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Olivia keeps on swimming

Emilie Ng |  05 February 2018

Olivia HargroderYoung Australian of the Year nominee Olivia Hargroder is talented, determined and a fierce advocate for Australians with Down Syndrome.

Olivia Hargroder thought 2017 would be known as the bittersweet year she finished high school and nothing else. Boy, was she wrong.

Olivia has started 2018 not only as a graduate of Southern Cross Catholic College, Scarborough, in Brisbane's north, but as one of the most recognisable Australians with Down Syndrome.

Born in 1999 to Mark and Kerry Hargroder, she was never expected to speak because of her extra chromosome 21, the genetic cause of Down Syndrome.

'They said I would never learn to speak, but when I grew up, I just became a chatterbox', Olivia says.

Olivia, who is now 18, is far more than a chatterbox: she is a part-time 'checkout chick' at her local Coles; she is a respected altar server at the Redcliffe parish; and she is one of the most sought-after public speakers for issues affecting people with Down Syndrome.

In 2015 she made her debut public speaking appearance at a national teachers conference and last year made headlines when she became the only Australian speaker at the 12th World Down Syndrome Day conference at the United Nations' Headquarters in New York.

With dreams to one day compete at the Paralympic games, Olivia presented a case against the unfair categorisation of people with Down Syndrome at an international level.

Paralympians are currently divided into three categories, Boxes 1-10 for physical impairments, Boxes 11-13 for visual impairments, and Box 14 for intellectual impairments, which can include able-bodied athletes.

Down Syndrome athletes are lumped into Box 14, despite having many physical complications.

Someone believed Olivia's achievements were too big to ignore. In November last year, she was named one of four finalists for the Queensland Young Australian of the Year. For the first time in a while, she was speechless.

'I was so excited, I was jumping around the house like mad', Olivia said.

Olivia lost the title to Phillip Thompson, an Australian army veteran who was deployed to East Timor at the tender age of 17, but it has not stopped the high-achieving teenager one bit.

By the time this story is published, Olivia would have found out if she was chosen as a guest speaker for the World Down Syndrome Congress in Glasgow, Scotland, being held in July.

'I put an application in to go to Glasgow and I really hope I get in', Olivia said.

If she is given the opportunity to speak in Glasgow, Olivia will walk people through one of her biggest projects to date - how she convinced a global sporting group to start a new Down Syndrome category.

Following her speech at the World Down Syndrome Day conference in New York, Olivia started an online petition asking the Australian Paralympic Committee (APC) to push for greater inclusion of Down Syndrome athletes in the Paralympics.

Her petition caught the eye of APC chief executive office, Lyn Anderson, who personally phoned Olivia to offer her support.
But the greatest achievement was convincing the International Federation for sport for para-athletes with an intellectual impairment (INAS) to trial a Down Syndrome category at the global games in Mexico last year.

These games were being held at the exact time Olivia was being interviewed for this story.

For Olivia, the issue of inclusion in sport goes beyond mere advocacy.

A strong swimmer herself, she has her eyes on chasing the tail of her 'champion', former Australian Olympian Geoff Huegill, whom she has met.

'Geoff Huegill has inspired me to do butterfly', Olivia said. 'Ever since I met him I knew we would instantly click. From then on I knew we would be best friends, because he loves butterfly, I love butterfly. I do 50m butterfly, he does 50m butterfly, and he also does 100m butterfly as well. I'm working up to that.'

Her preparations are nothing short of astounding - she has already qualified for the Queensland team headed for the Adelaide Special Olympics this year, despite requiring medical attention on her heart and knees.

She's also gearing up to set a qualifying time for the INAS Global Games which, to her luck, will be held in Brisbane in 2019.
Olivia's mother Kerry had one piece of advice for the next two years of her life: 'Fasten your seatbelt'.

Outside the pool, Olivia is pursuing her number one dream - to be an actress on Broadway.

Two weeks after this interview, she would be doing an audition for the National Institute of Dramatic Arts' Young Actors Studio in Brisbane.

'I've got to learn how to read my script, and remember the lines', Olivia said.

It's been the challenge of the week but quitting is not Olivia's style.

'You've got to work your little heart out and just do whatever your head or heart tells you to do', Olivia says.

'Just go with your heart and work, and work, and work until you get to that dream because you put so much effort into it.

'Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.'



Topic tags: heroesandrolemodels, sportandfairplay, volunteeringandtakingaction

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