There was a point in her life when Ashley van Rijswijk told her teacher she didn’t have to do schoolwork because she was going to the Olympics.
Ashley’s dad, Craig, was reminded of this only recently as his daughter jetted off to Tokyo as part of the Australian Dolphins swim team currently competing in the 2021 Paralympics.
The van Rijswijks are well known in southern NSW, having resided in different parts during the years. Craig’s parents, John – who passed away earlier this year – and Moya, settled in Young. But Craig and his wife, Tash, have called Tumut home for 21 years, as does their other daughter, Paige.
Swimming has always been part of the family’s lives. John and Moya, both teachers, ran a swimming club in Cudal, their children competing to various levels even through their senior years at school in Canberra, and now granddaughter Ashley an Olympian.
“We have this joke in the family that if we wanted to punish Ashley, we’d stop her from training,” says Craig. “But if it was Paige, we’d make her train.”
Like most athletes, the path to Tokyo for Ashley has been paved with the hard slog of training and commitment that saw the van Rijswijks rise at 3:30 am for the 90-minute daily journey to Wagga Wagga because there is no heated pool in Tumut.
Ashley has clocked up hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometres along that long black line in chlorinated pools, returning home for school and, among that, competition at a regional, state, national and international level.
She has lived in Wagga Wagga, completed a scholarship under Yuriy Vdovychenko at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, and adapted to living independently from a family who helped nurture her dreams, before moving back to Wagga Wagga where she trained under another Russian Olympian, Gennadiy Labara.
Then there is COVID-19, which in the lead-up to the Paralympics presented its own special set of challenges which left most competitors on a knife’s edge wondering if their dreams of Olympic glory would shine through the pandemic.
But come Sunday morning, that all comes full circle for Ashley’s family, her town, her swim club, friends, old Gadara schoolmates, fellow athletes and her supporters when she climbs the block at 10:22 am AEST for the first heat of the Women’s 100-metres breaststroke.
Ashley is a multiclass swimmer, classified S14, which means she competes with other swimmers who have an intellectual disability.
Come Tuesday, 31 August, her 21st birthday, she will be back poolside at 10:46 am with her teammates to challenge the world in the women’s 200-metres medley SM14.
Her selection in the Dolphins squad was a cracking tale of disappointment, then elation.
“She just missed the qualifying time at the Olympic trials and we were thinking she’d missed out,” says Craig. “But the very next day we got a phone call saying she had been selected so it went from being very upset to being over the moon and very excited.”
With their daughter now ensconced in the bubble that is the Australian swimming squad, and self-contained in the Olympic Village, the family is in regular contact where the report back between training, gym and appointments is that it’s hot and Ashley is very excited to be part of the Olympic experience.
“Every time she does an interview, she says she misses her family and misses her dogs,” says Craig, “I swear she misses her dogs more than us.”
A relaxation of the COVID-19 restrictions will mean a small morning tea gathering at the van Rijswijk home with close supporters and friends on Sunday for the big race.
The enterprising athlete managed to organise a T-shirt drive in Cairns before she flew out for Japan so hopefully some of the 35 Team Ashley shirts sold will grace the living room.
“First we knew of it was when a friend called us asking where they should send the money,” laughs Craig.