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The Sydney Morning Herald

Why every stroke counts for Cross

Author: Philip Derriman
Date: 11/10/2000
Words: 719
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Sport
Page: 40
`Hitting the wall' is a concern for every elite swimmer but in Tracey Cross's case the problem has a simple solution, writes Philip Derriman.

Swimming is an ideal sport for someone like Tracey Cross who is almost totally blind, yet it does have its problems.

How do you swim straight, for example? And how do you develop a swimming style if you've never seen anyone swim and have nothing in your mind that you can imitate?

Somehow, swimmers like Cross, a gold medallist at the past two Paralympics, manage to find a way around the problems.

She not only has a copybook style but swims straight enough and fast enough to cover, say, 50m freestyle in 33 seconds.

Now 27, the West Australian is considered a good chance in Sydney to repeat her successes at Barcelona and Atlanta. She is starting in the 50m, 100m and 400m freestyle, the 200m individual medley and the 100m backstroke, and it would surprise everyone close to the sport if she did not win gold in at least one of the freestyle events.

Cross's story is fairly typical of people competing at the Paralympics.

Blind since birth (she has a faint light perception in one eye which she says is all but useless), she found herself effectively excluded from sport at school in Perth until one day, at the relatively advanced age of 15, she chanced upon a sport with which she could cope in her case, swimming.

At first she took it up as a way of getting fit and as something to do. When she found she had a natural aptitude for it, she took it more seriously and quickly began to excel.

Four years later she won gold at Barcelona in the 100m and 400m freestyle.

She swims with a long reach and high elbow recovery in an easy, orthodox style. How did she develop it?

Cross said it was simple enough: her coach, Matt Brown, showed her what to do out of the pool. All she had to do was replicate what he taught her in the water.

She managed it but admitted it would have been a lot easier if she had been able to picture clearly in her mind what a swimming stroke looked like.

She said this was why blind swimmers who lose their sight later in life that is, after they have seen swimmers in action or learnt to swim when they could see usually have better techniques.

Swimming straight isn't so difficult, either. Whenever she burns her fingers on the lane ropes (an occupational hazard for a blind swimmer, she said), she knows she has to adjust her direction.

What about the danger of crashing into the end of the pool? Cross said this was never a problem when she was racing because there were always officials there who let the swimmers know they were nearing the wall by touching them with a pole with a rubber-ball tip.

Crashing into the wall can be a problem at training, though. Cross overcomes it by counting her strokes. After years of practice, she knows instinctively how many strokes she needs to swim the length of the pool at any particular speed, and she automatically counts them off.

After leaving school, Cross did law at Murdoch University and emerged with a degree in 1994. She works now as a law clerk and next year she will do her articled clerkship before becoming a solicitor.

The Sydney Paralympics may be her last. If so, she will miss the excitement of competition, yet in a way she feels that much of what she has gained from sport has been outside sport itself.

``The biggest thing I've got out of it, out of all the training and competition, is that it built up my confidence and self-esteem," she said yesterday.

``I'm a completely different person from the one I was before I started."

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