A Leader, On Land Or In Water

Sydney Morning Herald

Friday June 4, 1999

Michael Cowly

Brendan Burkett was captain of his footy side until an amputation after a hit-an-run accident forced a switch to swimming. Michael Cowly reports.

CHRISTMAS had come and gone, and it hadn't even left a memory for Brendan Burkett.

Now the final day of 1984 had arrived and with it a visit from his doctor.

For the previous 12 days, Burkett's battered and badly broken body had been a resident in hospital, the result of a collision between the 21-year-old and a hit-and-run driver.

With the doctor's visit came the news that his left leg was injured so badly it would have to be amputated above the knee.

Burkett's response was anything but expected.

"For the previous 10 days that I had been in hospital, I had been having operations just about every day," Burkett explained.

"I was pretty drugged up when [the] doctor told me they were going to have to amputate my left leg, and I said: `At least I'll start New Year off on the right foot'.

"The doctor was a bit taken aback with my response but he said it was the right attitude to have, and it's with that same attitude I now live my life."

A keen footballer before the accident, Burkett turned his attention to the pool to both quench his thirst for sport and to keep fit.

"I'd competed in sport all my life and had played football since I was very young," he said.

"Obviously when I lost my leg I couldn't play football anymore, so I decided to start swimming. And I remember that when I dived in and starting swimming, it just felt right."

It didn't take long before the competitive juices began to flow.

In 1987 Burkett won selection on the Australian team for the Pan Pacific Games, where he made his international debut by winning gold in the 100m butterfly.

A year later he won selection on the national team for the Paralympic Games in Seoul, South Korea.

"I'd competed in America and Canada at their national championships in 1987 and in the Pan Pacific Games, but that didn't prepare me for Seoul," he said. "Seoul was a real eye-opener for me. It was just an amazing experience having so many athletes from so many countries around you in the village and at the venues. After those Games in 1988 I was hooked."

Burkett won his first Paralympic medal, a silver, in the 50m freestyle in Seoul.

It was the beginning of a career which would see him as a regular on the national team.

Two years later he won a world championship silver medal in the 100m butterfly, won a bronze at the Barcelona Paralympics in 1992, again represented Australia at the 1994 world titles, and in the same year won yet another silver at the Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada.

Then came Atlanta in 1996.

Burkett already had a silver and a bronze Paralympic medal but badly wanted to complete the set.

Even before his event, however, he was bestowed an honour greater than a gold medal: he was named captain of the Australian Paralympic team, "an honour which I really appreciated".

"I'd been captain of my footy side when I was younger and led them in grand finals, so I guess the leadership thing was a part of my nature," Burkett said. "And while some people's individual performances are affected when they become captain, it didn't have that type of effect on my performance.

"In fact, I actually improved my times - something I've been able to do at every major meet since I started swimming - and apart from winning a silver in the 4 x 100m freestyle relay, I won the gold medal in the 50m freestyle.

"I remember standing on the dais in Atlanta, listening to the Australian anthem and thinking all the years of work have been totally worthwhile.

"This is it. It doesn't get any better than this.

"But I soon realised that you then set different goals. There's always something else to achieve and I realised that it can actually get better.

"In 1998 in Christchurch at the world championships I was part of the 4 x 100m [freestyle] relay team which won gold and broke the world record.

"Standing on the dais with three mates who were all trying to sing the national anthem was even more special than the feeling I had in Atlanta.

"I can only imagine what sort of feeling it would be to do the same thing in Sydney."

Sydney will be Burkett's swan- song. Like many able-bodied athletes, the lure of the Games in your own backyard had thwarted any thoughts of retirement after Atlanta.

And during the next 500 days he will continue to train, head to Germany and England to compete, then hopefully qualify for the Paralympics at the national trials in Sydney next May.

"Then after that, it's just the big one. The Sydney Paralympics, just a couple of weeks after that other big one," he said.

"I don't want to compare the two [the Paralympics and the Olympics]. They are both unique events and both are very special.

"But a lot of younger athletes often ask me why the Paralympics aren't on before the Olympics - that way we could be the perfect curtain-raiser.

"I just tell them it's because the Olympics are the perfect curtain- raiser for us."

© 1999 Sydney Morning Herald

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