Thomas Rabapone helps young disabled children discover the world of swimming
South Africa is blessed with a number of talented disabled swimmers that have excelled at the highest level internationally; including Craig Groenewalt, Tadhag Slattery and, of course, Natalie du Toit. However, as we moved closer to the Paralympics in Beijing, some of these swimmers have retired and new blood is needed to take over the reins of success.
The good news for disabled swimming in the country is that our junior swimmers are looking good. Talents such as Kevin Page, Beth Nothling and Sibusiso Mohale have come to the fore, ready to make their mark on Beijing and the world.
But before these swimmers get to this level, many of them have been through, or are going through, what is known as the development level.
There are three different levels in competitive swimming, of which the development level is the first. The development level is for swimmers who have shown talent and could become international swimmers. Following this stage is the intermediate and then elite or senior levels. At the intermediate level the swimmer must have a qualifying South African time in his or her event. At senior level you need a world championship qualifying time.
In South Africa disabled swimmers and able bodied swimmers swim together, but not against one another. Disabled swimmers also do not swim in age groups, but according to classifications. However, qualification works in the same manner in the various levels for disabled swimming as for able bodied swimming. So, for example, when Natalie du Toit competes overseas her best time must be a world championship qualifying time within her classification.
Like Natalie, many of our disabled swimmers have started their swimming careers already. These young swimmers, despite being only in the development level presently, are being groomed for the future to be possible Natalie du Toit’s. Many of these children come from a previously disadvantaged background.
Many come from Ithembelinhle Lsen School in Primrose, Gauteng. And it is here that you will find a very special person: Thomas Rabapone.
Thomas is the caretaker and driver of the school, which has 140 pupils of which almost 100 board at the school. Thomas has been with the school for 19 years and was originally employed to drive the children.
For the last three years Thomas has been doing much more than that. It all started with him driving the children to swimming practice at Mandeville Sports Club twice a week.
“I would, and still do, drive the children to swimming practice at Mandeville twice a week. They practice from 2pm to 4pm. On Friday I take the beginners for two hours.
In the beginning I would watch them. Then I started to help some of them, especially the younger ones who were afraid to get in the water.”
Until 2003, Thomas was more involved teaching the children athletics – he has a level 1 track and field certificate – but since then athletics has taken a back seat to his first love: swimming.
His involvement really grew when Dea Slattery asked him if he would be the team manager for the Gauteng disabled swimming team in 2003 during the High School Nationals in Cape Town. He did such a good job that he has been Gauteng team manager since then. “I look after the children and their kit. I ensure I know when their events are and ensure that they are at the swimming pool on time. Each time I manage a team of about 20 children. It is very rewarding.”
However, in 2004 he also added something else to his repertoire, increasing his involvement with disabled swimming even more. “I decided to do the time keeping course. I am a qualified time keeper at South African Swimming events and keep time at all the national events for both able and disabled swimming events. I regularly practice to ensure I keep this skill up to scratch.”
In the meantime, he has also set his sights on another goal in the swimming arena. He is working his way towards his qualification to judge strokes.
Thomas says the children are his motivation and Dea his mentor. “Dea has helped me so much. She has encouraged me to take this love I have developed to a higher level. I really like swimming and eventually I would like to be able to teach the children.”
Thomas really is far more than the driver that takes the children to swimming practice. Apart from assisting with registering the children with Swimming South Africa and working on any other paper work that needs to be done, he has the one quality that sets him apart: he cares.
“I am proud of our school; we have produced swimmers like Sibusiso Mohale. Today we also have more children swimming than ever before. It is great for us and also for the children. I love that they achieve so much through their swimming. It makes me feel good.”
Thomas’ work has not gone unnoticed and this year the South African Sports Association for Physically Disabled awarded him with a Certificate of Appreciation, presented at the AGM in March.