Mind games play on

The thought of pounding the pavement in the early hours, swimming laps in icy cold ocean baths, or shooting hoops for hours on end, would be enough to send some people into a cold sweat.

But for St Francis Xavier's Year 12 students Charlie Hawke and Kate Kingham, keeping physically active is essential to managing the pressures of their final year of school while coping with the fallout of a global pandemic.

Charlie is a rising swimming star with hopes of representing Australia at the Olympics or Commonwealth Games. His dreams are not unrealistic. In April this year when Swimming Australia announced its age group rankings, Charlie was in the top 25 for 12 events in the 17 years boys. Of particular note: he was ranked first in Australia for 50m freestyle, 100m and 200m butterfly; second in Australia for 50m butterfly, 100m and 200m freestyle, and 100m and 200m individual medley; and fourth in 400m freestyle.

In recognition of his achievements Swimming Australia wrote to Charlie, notifying he would likely have been selected in the Junior Australian Swim team to compete at the Junior Pan Pacs had the event not been cancelled due to COVID-19. It was a goal Charlie had been striving towards for years.

Charlie can vividly remember when he found out the national titles, the meeting that qualifies swimmers for the Pan Pacs, had been called off.

"I was at the pool with my friends,” Charlie says. “It was only two weeks before the competition, so we'd all been training hard. The news was devastating for all of us, so it was good to be surrounded by people experiencing the same emotion."

Receiving the letter from Swimming Australia was a humbling experience.

"Most of the devastation of not competing had passed by the time I received the letter,” he says. “It served a good motivator to keep trying."

Giving up is not an option for Charlie.

"It never occurred to me to quit swimming, it's been such a big part of my life for so long," he says, although he admits the thought of taking a break did cross his mind. "It's my HSC year, so I thought about taking a step back, but then I realised that with so much uncertainty in the world, it was nice to have such a solid foundation in swimming. I could continue to work hard and have some control over something in my life that I value."

Pandemic restrictions precluded Charlie from training at his regular pool, so, he donned a wetsuit and took to swimming laps at Merewether Ocean Baths, or went on road runs around his neighbourhood.

Charlie credits swimming with helping him maintain good mental health.

"Training two hours per day gives you a lot of opportunities to think. I have time to concentrate on my technique, and also reflect on things that might be going on in my life."

He says he has noticed his peers respond differently to this year's events.

"Year 12 is the most important time in our schooling career, and we're faced with so many unknowns,” he says. “Unlike those who are older than us, our entire living memory is based around school. We have much less life experience to draw from to help us get through this time. It's not that we can't cope, but it does help to explain why our response may be different. Mental health is so subjective.

"What has been great to encounter during this time of hardship is such strong support, from my swimming mates and my schoolmates. We've all been there for each other. It's also reinforced to me the importance of reaching out if you need help, which hasn't always come naturally to me."

Charlie has accepted a scholarship to a US college next year. His formula for maintaining mental health – exercise, connection with friends and family, reaching out to others and maintaining some type of routine – is not dissimilar to Kate Kingham’s approach.

Kate's basketball achievements are impressive. She represented Newcastle Hunters from 2012-2019. In 2019, she became the only player in 74 years of Newcastle basketball to win three NSW State Championship titles in the one season. Also that year, Kate represented NSW Country Basketball U18 women at the Australian Championships in Townsville and was the leading three-point shooter.

Despite her prowess on the court, Kate concedes there were times this year she felt defeated.

"It's been very stressful," she says, "particularly with the school shutting down and having to transition to home learning."

She aspires to study business at university next year but admits that for a fleeting moment she considered throwing in the towel. However, with support from friends and family and the knowledge that everyone is going through something similar, Kate committed to completing her HSC.

Competitive basketball was put on hold when the pandemic hit and has remained so due to the cross-regional nature of the competition level in which she competes. But she continues to train and has hopes of one day playing in the Women's National Basketball League.

"It's been a big adjustment,” she says. “Competitions have been such a big part of my life for years. Obviously, it would have been great to continue to play if it was safe, but that wasn't the case. It has allowed me more time to focus on my studies."

With the HSC exams now only weeks away, Kate says she is coping “OK”.

"At the moment, my mental health is doing well,” she says. “I was stressed before the trials but getting uplifted by my friends and family helped. Going into the HSC, I will try and stay positive by balancing my studies with exercise."

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Lizzie Snedden Image
Lizzie Snedden

Lizzie is Team Leader Content for the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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