Swimming

Born with a rare genetic disorder, Paralympian Grant ‘Scooter’ Patterson has won fans the world over for his larrikin quips and easygoing nature. Now with Tokyo medals under his belt, the swimmer is looking towards his next challenge. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Paralympic swimmer Grant ‘Scooter’ Patterson on becoming bulletproof

Grant “Scooter” Patterson celebrates winning a silver medal in Tokyo.
Credit: AAP / Paralympics Australia / Delly Carr

At his first Paralympics, in London 2012, an older swimmer gave Grant “Scooter” Patterson some advice. When you approach the blocks, wrap your towel around your ears and don’t look up – the sound and sight of thousands of cheering fans could be overwhelming, especially for athletes unaccustomed to the spotlight.

Scooter laughed and disregarded it. Why would you deny yourself that excitement? It was special. Hey, it was fuel. He looked up, and he’s never forgotten it. “It’s a pretty spectacular feeling having several thousand people watching what you’re doing,” he says.

Scooter Patterson was born in Cairns, Far North Queensland, in 1989. He was born with diastrophic dysplasia, a rare form of dwarfism, which denied his joints sufficient cartilage and promoted abnormal bone growth. His nickname comes from the tricycle he gets about on – it was plastic as a kid; today it’s aluminium and in need of a lick of paint.

Swimming wasn’t his first choice of sport. Or second or third. In fact, for a long time he swam reluctantly. Scooter wanted to play cricket or footy, but there were no clubs that could accommodate him. He started swimming at 11 but abandoned it. He now scorns his teenage self. “I was useless up until I left school,” he says. “If I could go back, I would have smacked myself. But you can’t say that because everything happens for a reason. But during high school I got fat and did nothing.”

At 16 or 17 years old, an old coach encouraged him back to the pool. Scooter demurred – too many early mornings, for one. But his coach insisted, and Scooter returned. It was about this time that the fierce wilfulness that’s so evident when speaking with him began to be sharpened. “If I didn’t do what I do, I’d be a fat little blob in a wheelchair that needs a carer to help me get through life,” he says. “While I’m keeping active, I can be independent. And my independence is everything.”

Once committed, he developed rapidly as a swimmer. In 2009, at the Australian Swimming Championships, he broke a world record for the men’s 100 metres backstroke in the S3 classification. When he qualified for his first Paralympics in 2012, he was ranked second in the world for the event.

But he finished sixth in that race and his other results were worse. Patterson was gutted and felt he’d let down his friends and family. He saw the team’s sports psychologist and has never forgotten his words – even if it took a few years to implement them. “He made it clear that all your close friends and family don’t give a rat’s arse that you didn’t win a medal, they’re just happy for you being over there. If you won a medal then that’s the icing on the cake. And you should just be happy and proud to be on the team. Because think about how many people get the opportunity to go overseas and represent their country? And the other big lesson from London was that you cannot control the uncontrollable. When you try and do that, that’s when it gets hard, that’s when you get let down. All I can do is focus on myself, which is the process of training and being in the right headspace.”

There would be more disappointment, and more opportunities to practise his therapist’s wisdom. Patterson failed to qualify for the Rio 2016 Paralympics, principally, he says, as a result of classification changes – that is, what types of disability are grouped together for competition. For a while, he brooded bitterly on the “unfairness” of it and flirted with quitting. But a Paralympic medal was his greatest goal, and Patterson began changing the story in his head from one about being a victim of bureaucratic injustice to one about a man on the trail of a great comeback. He liked that story. It drove him.

I wonder how genuinely close Patterson got to quitting then. He’s tough, proud and adventurous – a bloke who completed an Ironman Triathlon in 2015 because a mate had idly suggested he couldn’t – and who passionately commends skydiving to me as “the best feeling you’ll get, and it’s all natural”. He’s done it twice.

If you “grovel” or “fuss over” Patterson he’ll let you know, and more than once he’s interrupted a well-meaning stranger’s intervention at the supermarket checkout when they’ve helped place his items on the conveyor belt. “If I don’t do it, I’m not being independent. To me, chucking my shit up on the desk at the checkout, I know it means nothing, but some people can’t do that. And so I enjoy doing that because I’m associated with something that an able-bodied does. I’m fitting into society, and that’s what I like.”

I suspect he would never have forgiven himself had he quit back in 2016. Instead, he prepared for Tokyo 2020. The pandemic introduced another barrier, another disappointment – the Games would be delayed a year, which meant another 12 months off the white rum and OJ. He saw others quit, their bodies unable to sustain the additional year of training.

But Scooter qualified. When we first spoke, it was five weeks out from the Tokyo Games. He was training nine times a week, while working full-time as a sales rep for an automotive parts company in Cairns. He wouldn’t speculate on his chances – only that he was confident he had done the work. But there was one disappointing thing: the extroverted Scooter would be denied an audience – and the excitement and bonhomie of an athletes’ village. “[Typically] you’re surrounded by people like yourself – goal-driven, successful people. And for someone like me, I thrive on that, because there’s not many times you get to be in a room with a whole heap of inspirational people.”

At the time, Tokyo was experiencing a significant Covid outbreak and I asked Patterson if he was concerned about being infected. “No,” he said. “Whatever happens, happens.”

When Scooter was young, people wondered gravely – and condescendingly – about his prospects. What would success look like for such a child? He didn’t know himself for a while, until sport harnessed his virtues. When we spoke before Tokyo, he had probably his last bite at a medal. “If I do win a medal, I’ll probably cry,” he said then. “It’s been 13 years of hard work and a mixture of ups and downs, but I’m glad that what’s happened, happened. My resilience now is… fuck, it’s bulletproof.”

 

In Tokyo, Scooter Patterson realised his dream. Twice. He won bronze in the 150 metres individual medley and silver in the 50 metres breaststroke, and his larrikin quips and self-deprecation won him an international audience. His phone rang constantly. The attention, he says, was because “everything I said just came from the heart”.

When we speak again, he’s on his lunchbreak at the car parts shop. Recently, the mayor of Cairns presented him with the key to the city. But other than a few folks coming into work to congratulate him, he says life is much the same as it was. The big difference? His enormous relief at having finally fulfilled his ambitions. “It just felt like a great weight was lifted from my shoulders,” he said of winning that first medal. “It was 13 years in the making and I guess I have pretty tough expectations for myself.”

What’s next for Scooter? Go-karting. And he wouldn’t say no to a TV deal. He’s looking for a manager now. The man knows his worth.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 30, 2021 as "Becoming bulletproof".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s sports editor.