I've never had a 'poor me' attitude. If I did my parents would've shook that out of me and said, 'Nah mate, not on our watch'.

"Just because I've got a disability it doesn't mean I shouldn't get a job or try new things. It's not really a barrier."

Like learning how to swim.

"As a young fella I used to have water wings on, and of course I've got a shorter arm and a water wing just slipped off and I remember just having to fight for survival to keep my head above the water.

"One of my brothers scooped me up and took me to the side of the pool where I was hanging on, breathing and thought - that was quite fun."

At 26, Leslie has long left his water wings at home and is training for the 150m individual medley at the Rio Paralympic Games in September.

He and coach Simon Mayne are confident, and for good reason.

Rio will be Leslie's third Paralympics and third potential gold after winning the medley in Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Games.

In June, Leslie set a new world record of 2min 25.77s at the IDM German Open, beating his own previous time of 2:25.98 set in London.

"There's certainly a lot more competition now than what there was four years ago.

"But if you've got a desire to win you're going to train as hard as you can to win regardless of who's around.

"If you're going to be a gold medallist you're not going to put a half-hearted effort in."

Leslie's preparation is not meek. He says he trains as hard as any able-bodied athlete.

When the Herald caught up with Leslie at the West Wave aquatic centre training facilities, he was finessing new gym workouts under the guidance of a High Performance Sport New Zealand strength and conditioning trainer.

Cameron Leslie during a training session. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Cameron Leslie during a training session. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Using equipment built for able-bodied people requires some tweaking and plenty of practise.

Heavy weighted leg-presses with prosthetics legs is no easy task.

"Of course you've got to do things differently, but that's a key point of living with a disability - you've got to figure out a way around things."

Leslie lives in Auckland and funding allows him to train full-time - an encouraging indication of how New Zealand's top disabled athletes are now regarded.

"Definitely in my time the way that Paralympics sport is viewed has changed significantly.

"Back when I first started, you weren't really compared on a level playing field, whereas nowadays my achievements are ranked beside able-bodied counterparts much closer, which shows the credibility Paralympic sports are getting.

"We don't do it for a pat on the back. We're not doing it for participation at all. It is about winning."

In 2006, when Leslie first gained his spot in the New Zealand Paralympics swim team, he was soundly beaten at the IPC world championships and almost gave it up.

Taking encouragement from his parents, he instead moved south from Whangarei to link with Mayne.

He also changed discipline, moving away from the 50, 100 and 200m freestyle to the 150m individual medley.

During the first year under Mayne, Leslie swam to a surprise gold medal and new world record at the Beijing 2008 Paralympics.

"Winning my first gold medal was almost shock, horror. I vividly remember touching the wall [of the pool] and looking to my right and there was no one there. Look to the left, there's no one there. Where is everyone?

"It really was surreal."

According to Leslie, 10 years ago a single medal within the swim team would have been gauged as a significant success.

Since then a high-performance culture has germinated within the squad. Athletes such as Leslie, Sophie Pascoe and Mary Fisher have led the way to unprecedented achievement.

At the London 2012 Games, the team won five golds and six silvers.

This slew of medals enabled the full New Zealand Paralympic team to be the most successful on a per capita basis in London, winning 17 medals, 12 of them gold.

In Rio they are aiming for 18.

"For me I think the real cool thing is that when people come on to our Paralympics swim team we've got a real high performance culture.

"When people come in there you're expected to either be winning or to be trying your damnedest to win.

"Everyone trains hard to get on that team.

At 26, Leslie concedes he's becoming a veteran swimmer. He also knows in Rio he will be the hunted rather than the hunter.

Yet he is not lacking for motivation.

"I love seeing your fellow athletes go on to the world stage and win. Coming from New Zealand and to beat other countries who've put more money into it, have more athletes - that sort of stuff motivates me.

"I'm all about doing where you're from and your country proud."

- NZ Herald

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