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Swimmer with Down Syndrome “on a mission” to level the playing field

Olivia Hargroder

Sporting advocate: Olivia Hargroder is pushing for greater inclusion of athletes with Down Syndrome at the Paralympics. The 17-year-old swimmer who has won medals in competitions has started a petition to create a new category. Photo: Emilie Ng

WINNING gold at the Paralympic Games would mean more to teenager Olivia Hargroder if athletes with Down Syndrome could compete in their own category.

The 17-year-old Scarborough Southern Cross Catholic College student and competitive swimmer is one of more than 3300 supporters of an international petition to open a new category at the Paralympics.

The Paralympics divides athletes into three categories, Boxes 1-10 for physical impairments, Boxes 11-13 for visual impairments, and Box 14 for intellectual impairments.

Athletes with Down Syndrome can only compete in Box 14, which requires an IQ 75 or less.

But for budding athletes like Olivia, who was born with Down Syndrome, being lumped into the Box 14 category dismisses her various physical issues, such as heart problems which require regular operations.

Olivia’s first major heart surgery was after her birth and she continues to see specialists for ongoing issues.

Soon after her birth, doctors told Olivia’s parents she would never talk but she impressed hundreds of teachers when she gave an address at a state conference last year.

As she continued to grow, the extra chromosome that appears in people with Down Syndrome caused issues in her knees and problems with her fine motor skills.

“We don’t have perfect bodies but that extra chromosome sure gets in the way,” Olivia said.

But it hasn’t stopped the motivated teenager from reaching her sporting dreams.

Olivia recently competed at the Special Olympics Queensland State Games, receiving a silver and bronze medal in swimming.

“Special Olympics has really changed my life,” Olivia said.

“The moment I swam for the Special Olympics I knew I was going to do something big.”

Her achievements in both swimming and public speaking have gained her worldwide attention.

In March, Olivia was invited to speak at the United Nations’ Headquarters in New York for World Down Syndrome Day and raised the inequality she felt in her sporting field.

Olivia argued for fairer opportunities for athletes with Down Syndrome, saying the Paralympic box, which in inter-school competitions is classified as S14, didn’t represent her.

“So many of us swim and would love the chance to compete in the Paralympics, but next to other people in our box, who are often big, tall and strong, we never get a chance to make a national team,” Olivia said in her speech at the UN.

“Why don’t we have our own box, where we all have the same problems, where our physical problems are all realised, we are a similar size, where we all have an extra chromosome?

“There are around eight million of us around the world – why not?”

Despite signing a Change.org petition to create a new Down Syndrome category for the Paralympics, Olivia has been unimpressed with the slow response.

Olivia Hargroder

Fair go: Olivia Hargroder. Photo: Emilie Ng

Olivia has now taken matters into her own hands and started a new petition.

She will present signatures to Australian Parlympic Committee president Glenn Tasker when the goal of 5000 signatures is reached.

After setting up the petition with a goal to reach 100 signatures, Olivia received 500 in less than one week.

“Hopefully they’ll put another box in the Paralympics; I really want that to happen,” Olivia said.

“Little people can do big things but we all need to do just one little thing, like sign the petition, then you will have been a big part in changing the world for people with Down Syndrome.

“I’m doing it for other people with Down Syndrome all across the world (in) Germany, America, China, all over the place – literally anyone across the world.”

Mum Kerry Hargroder, who is calling herself and husband Mark “exhausted parents of a teenager on a mission”, said Olivia was “finding this task like pushing a school bus up Mount Everest”.

Olivia’s petition Change the Box can be found at Change.org.

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