Patience the key to unlocking special talents

By Fraser Walker-Pearce

The Special Olympics XI National Games was held in Adelaide in April last year and FRASER WALKER-PEARCE spoke to one special lady who helped prepare Echuca-Moama athletes for the big event.

THE WORD SELFLESS springs to mind when talking to Margaret Gumbleton.

The twin towns woman has volunteered her time with the Special Olympics Echuca Campaspe group for the past 12 years, and has been involved with helping disabled athletes across the state for almost three decades.

Margaret volunteers a significant portion of her week engaging, teaching, caring for, and mentoring the 36 registered athletes within the group.

And for 11 of those athletes, the 2018 Special Olympics XI National Games in Adelaide in April last year was a huge milestone of their budding careers.

The 11 locally-trained sporting superstars put on a display across five different codes. Five represented Victoria in the pool, two on the court for basketball, two in bocce, one for tenpin bowling, and one in equestrian.

“They couldn't have been more excited, they really couldn't,” Margaret said.

“For most of these guys, it was their first trip to Adelaide.

“And of the Victorian team of 150, to have 11 from our little association in Echuca, well that's pretty awesome I think.”

Athletes who headed to Adelaide for the Games in swimming have trained for the best part of eight months under the determined tutelage of local coaches Shirley Milgate and Melissa Whelan.

Margaret said there certainly would not have been athletes from Echuca-Moama attending the Games if it were not for the calibre of coaches available.

“Shirley has also been involved for a long time, as has Karen Upton, who has been with the association for at least 12 years,” she said. 

With performances going their way, two athletes from the twin towns who represented Victoria have now qualified for the world games in Dubai next year, wearing the green and gold.

Back in 2016, a team from Echuca-Moama had a successful trip to the winter games in Melbourne, coming home with a gold, six silver and two bronze medals.

Not a bad result for a group of 24 athletes who made the trip to Pakenham and competed in basketball and tenpin bowling events.

But for Margaret, it is a personal connection that keeps her coming back to the group week after week.

“My daughter (Erin) has a condition that meant she was born with no muscle tone,” Margaret said.

“So we had to assist in her exercise and physio, and that started before she could walk, with lessons in the pool.

“From then on, all she wanted to do was represent Australia for swimming. And when she came back from the Asia-Pacific Games having worn the green and gold three years ago, she said 'I don't want to do swimming any more', and that was that.”

“After that she took up horse riding, and then she was selected to go to Adelaide in the equestrian team. . . I'm so proud of her,” Margaret said.

Margaret is one of 14 registered volunteers within the Special Olympics Echuca Campaspe group and serves as the group's membership officer, among other unofficial roles.

"I've been involved in the organisation since I moved here, be it as part of the committee, assisting with coaching the swimming or as a team manager," she said.

Margaret was the group's chairperson from 2010 until 2015, and has also been the team manager for swimming for 10 years.

But for Margaret, it is not about helping intellectually-disabled athletes reach the top of their game in sport — it is about helping an athlete reach the top of their sport.

“I just love watching them practice, to train and to achieve,” she said.

“Most people don't ever get the opportunity to head to the nationals for their chosen sport, and these guys do — I think that's fantastic.

“I put their success down to the coach's talent, the player's dedication and determination, and the support of their families. Without one of those, none of it would work.”

Margaret's husband Frank, a former AFL player in the 1970s for North Melbourne, is also involved with Special Olympics Echuca Campaspe, and has recently become an officially accredited coach for tenpin bowling.

He traveled alongside Margaret and Erin to Adelaide as the assistant coach for Victoria's equestrian team.

“We have a bit of a winning streak in the blood I think, thanks to my husband Frank,” Margaret said.

One of the key weapons in Margaret's arsenal, when it comes to dealing with what can sometimes be a tricky crew to handle, is patience and a keen ear.

“It's all about being patient and just listening to what they want to say,” she said.

“In my time I've been able to gain more knowledge about intellectual disabilities, so I can begin to kind of understand why someone's frustrated or not having a good day.

“This role for me has been basically a full-time job since about October when we began planning for nationals. It has quiet times too, but since we began gearing up for nationals, it's been full on.”

And Margaret does not see the end of her involvement any time soon.

“I'll keep going I think until my health comes into it,” she said.

“While my health is still good and I'm able to help in any way, I'll keep going.”

Since she started volunteering her time with the local group in 2006, Margaret has seen vast changes in the way it operates.

“When I first started 26 years ago, everything was still under their own national codes like Netball Australia and Swimming Australia like it is today, but now to coach you have to be certified, which I think is great,” she said.

“And also, if you aren't certified, Special Olympics will help you become certified so you can stay in the game. 

“That's a real bonus. It's changed out of sight.”