Moments after Rowan Crothers touched the wall in his 50m freestyle Paralympic final, he realised he had achieved his childhood dream—a Paralympic gold medal.
The 23-year-old has chased after his dreams with a fierce determination, training alongside able-bodied athletes and often pushing his body to the brink.
But for Crothers, it’s not about the guts and glory, it’s about doing what makes him happy.
It’s been a long journey for the Gosford-born swimmer.
Crothers was born in 1997, 15 weeks premature. As a result, he developed cerebral palsy, a disease affecting a person’s motor function and coordination, which predominantly affects his lower body.
“I started swimming as a form of physiotherapy, and I was terrible at it, and I hated it. I moved backwards more than I would forwards,” he said.
“I was in a lot of swimming classes which contained kids four to five years younger than me. I couldn’t be with anyone my age because I didn’t have good technique, but I kept up with it because I had to.”
His hatred for swimming turned to ambition in 2008 when Crothers was 10.
“I saw the Beijing Paralympics on TV, and seeing all these disabled athletes inspired me,” he said.
“I was watching these other young people with disabilities performing at an elite level, and I saw that as a way that I could, kind of, prove myself and prove my worth.
It was then when I told my mum that I want to do that someday.
From then on, Crothers was invested in swimming, competing at junior events and never giving up hope of becoming a professional swimmer for his country.
“After training and doing lots of smaller competitions and grinding away, here we are,” he said.
He made his first international team in 2013 at 15 years old. Just one year later, Crothers broke the world record for 100m freestyle in the S9 classification at the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
A reclassification to S10, ruled the lowest level of physical impairment, in 2016 threw a spanner in the works. But Crothers didn’t let that stop him from qualifying for the Australian team and representing his country at the Rio Paralympics.
“I was really proud to be able to wear the green and gold, and to be able to represent all my friends and family, and all these amazing people that I work with back home,” Crothers said.
He reached the final in all four of his events in those games—an incredible achievement, but one his competitive nature couldn’t accept because he knew he could reach the top of the podium.
“I’m addicted to competition,” Crothers admitted.
William Martin, a teammate of Crothers and part of their 4×100 freestyle relay team in Tokyo, agreed.
“He’s an ultra-competitor, a really good guy to have on the team,” Martin said.
Crothers’ competitive nature actually limited his swimming career at one point, as he was not only making a name for himself in the pool but also as a semi-professional gamer in the e-sports world.
“I had to retire from playing video games competitively because it just took up so much effort,” he said.
I couldn’t balance the late nights of e-sports with the early mornings of swimming.
This extra time and focus on swimming allowed Crothers to excel in the pool, and in 2017 he was named the Swimming Australia Paralympic Program Swimmer of the Year.
He followed that up with three gold medals in the 2018 Pan Pacific Para Swimming Championships and two more in the 2019 Australian Open Swimming Championships.
Crothers appeared to be peaking at just the right time for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.
Then, the Covid-19 pandemic hit, postponing the event he and so many other athletes had spent years training towards—but that didn’t faze Crothers.
“There’s always going to be roadblocks. There’s always going to be things that get in the way and things you need to adapt to,” he said.
“There’s been so much drama with coronavirus and I just see that as another challenge, another thing we need to adapt to.”
And adapt he did.
Crothers finished up the Tokyo Paralympics with a gold medal as the fastest swimmer in the 100m relay team that broke the world record.
He also won an individual gold medal in the S10 classification 50m freestyle and a silver medal in the S10 100m freestyle.
It was a breakthrough, and Crothers now plans to work towards qualifying for the Paris 2024 Paralympics.
“I’ve come so far, and I’ve grown so much as a person, and I’ve put in all of this work, not just for myself, but for all of these other people back home that have given up so much for me to accomplish my dream,” he said.
“I’ve put in all of this effort for them, and that was my reward.”
In his dedication to pursuing his dreams, Crothers pushes to his limit.
“As there is a limit to how fast I can get with an impairment, allowing myself to train alongside able-bodied athletes allows me to push myself as far as I possibly can.”
Past ‘breaking point’
Kate Sparkes, who began coaching Rowan after his first Olympics in 2016, said he had matured significantly as an athlete and a person in the past five years.
“As an athlete, Rowan is very hardworking and professional. He spent an incredible amount of time perfecting his dive and stroke in and out of the pool,” she said.
“Rowan doesn’t hold back in training and sometimes is unable to finish a set because he has pushed his body past breaking point.”
Out of the pool, she said he was an extremely caring person who wanted to make a difference for children with disabilities.
For Crothers, it’s not about the medals. It’s not the reason he competes as hard as he does or why he wants to accomplish all he can in the sport.
“My biggest goal is just to inspire kids and young people, or just people with disabilities really, to chase their dreams,” he said.
“I didn’t have much at all until I discovered that swimming could be a passion of mine and something I could chase, more so than the success within sport,” he said.
“If I can help inspire other kids that may be struggling to find that thing that they love in life and chase it, then that’s everything that I could possibly want.”
In 2015, 7.4 per cent of Australian children aged 0-14 had some level of disability, with more than half of those cases being severe, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
Crothers’ key to happiness
Crothers’ advice to young up-and-coming athletes—regardless of the sport–is to find their “passion”.
“I have become this wonderfully happy person, and I love everything about life because I have found my passion, and I have been able to chase it.
“So, the real thing I’d say to any kids, with or without disabilities, is to just find that one thing that you are really passionate about and just chase it, just take it to the absolute limit that you can, because that’s what is going to make you really happy and that’s what life is all about.”
“I have found the things that I really love to do. I think that’s what’s made a massive difference in terms of how successful I’ve been.”
Crothers said his wins are not the main takeaway from his career.
“It doesn’t matter about the success, because obviously, not everyone can be a Paralympian,” he said.
“But everyone can find a passion about something, and everyone can pursue that and chase that. That’s what I want to encourage other people to do, is find that thing and then chase it.”