Isabella Vincent has barely been away from her family for a week, but after being selected as the youngest member of the Paralympics swim squad, she is about to have the adventure of a lifetime.
- Isabella Vincent is the youngest member of Australia’s Paralympics swim team
- She only started competitive swimming three years ago after a stint of post-operation hydrotherapy
- Norwood Swimming Club and head coach Shaun Curtis drive her to keep improving
“My mum’s quite worried about it, but I’m kind of excited as it will be a whole other experience,” she laughed.
Vincent was named last week with 14 other debutantes in a 32-strong swim team, her strongest events being the 100 metre and 400m freestyle, as well as the 100m backstroke.
She will leave in mid-July for training in Queensland before landing in Tokyo to represent Australia for the first time from late August to early September.
Because family are not allowed to go — in an effort to restrict numbers due to the ongoing pandemic — the journey is one she will be taking alone.
The 15-year-old Adelaide girl, known as Izzy, only started swimming three years ago but has taken to it like a “superfish”, qualifying for the Paralympics at the 2021 Australian Swimming Trials held in Adelaide last week.
Affinity with water
Vincent had swum a little as a child but was ultimately discouraged because she “couldn’t kick” due to the condition she was born with, sacral agenisis.
“My spine stops above the sacrum [where it should connect to the pelvis] so I’m missing calf muscles and other ligaments and I’ve got nerve issues,” she said.
“I do have a little bit of movement but I can’t use [my legs] in the water.”
If it was not for the suggestion of a hydrotherapist only a few years ago, Vincent may never have hit the water at all.
“I had an operation, due to my condition, and had hydrotherapy after that,” she said.
“One of the hydrotherapists let us know about Norwood Swimming Club’s ENable program and it was just instant.”
Without strength in her legs, Vincent began working on her upper body strength and, when she started competing at club meets, she found a supportive, welcoming club culture under the training of head coach Shaun Curtis.
“I mainly do freestyle and backstroke but not butterfly as I really don’t like it,” she said. “It feels like you’re drowning.”
She competes at all club meets — except when she is swimming for South Australia.
Vincent recalls an uncomfortable moment when her goggles fell off after diving in for the 400m freestyle.
“They were dragging around my neck and so I ripped them off at the first turn,” she said.
“It threw me off a little bit but that’s just something I had to deal with and I think it happens to everyone.”
Other challenges more unique to Vincent include the effects of the weather and diet on her condition.
“Part of the lead-up to the trials, for me, was proving how I can manage that, and I think I did that really well compared to how I did it in the past, so it’s something I’m working on,” Vincent said.
School proud of Izzy
Vincent’s selection in the Australian squad has brought a lot of joy to the Year 10 student’s school friends as well, who have taken to decorating her locker.
“I’ve got green and gold ribbons everywhere and all these pompoms that fly out of my locker sometimes,” Vincent laughed.
“We’ve had morning tea where they mentioned me and my principal’s been quite supportive too.”
Asked if she was surprised to have qualified after swimming for a relatively short period of time, Vincent said the extra year to prepare as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic had likely played a part.
“Paris 2024 [Olympics] was actually my goal and I wasn’t expecting to make this team,” she said.
She swam her personal best at the trials in all of her events.
A ‘good team’
Vincent’s excitement at being selected is palpable, despite her Norwood coach being unable to come with her to Tokyo either.
“Everyone’s really welcoming, so I think it’s a good team.”
Others in Australia’s Tokyo swim squad include those who already have won Paralympic gold medals, including Ellie Cole (5), Brenden Hall (3), Lakeisha Patterson (2), Tiffany Thomas Kane (1) and medallist Matthew Levy (2).
At 34, Levy is the oldest member of the team and is about to compete in his fifth Paralympics.
In total, Australian swimmers have won 420 medals since the first Paralympics in Rome in 1960.
That tally included 138 gold, 150 silver and 142 bronze, placing Australia fifth on the all-time gold medal tally in Paralympic swimming, and third in total medals won.
The Tokyo 2021 Paralympics runs from August 24 to September 5.