MICHELLE Bate may no longer be a household name in Mount Isa, but rest assured, she is a true ‘Isa legend’.
With the ever changing population tide in Mount Isa, people like Bate can be quickly forgotten, but her feats as a young swimmer will always be in the hearts of those who were around when she made it to the 1992 Paralympics. Born with half of her right arm, being different was never an option for Bate.
Parents Michael and Margaret treated her just like their other two children, and made sure she didn’t miss out on regular childhood activities.
“There are two things she had to be able to do in Mount Isa learn to swim and ride a bike,” said her mother.
“And she did both.”
With sporting minded parents, Bate was immediately thrusted into a vast range of recreational activities. Swimming, despite obvious disadvantages, quickly became a favourite. As a member of the now defunct All Stars Swimming Club, which used to operate at the Good Shepherd Catholic College, Bate didn’t take long to adapt to life in the water.
Through sheer determination and some natural born talent, she quickly mastered all four swimming strokes.
With no other ‘handicapped’ people to swim against in Mount Isa, Bate had no hesitation in stepping up against her more able-bodied pers.
“She didn’t have any trouble getting into the pool against the other kids.
“She’d travel to all the swimming meets,” her Mum said.
Through sheer luck, a family friend mentioned a program called Sporting Wheelies, which was designed to promote sport for disable people.
So Bate had a go at that, with immediate success – she was earmarked for state competition in Brisbane as an 11 year old.
With loving parents who were able to make sacrifices to get their talented child on a plane to the South East coast, Bate made the trip to the trials.
It was the beginning of a long journey.
From the word go she started smashing records and had coaches’ heads turning.
“They wanted me to consider going to national and international competitions straight away,” Bate said.
So she did, with a little bit of help from mum and dad, of course.
Competition after competition, combined with training non-stop in Mount Isa, it became increasingly clear Bate was headed for selection at the Barcelona Paralympics.
Even though the trip wasn’t unexpected, Bate said the journey to Spain was still surreal.
“Walking into the main stadium for the opening ceremony was unreal,” she said.
“It still gives me goose bumps thinking about it, even though it feels like a lifetime away.”
It is a fair comment; Bate was just 15 years old when she made the journey to Barcelona.
Still, even now she doesn’t feel as if it was an overwhelming experience.
“I didn’t really break my routine.
“I was always travelling from Mount Isa for competitions anyway,” she said.
“This was just slightly different. Instead of staying in a motel, I stayed in an Olympic village.”
Then came the swimming.
Believe it or not, but Bate actually held a Paralympics world record at one stage.
She swam in the first heat and recorded a better time than anyone had done in previous years, giving her the world record.
The buzz was quickly over though, as another heat winner broke it 10 minutes later.
It looked like she was going to bring home a bronze medal at one stage, but just missed out.
Despite the disappointment, Bate recognised the fact that just competing in the Barcelona Paralympics – all the way from Mount Isa – was a brilliant achievement.
When she returned home, the town was in a frenzy, as everyone wanted to congratulate Bate on her efforts.
Throughout her whole Paralympics campaign, Mount Isa was right behind Bate and her family.
“It was amazing. We’d go down the street and people would hand us money – donations to help get Michelle off to the Paralympics,” her mother said.
“The whole town was so supportive of everything, especially The North West Star.”
Once the hype started to die off, some serious decisions had to be made.
At one stage there was a choice for Bate – swim and struggle financially, or give it away and go to university.
Despite the obvious attraction at a campaign for the Atlanta games, she chose the latter.
“People forget the commitment and dedication that needs to go in to be a top athlete,” Bate said.
“It’s a lot of training and you almost have to give up your life.”
When she finished high school, she went on to become a teacher after a few years at university.
After thinking her life may not receive another thrill as big as her memories of the Barcelona opening ceremony – another ‘goose bumps’ moment came along. Bate was asked to bring the 2000 Sydney Olympics’ torch into Mount Isa.
On June 9, 200, Mount Isa became the flame’s first stop in Queensland, when Frank Daisy, a rugby league football legend, became the first to carry the torch in the state.Citizens turned out in droves to greet the flame, the crowds larger than for the mining town’s annual rodeo. Eventually the torch was passed to Bate, who had the honour of running the flame into Kruttschnitt Park and lighting the overnight cauldron.
“It was just amazing,” she said. “I thought nothing would top the opening ceremony, but this certainly gave me goose bumps. “The big difference was people were yelling my name, saying ‘well done Michelle’ and getting behind me. “It was an unforgettable experience.”
Now a teacher with Kedron State School in Brisbane, she rarely swims and sticks to playing the odd game of netball or touch football to keep her competitive spirits flowing.
While Mount Isa might be changing, and those who were here to remember Bate’s efforts start disappearing, the mining city will always be her home. After all, it is the birthplace of champions.
Researched by Kim-Maree Burton. Originally written by Matt Nicholls journalist, North West Star in 2011. Photographs courtesy of North West Star and Australian Paralympics Committee.