Faculty of Education staffer Steven Yates swam away with two gold and four silver medals at the Paralympics New Zealand National Multi-sport Championships recently.
Yates discovered only in 1992 that disabled people played competitive sport when he saw TV reports of the Barcelona Paralympic Games. He first saw disabled swimmers in the 1996 television coverage of the Atlanta Paralympic Games when Scott Brockenshire won a bronze medal for Australia.
"That's when the journey started for me. Although my parents encouraged me to swim as a child, I wouldn't. With cerebral palsy I had little balance or co-ordination so swimming was frightening. After Atlanta I decided it was time to get my life together and get involved in something," Yates said.
"I didn't like my body and I was determined to change that by getting fit. Then I looked for a bigger challenge and decided to learn the sport I most hated."
It wasn't until three years later when Scott Brockenshire was appointed as the new manager of Yates' gym in Ballina that he considered competitive swimming.
"I'd met Samantha Reilly and a two-time Paralympic swimmer a few weeks before, so when Scott came along I started to feel as if someone was trying to tell me something," he said.
"He encouraged me to compete but at 26 I thought I was too old and he promptly told me he was 31 and was going to compete in his third Paralympics in Sydney in 2000. So I joined my first swimming club at Lennox Head that summer."
Yates' first competition was at the Sydney International Aquatic Centre in March 2000 where he swam in the 50, 100, 200 and 400 metres freestyle and 100 metres backstroke events.
"I was so hyped up about swimming in the same pool that Ian Thorpe and other Olympic and Paralympic swimmers would compete in later that year, I got disqualified in my first ever race but I was hooked from then on," he said.
After an undistinguished start he went on to win four firsts, and since then has never placed lower than third.
That experience spurred Yates to buy tickets for the 2000 Paralympics and to apply for a job in the Olympic Village. Soon after quitting his job and moving to Sydney he learned his tickets had been lost.
"I was very disappointed but my money was refunded and at least I'd won a free ticket to the dress rehearsal for the Olympic opening ceremony, and soon after that I was offered a job with the catering firm that had the contract for the Olympic Village," Yates said.
"While working in the main dining hall during both Games, I met a number of athletes including Susie O'Neil and Grant Hackett, and even Muhammad Ali," he said.
At the State titles in 2000, Yates won one gold and four silver, in 2001 he won five gold, and in 2002 he took four gold and one silver medal. His next goals are the National titles in 2004 and Beijing in 2008.