Boarding bonanza for island girls

When she was a teenager, growing up on Phillip Island, she found the right swimming facilities hard to come by. Mandy, a right-leg amputee, had her sights set on the Paralympics, but it was obvious that would be hard to achieve on Phillip Island. “I would jump off the jetty at Cowes and swim for a bit then pull myself up the ladder and jump into the water,” the 29-year-old said. “That way I got a cardio workout, too. There was a 25m pool at Wonthaggi, but it was harder obviously to train because ideally you want an Olympic-sized pool.” Mandy realised she would need to train elsewhere, but, at the age of 13, didn’t want to uproot the family.

Instead, she began searching for boarding school placements and ended up securing a boarding school scholarship at St Catherine’s School in Toorak. “I started at the school in the final semester of Year 9 and it was so different from what I was used to,” Mandy said. “I had to wear a uniform and I was told I had to do homework. It was a big change.” The school’s rules, interestingly, helped develop Mandy’s abilities as an athlete. “The structure and the routine of the boarding school was really useful as a swimmer in that I didn’t think about whether or not I wanted to swim, I just got out of bed and did it,” she said. “That discipline set me up for life.”

Mandy went on to attend two Paralympic Games — Athens in 2004 and Beijing on 2008 — winning a bronze medal at Athens in the freestyle relay when she was just 16. When Mandy left school, she took up kayaking — it was meant to be hobby, but quickly turned professional — coming eighth in the K1 200m at the 2014 World Championship finals. In the end, an injury in her lumbar spine, which was affecting her left foot, forced her into early retirement and a more sedate life. She eventually opened her own Chinese massage business on Phillip Island.

Mandy said she was indebted to the focus and routine that a boarding scholarship gave her.

St Catherine’s School awards boarding, academic, general excellence and music scholarships. The school also offers an indigenous scholarship program of full boarding and academic scholarships to Year 7 students from Aboriginal remote communities.

Johanna leggatt

The Weekly Times

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