Turning tragedy to Commonwealth Games Gold

By Jason Nykiel

For someone who reached the summit of domestic and international competitive swimming, broke world records, competed at two Olympics and won Commonwealth Games Gold all before her 25th birthday, Meagen Nay is incredibly modest.

Image Credit: FairFax Media.

Despite how easy Meagen made it look, her achievements have been hard-fought. With swimming in her DNA, she was destined to make a name for herself in a swimming pool and with the support of friends, family and an internationally acclaimed coach, she has done just that.

Long, arduous hours of preparation, focus and determination resulted in Meagen winning countless events, but she also learned there are some challenges for which one cannot prepare. After discussing  the evolution of her swimming career, her ability to overcome adversity and her post-swimming life, I came to the conclusion that Meagen Nay is a true Australian success story; an opinion with which I am sure you will agree.

Meagen was destined to be a world class swimmer. Her father Robbie was part of the Australian swim team at the 1972 Olympics, the 1974 Commonwealth Games and competed in the infamous Iron-Man lifesaving series. Meagen’s gene pool was further deepened by her mother Karin, a successful businesswoman and swimming coach who owned and operated swim schools.

I asked Meagen about her early introduction to swimming and her response wasn’t a surprise, “I started swimming quite early as Mum owned two swim schools,” she said.

I asked her what age she was when she first considered herself a good swimmer and if she had any early dreams of representing Australia. “I knew from a young age I was ok at swimming, but it was more the fun of swimming when I was young and I didn’t start training until the age of 12,” she said. It wasn’t long before dreams of gold began bobbing around in Meagen’s head. “At around 14 I thought about taking it more serious and dreaming of swimming at the Olympics,” Meagen recalls.

Meagen commenced her swim training at the Southport Pool in her hometown, Queensland’s Gold Coast. Her competitive nature and dedication saw her constantly improve and it was about this time she decided her future was in professional swimming. To achieve this goal, a leap of faith was required; she must leave her friends and family and relocate to Brisbane to train amongst the best. In 2006, she took the plunge and commenced her training with a legend of the swimming world, coach Michael Bohle who had built a reputation for training medal winners; a reputation Meagen would demand he live up to.

When asked if there were any defining moments of her early career Meagen feels lead to her success, she recalls the move from Gold Coast to Brisbane as giving her swimming career a chance to take off. “It was a moment I’ll remember and be thankful that I had the courage to do. I had made a few junior teams but making my first senior team for the 2008 Olympics was a huge step and that lead to five years on the national team,” she says. Meagen was just 18-years-old when she made the move and her courage paid dividends.

The year 2008 could be considered the time that launched Meagen on a trajectory to become one of the greats of Australian swimming. She competed at the Beijing Olympics, finishing seventh in a world class field, breaking Nicole Stevenson’s Commonwealth record for the 200m Backstroke, set 16 years prior.

However, in 2009 Meagen was presented a challenge which far outweighed anything she had experienced in the swimming world. While competing at the World Championships in Italy, Meagen’s brother Amos was killed in a car accident. Unfortunately, this was not an unfamiliar experience for Meagen’s family as her father Robert had been killed in 1995 under the same circumstances. Meagen was faced with a torturous decision; stay and compete or make the lonely trip home to be with family. She decided to stay, but after competing in a single heat of a relay event she made the decision to withdraw and flew home. With the help of family, friends and her coach, Meagen overcame her grief and by using the memories of her father and brother as motivation for strength and focus, just a year after what could have been a career ending event, Meagen qualified for the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.

Meagen made a huge splash onto the Commonwealth Games swimming scene, winning two Gold medals in her maiden appearance. Her first was for her part in the 200 metre freestyle relay and her individual Gold was for the 200 metre backstroke event in which she set a Games record. Her record (2m 07.56s) was broken by the narrowest of margins (.32s) by Australian swimmer, Belinda Hocking at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and I asked Meagen how she felt about it, “I was a little sad, but not surprised, records are made to be broken so it was nice to see the times keep improving in that event,” she told me with predictable grace.

Despite her incredible performance, when we spoke about her memories of the 2010 Games Nay made no mention of gold medals, broken records or cheering crowds, “I loved that I got to experience New Delhi with amazing family and friends … the culture, the food and the Taj Mahal was amazing.” While there were no negative experiences, as such, Meagen says, “The smell … I won’t really forget that.”

When I asked Meagen if the Games experience was worth all the years of labour which goes into it, I immediately realised it was a stupid question. “My typical training week consisted of nine swim sessions, three gym sessions, two core workouts, physiotherapy and massage,” she told me.

“To represent Australia at the Games was a privilege and an honour. All the long early mornings sessions, up and down that black line make it worth it when you get to experience a Games like Delhi … I loved it.” Meagen’s achievements are both admirable and inspirational, and from all accounts, Meagen plans on living her post-swimming life by the same philosophy.

Meagen’s life without competitive swimming started in September of 2015 when she announced her retirement due to an ongoing shoulder injury. She now focuses on repaying a sport she feels has given her so much. “I’ve just been trying to give back to younger swimmers in any way I can.” she says.

Meagen travels the country speaking to budding swimming champions, school swim teams or simply people interested in her Olympic and Commonwealth games stories – like the one she told Chronicle reporter Anton Rose about her watching Olympic speed machine Usain Bolt eating the unlikely meal of chicken nuggets. The backstroke specialist also offers advice on technical skills to young swimmers,

“I’ve run a few swim clinics and mentoring programs for younger girls in the sport of swimming right across Australia,” she said.

Meagen is also an ambassador for the Australian Swimmers Association, Swimming Australia and is heavily involved in the promotion of healthier lifestyles for Australian children.

I asked Meagen what advice she would give to young athletes with aspirations of reaching the top of their sport.

“I would just say enjoy the ride … train hard, your only young once so take the sport as far as you can,” she said.

If you are a young swimmer dreaming of success and Meagen Nay offers advice, given her history, I respectfully request you accept it. As a Commonwealth and Olympic level athlete, Meagen reached dizzying heights in the world of elite athleticism despite facing challenges which would have stopped most in their tracks. All she has achieved is a testament to the determination of the human spirit and an example of how drawing positive shards from the wreckage of negativity can transform dark into day and honour ourselves and those we love by doing so. I am confident this is a claim with which Meagen’s brother and father would wholeheartedly concur.