Joan Bratton’s life changed forever when she met the late Olympic swimming coach Don Talbot around 1953-1954.
Don noticed Joan swimming freestyle with her left arm and doggy paddle with her right arm – the only way she knew how to swim with her disability.
Not only was Joan born with Poland syndrome – which meant she had short, webbed fingers and was missing chest muscles, including her pectoralis minor and major on the right side of her body – but she also contracted polio disease at four years of age.
Joan’s parents, also avid swimmers, decided from that point on that exercise was the best medicine.
Don was coaching John and Ilsa Konrads – who went on to win Olympic Games and Commonwealth Games medals – at Bankstown, in Sydney, around the time he met Joan, and decided to strike a deal with her mother.
“He said to mum, ‘If I can’t get her right arm out of the water by the end of the season, you don’t have to pay me a penny,'” says Joan. “He did get my arm out of the water and only charged half of the going rate.”
Joan went on to compete at state and national competitions and won with the under-12 Fanny Durack Relay Team at the NSW Ladies State Championships while swimming for Bankstown Amateur Ladies Club.
Swimming runs in Joan’s family and it was always likely she would become a great swimmer. Her cousin, Jan Hogan, competed in the women’s 200m breaststroke at the 1960 Olympic Games. Her mother swam with Australian relay swimmer Fanny Durack, and her father swam with Australian freestyle swimmer Andrew ‘Boy’ Charlton.
However, it was Don who ensured Joan’s disability never stopped her from pushing herself or competing.
“Don convinced me to love my body the way it is – no matter what disabilities I had – and that I could do anything the other kids could do,” says Joan.
In 1962, aged 15, Joan decided she didn’t want to swim laps any more and discovered synchronised swimming.
“Synchronised swimming was a lot easier than competitive swimming because we were training six days a week, five nights a week for competitive swimming,” she says. “You had to get up at an ungodly hour, get to the pool, swim, get to school, get back to the pool, swim, get home, do your homework and go to bed.”
On the other hand, training for synchronised swimming was only three nights a week. However, Joan admits it still had its challenges.
“You had to know how to control your muscles and move within the water without disturbing it too much,” says Joan. “It takes a lot of strength and lung capacity.”
Despite the challenges, Joan’s team went on to win the state and national synchronised swimming championships in 1963 and 1964, respectively.
Joan stopped swimming while raising a family. However, she returned to her lifelong love later on in life. When she jumped back into the pool, she noticed a lot of adults in the water with her, but a lot who were only paddling and not working out. That’s when she decided to give back and complete the Masters Swimming Club Coach Course.
Today, Joan lives in Yass and is passionate about helping people of all abilities, including adults who never learnt to swim.
Pre-COVID-19, she coached Tuggeranong Vikings Masters and at Yass Olympic Swimming Pool during summer.
“A lot of adults are scared to admit they can’t swim, but it’s important they learn and there is nothing to be afraid of,” says Joan. “I take a lot of pride in being able to coach likeminded adults who want to improve their stroke and fitness.”
Even at the age of 74, Joan has her own fear of open-water swimming but, like her disability, she is determined not to let it beat her.
She plans on taking part in a 1.5km open-water swim at the Masters Swimming Association National Championships in Darwin in 2021, and bought a wetsuit to prove her commitment.