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a swimmer’s tale

My name is Gareth Duke. I was born in Pontypool on 18 June 1986 and, at the moment, I live in Cwmbran. I was born with acondroplasia, a form of dwarfism. When I started growing up, I had kidney problems so I had a bit of a bad time, but my mum and dad were raising me all the way.

can’t swim

When I was in primary school, in the infants, they thought, “Let’s go swimming”. I didn’t want to go swimming. I never did like the water when I was young, but they decided to take me to have a go, anyway. I was just standing there, talking. “There’s the water.” “I don’t want to go in!” And someone came up behind me, picked me up and dropped me in, and I was screaming and crying, and I thought, “I can’t swim! I can’t swim!”.

Since then, I thought, “I’ll go every now and again with the school. I’ll have a little go. I’ll have a little move and keep going”. And I thought, “This feels good”. A year later, I wasn’t afraid of the water. I thought, “I quite enjoy this”, and then, when I moved on to secondary school, I thought, “Do they do swimming lessons? I’ll go and join in”. So, I went swimming, had a bit of fun and played around, a few back and fore, and that’s how I started.


Every time I train, I always have to stop and rest for five minutes to get my breath back before I go back in again. I have to rest and keep resting. When I walk somewhere, I have to stop and take a breath, and walk again.

We found a swimming club in Cwmbran, and they found out I was really good. Then, we found a disabled club in Caerphilly. There was a coach there. We met up with him and had a chat.

He thought, “He’s not bad”, so he moved me up a lane, up a lane, up a lane, until two weeks later I was in the top lane. Alan Isles was the first person to really recognize I had talent. He used to be so good to me, like a second father.

It is hard work. If you don’t like the hard work, then don’t do it. I don’t mind because I just enjoy it really; when I’m there I just do my best. I used to do eight sessions, Monday to Saturday, Sunday off … as long as I get my one lie-in a week! When I first started training full-time; it was kind of hard work. It was train, school, train, home, so every now and again in school, I was falling asleep in class, and they were, like, “Didn’t you go to sleep all night?”. I was, like, “I’m awake, I’m awake!”.

Then I started college, still doing the same, training, college, training and I found out it was too hard so I gave up the college and went full-time swimming then. Training, sleeping, training. I was finding it hard and had to decide which one to give up and I thought, “I have to give up college”. Then, I could sleep, swim, sleep, swim.

friends and heroes

Well, the first time I saw a person that inspired me in swimming, I thought, “I wish I could be as good as him”. It was Ian Thorpe, the Australian. I thought, “He looks good. I’d love to be like him sometime”. My best local inspirations are Liz Johnson, Anthony Stevens and Graham Edmunds. When Graham first came on the team, they thought they’d put us together as room-mates, and ever since we’ve been room-mates. We’re so good together. He’s like another father to me. He used to look after me so well and keep me going. So, when I was away, I used to get homesick and I was, like, “I don’t want to do this”, but he was always there to help me. In Athens, he took his bike out because he doesn’t like walking. He stuck me on his bike and he was pedaling, sweating and pedaling, and I’m there with a towel over my head like ET. Phone home. Liz Johnson is also a great friend, too. We’ve known each other for years and years. We’ve been teammates since we were little, and, ever since then, we can never give each other up!

When you win, you think “I’ve beaten someone”, but then, when we’re outside swimming, we’re good mates and hang around and have a laugh. If I wasn’t swimming, I would be just hanging around like usual kids on the street, nothing to do, just chilling, sitting here bored and doing nothing. But with swimming, you can see your mates when you’re training, when you’re going to competitions. They’re always there, always around, like you never see enough of them!

athens 2004

I’d gone to the World Championships in Argentina in 2002, did pretty well. That was when I first joined the GB team. They took me away and they found, “He’s good”. A silver and a bronze, yeah. My first great success, though, would be Athens, my very first Olympics, and some of us thought, “What’s he going to do? How’s he going to get on?”. And we thought, “Don’t mind if he comes fourth, third or second”.

As soon as I touched the water, everything went quiet. No one would speak, and as soon as the board came up, I was, like, “Yeah, it’s me!”. When they started giving me my medal, everybody in Cwmbran was watching their TVs, and everyone around the world was watching, and as soon as the national anthem started, I was trying to hold something in, and I was, like, “No, don’t”, and it just burst out, and everybody wanted to hug me. My coach, Billy Pye, he couldn’t cry because there was a live camera right next to him, so he went around the corner to cry.

My greatest moment was Athens 2004. I always think, “That’s not me! That’s not me!”. I made half of the world cry.

transplant number one

When I got to about four, I went in to have a check up at the hospital and they found out I had a disease of the kidneys – they were being eaten away. As the years went by, they started to get really bad; I either needed to go on dialysis or have a kidney transplant. When my dad heard about it, straight away he said, “I’m not sticking him on that machine”. He wanted to do the test straight away. It was about a week before I needed to go on the machine and they stopped that and tested my dad and, a couple of months later, we ended up in hospital and they did the kidney transplant. This was in 2006, so I was about 17,18, after Durban, the World Championships, where I won another gold, 100 metres breaststroke, a world record. I was like, “Whoah!”. After two days, I felt like I wanted to get back into swimming straight away. After four days, I was running up and down the hospital, thinking, “Come on, I’m bored, I’m bored. Let me do something”. After four weeks they said, “You can start a bit of exercise”. After that, I felt great and I started training, then.


2007 was when the first kidney failed, stopped working. When I went to Beijing in 2008, I was still on dialysis. They were trying to sort me out with the machines over there, and it was touch and go. About two weeks before, they found a place for me to go for twelve days, otherwise they would have had to fly me out, swim and fly me straight back.

When I first was on the dialysis, it used to be three times a week for two hours and then it went up to four, a maximum of four hours three times a week, and then Sunday could be an extra day if you needed it. A year later, they found out the machine was not working very well so they decided to put me on every other day, so it was, like: machine, day off, machine, day off, right up until Beijing. When I went out to Beijing, it was the same: day off, machine, day off, machine, so it was hard work. It just took half of my life away. The things I like to do I couldn’t do because it took half my day.

If I wanted to go out somewhere, I couldn’t because I have machine that day. It was just bad. We used to do it at the hospital, and then we found out they can do home dialysis, so we thought, “We’ll have that one”. The nurses came out and trained my dad.

When they set the qualifying time, the trials before Beijing, I thought, “Am I going to make the Beijing time or am I not?”. When the competition came, I thought, “Come on, Gar, you need this otherwise we’re not going to Beijing”. So, I thought, “Okay, I can do it”. They gave me my time and I was just about a second missing the time. I just made it, so I’m on the list, now. I’m on the list, but still on dialysis every other day.

They said, “You may get the chance of getting fourth place”, and I thought, “Oh, I want that gold! Even though I’m on the machine I want the gold”. When they went to the training holding camp, I flew straight to Beijing, so the team met me there. China was so big. I was, like, “This is nice!”.

Then the race starts and I thought, “Here is my challenge. Here we go”. When we hit the last 15 metres, I could see myself on the screen, so I thought, “I’ll have a quick peek, see who’s in front of me”. I couldn’t see anyone and then I saw this Russian bloke coming up next to me, and I thought, “You’re not taking me. I’m having that gold!” And when we touched, he took it. I was only a second touch away, just one second.

a great lease of life?

My first kidney only lasted 16 months. It started rejecting my body. It just shut down, so I needed to go on dialysis which I had never been on before. I couldn’t do anything for six months. I was just sitting there, doing nothing, and that was really hard. Quite a few people volunteered. My cousin wanted to give his kidney to me but they said he was too young. He was 17 at the time. Some of my other family members wanted to give their kidney to me, too. My uncle decided to go for some tests to see if we were a match. They found out I wasn’t the same blood group, so they changed my blood group to his for the kidney to work in my body. They kept doing tests for about six months and after that they picked a date in May last year and Boom! Done! I was in for a week or two. It was brilliant. I just couldn’t wait to get back.

It was last year, the second kidney, 25 May 2010. They had put me on a different dialysis machine that gets rid of anti-rejection things in the body, so, when this new kidney went in, it would stay in the body, it wouldn’t reject the body. It was taking a lot out of me. I didn’t have the energy to do anything. After the operation, I woke up and I couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t walk. I was in agony because, apparently, when they do the operation they normally have a tube in there to let out all of the bad stuff and they forgot to do that. They sewed me up. So, I had to go to the operating room for the second time on the same day, and they had to re-open me and clean me all out. After that, I felt so sleepy for a day but felt great afterwards, up and down the corridor. I was, like, “Come on, come on!”.

It’s going well, now. I’m, like, “Yes, you can stay in there now. You’re not coming out!”. Hopefully this one will last.

I don’t have three kidneys, just two. They left my dad’s kidney in there. They don’t take it out, it dies away. They just find a space in which to put the new one. When my friends see me, they always like to make a face out my belly because I’ve got two scars!


I’m Welsh but don’t speak Welsh. When I go to competitions, I just think, “I’m doing this for my country!”. I’m proud of Wales! In the Paralympics, I wear a GB vest, but when I race I’m always thinking, “I know my home. I’m doing this for my place”.

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