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Rowing to success

Volume 6 Number 3 March 8 - April 12 2010

Melbourne’s elite student-athlete program is attracting some high-flyers. By David Scott.

Meet Henry Macphillamy. The first-year JD student is looking at a busy year in 2010. Not only will he begin his postgraduate education at the Melbourne Law School, he will also carry the distinction of joining one of the country’s most successful rowing clubs (Melbourne University Boat Club) as part of the University’s Elite Athlete Friendly University (EAFU) accreditation.

Henry will be in good company; an Australian representative at the Adaptive Rowing World Championships in Poland last year, he begins just his third full year of rowing at an elite level, but will get the chance to learn from and row alongside Olympians such as Peter Antonie, Cameron McKenzie-McHarg and Kim Crow.

“I only moved down from Sydney a few weeks ago, while I’m still in the process of getting settled in a rowing sense – and I haven’t met everyone at the club yet by any means! – I’m really keen to get involved.”

And on top of all this, Henry is completely blind and has a hearing impediment. The word ‘inspiring’ seems entirely appropriate, but Henry is much more modest and philosophical about it all.

“It’s all thanks to my parents really, they were determined that I benefit from the same kinds of opportunities available to my brothers and sister. I attended the same schools and had access to the same educational opportunities as they did. I was put in swimming lessons alongside them, and when my family went skiing I was taught, first with the assistance of a long pole which connected me to my guide, and eventually by voice commands delivered through a speaker or two-way-radio.

“At school I participated in everything from an under-6’s soccer team, where I was recognised as a valuable goal-scorer (for the other team!), to a school rock band where I played guitar.

“This treatment made me aware from a very early age that I possess the same rights, enjoy the same benefits and have the same responsibilities as anyone else. It has also made me feel obligated to give back to those organisations and individuals who have supported me throughout my school life, and to whom I owe a great deal in developing the life skills and independence which I now enjoy.”

Part of that extends to rowing, says the 24-year-old, and realising that a disability need not mean you can’t achieve the same as others. “My experiences have afforded me an opportunity to learn a great deal about both myself and others from a variety of backgrounds, and I have had academic, sporting and extracurricular opportunities of which most people could only dream,” he says.

“While competitive rowing is without doubt the most challenging endeavour I have ever undertaken, it has added to my overall understanding of the importance of teamwork, relationships, and most important of all, mental toughness. In the short time in which I have been rowing, I have come to appreciate how crucial a component mental toughness is in realising actual potential, as opposed to contenting myself with guessing what might be possible to do if I tried.”

Henry credits his success in the boat to his time under Simon Hoedley at Mosman Rowing Club in 2008 – perhaps ironically the year the University of Melbourne was afforded EAFU status by the Australian Sports Commission.

“I was sitting around the house one day in mid-2008, really bored with my degree and needing challenge to fire me up again. I rang up one of the rowing clubs in Sydney and was fortunate enough to sign up at a time when coaches were running ‘learn to row’ programs and had a bit of time on their hands.

 “Simon Hoedley was my first coach, and spent hours out on the water with me, teaching me about the technical aspects of the sport. It wouldn’t be easy for any coach to teach a totally blind person how to row from scratch in a single scull, so I was extremely lucky that he was the kind of guy who was happy to spend as much time with me as he did. He encouraged me to go to nationals last year and have a crack, and then it was the selections for an adaptive mixed coxed four and then the rest, as they say, is history!”

And so back to a busy year – is he looking forward to juggling fulltime study with training and competition?

 “I realise it’s going to throw up its fair share of challenges, however everyone at the Law School, the Disability Support Unit and the University has been extremely supportive, and as long as I stay focused and motivated I know that I’ll be able to manage things,” Henry says.

More about the University’s support for elite student-athletes: