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Lawrence and IGNITE gives To a boost after surgery

6 December 2014

RIO 2016: Very few athletes go through the years of training and competition without suffering a big setback, usually illness or injury. With a lot of hard work and support the successful ones get back to their best.

Versatile swimmer Kenneth To is on the long recovery path after back surgery, with a goal of being better than before and a real force at his first Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in August 2016.

He has suffered illness and injury setbacks in the past two-and- a-half years that ended his London Olympic dream, he was not at his best for the 2014 Commonwealth Games and then surgery meant he was watched the Pan Pacific Championships from his hospital bed.

At the Road to Rio IGNITE session in Sydney recently, the 22-year-old was at the 12-week mark since the operation on a bulging disc. He was only just back swimming to a very limited program and it had been 13 months of physio, pain and limited training since he injured his back in the gym. Bending over to tie his shoelaces was hard.  

“It has been a tough time. Even as a junior I had uninterrupted training and always had very successful seasons. Every time I swam I would be successful and chasing personal best times,” To said.

“But last season with my back injury I was losing power and my performances weren’t up there. At times I was swimming with a dead foot. So we made the decision after Comm Games to have the surgery to give me enough time to be back for Rio.”

The normally smiling swimmer needed a boost and the first of the IGNITE sessions happening nationally was perfect timing.

To was with 100 or so other Rio hopefuls from many sports. Athletes and officials heard tips and stories from Olympic legends, they saw the latest vision from Rio and discussed the unique aspects of these Games.

Champion swimming coach and official Australian Olympic Team motivator Laurie Lawrence, who has been at the last eight summer Olympics, had everyone laughing, some crying and everyone motivated to be at their best at Rio 2016.  

“Come with us to Rio, it is just going to be so good. You’ll have memories that will live with you forever,” Lawrence explained.

“You’re chosen to come here tonight because you can be there. But if you think you’re going to get there by dreaming about it....dream on!”    

To knew already that it was going to be a mammoth task to get back to competing against superstars like Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps.

In the 12 weeks since the operation on a bulging disc he was had to lie down for the first four weeks, and it was another four weeks before he was allowed to even do ‘water walking’ at training. There was a lot of boredom, self-doubt and some anxiousness when an infection slowed the progress even further.

“The IGNITE session coming along was great timing and marks for me that the Rio 2016 Games is here and for me it gave me a lot of confidence that the reason I put myself through the surgery, waiting around and all those feelings I had as a post op patient were worth it and very encouraging that I can reach my goals in 18 months time.”

 At the end of the IGNITE session To made the most of the opportunity and sat down with Lawrence, who has coached many Olympic medallists, including Olympic champion Duncan Armstrong. He asked him specific questions about swimming faster and for reassurance there is time to get back to his best in 2015 and be a better swimmer for Rio 2016.

Lawrence had spoken about making sure the athletes had done everything possible to be at their best and Olympic medallists deserve it because of the work they have done. To was sitting listening and being evoked by the ‘passion and fire’ of Lawrence but also wondering if the 15 weeks he had missed was too much.

“We spoke about it and he reassured me that the decision to have surgery was the right one and the method that I take that I try to get back to my best as soon as possible.

Having said that he reassured me that at this point in time and at this stage of my post op I shouldn’t push myself too hard because I don’t want to risk re-injuring myself.”

For the Sydney based swimmer, the motivation to make the 2016 Australian Olympic Team is stronger than most.

He got a taste for the Olympics and the podium at the inaugural Youth Games in 2010, he made the senior World Championships team in 2011 and finished a superb seventh in the 200mIM.

He was on track for the London 2012 Games in several events until he was forced to have his appendices removed six weeks out from the Trials and he missed the Team.

He bounced back to medal contention behind American superstar Lochte at the World Short Course Championships at the end of 2012 and then in 2013 he swam personal bests in the 200m IM, 100m butterfly and 100m freestyle. He also won a silver medal as a heat swimmer in the medley relay at the World Championships.

The Commonwealth Games and Pan Pacs in 2014 should have been the next step in the Rio plan, however the injury caused from lifting too much weight at the gym in October 2013 meant he was often in a lot of pain training and he wasn’t able to train like he used to. He started losing his trademark power in the pool.

To still managed to ‘scrape’ onto the Commonwealth Games Team and win two medals but he decided with his coach Matt Brown and Swimming Australia to have surgery immediately afterwards. It was the only option if he was to make the Rio Games.

To has big aspirations for success in the individual events as well as forcing himself on to the 4x100m freestyle relay for Rio.

“Looking at my career and my swimming I know that I haven’t reached my peak and I have a lot of areas that I can improve on. Having this surgery at a young age I know I can bounce back and I feel confident that I still have a lot to give.

“This coming season is very important to me to get back to where I was previously and I’m confident the 2015/2016 year I can move forward past that and become a better swimmer.”

The reassurance from Lawrence that he has plenty of time and the motivation from IGNITE will help To on his long road to Rio.

“Every day I am training and looking to improve myself I am thinking of Rio.”

The next big test for To will come at the 2015 World Championships Trials in Sydney in April 2015.

Water Polo Olympian Holly Lincoln-Smith was also at the first IGNITE session in Sydney and gained extra motivation for her road back from shoulder surgery.

The next IGNITE sessions are in Canberra, Brisbane and the Gold Coast over the next fortnight. See full schedule and learn about IGNITE here>>>

Andrew Reid

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