Natalie Hazlewood has come a long way since she turned to her mother in the car and acknowledged she would have to stop competitive swimming.
And if she gets her way, she has a long way to go yet.
Natalie Hazlewood training at Blacktown Aquatic Centre for the “Transplant Games”. Photo: James Alcock
When the 20-year-old dives into the pool at the Australian Transplant Games, it will mark the end of her debilitation and the beginning of her 2020 Olympic campaign, just one year after a liver donation saved her life.
Hazlewood was 12 when inflammatory bowel disease interrupted her promising swimming career, although she was initially determined not to let it do so.
Natalie Hazlewood Hazlewood was 12 when inflammatory bowel disease interrupted her promising swimming career. Photo: James Alcock
She was swimming at competitions where stars such as her hero, Emily Seebohm, were also cutting their teeth, and the international stage beckoned.
In one sense the diagnosis was a relief, as it solved the mystery of why her times were not improving despite nine three-hour training sessions a week, but it soon became a burden.
She became one of the unlucky patients for whom the disease travelled into the lower liver, and each time she returned to the pool, she inevitably returned to hospital soon after.
She missed out on qualifying for the nationals in her favourite event of the 200-metre backstroke by three seconds.
Slowly, she came to a decision. “We were driving somewhere and I was with my mum and I said, ‘I don’t think I can swim any more’,” Hazlewood said.
“And she kind of looked at me and said, ‘I’ve known for a while that you weren’t going to be able to do it’, and we both sat there and were amazed that it took me so long to decide.”
Hazlewood did not enter a swimming pool again for five years.
About 1500 people will compete this week at the Australian Transplant Games, which opened on Saturday and are held every two years.
Events include tennis, football, softball, lawn bowls and an athletics program that includes triathlon for the first time.
Transplant Australia chief executive Chris Thomas said the games were a way for athletes to express their gratitude to donors, return to sport and activities and prove that organ donation saved lives.
Hazlewood was on the waiting list for five months before she received a new liver five months ago, and one of the first things she did was get back into the pool.
“My dad was on the side of the pool and he said, ‘Every time you took a breath you had the biggest smile on your face’.”
Competing at the Transplant Games became her first goal, demonstrating that her new liver means she can now do whatever she likes.
“I can go to the Olympics if I really want to, and I really do,” she said.
“I want to put in the hard yards and I’m ready for it.”