It may have been 37-years ago, but the Los Angeles Olympic Games are as clear today as ever for Olympian swimmer Anna McVann (Hawker) of Clare.
She was a 15-year-old Adelaide schoolgirl when she competed in her first Olympic Games in 1984, but it was to be just the beginning of her Olympic experiences, in and out of the pool.
“I still have very vivid memories of walking into the stadium for the opening ceremony, standing on the blocks for my races and finals,” Anna said.
“A clear image of the village. There was drug testing, snipers on the roof– because of course Russia boycotted the LA Olympics and it was all quite political.
“The Olympics were sponsored by M&M’s, which weren’t available in Australia yet so I ate plenty of them; there was a movie cinema and I remember watching Ghostbusters there for the first time.
“I remember sitting at dinner in the village. Laurie Lawrence was the team coach and being one of the youngest on the team he’d make sure we sat at the table with someone amazing.
“It was like a fairy-tale, we went to Disneyland, because it was America it was really full-on.
“I had walls and walls of Herograms from the Australian public.
“When I flew back into Adelaide, having been away from home for a couple of months, I was greeted by my whole year 11 class at the airport, and of course mum and dad.
“It really was an amazing experience.”
Anna was the first Australian woman to win gold medals in all freestyle events at the 1984 Australian Championships and it gained her selection in the Olympic team.
Having competed in the Pan Pacific Games in Tokyo and a pre-Olympic swim meet in LA leading up to the Olympics, Anna had a taste of international competition and went in strong.
“In the Olympic trials I won the 100-metres, 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m freestyle,” she said.
“I made the team in all those events but there was no 1500m event then, and chose not to swim the 100 freestyle, so I went to the Olympics to compete in the 200, 400, 800 freestyle and four by 100m freestyle relay.
“It was a pretty full schedule, which I was used to, and I made finals in all my individual events.”
Anna finished eighth in the 200m, fifth in the 400m, finished second fastest qualifier with a personal best in the 800m and finished fourth in the final, and fourth in the relay.
It was a whirlwind, and Anna said, looking back, as a carefree teenager, she just went with the flow.
“It’s one of those things, when you’re amongst it and you have a vision and that’s what you’re training for you just go along for the ride a bit,” she said.
“Looking back now I appreciate it so much more, not that I didn’t then, but I guess I was so focussed, I trained 20 hours a week and got up at 4.30am every morning and had a dream, followed it and was one of the lucky ones to have that fulfilled.”
Fortunately, Anna, the youngest of six children, also had a dogged determination to succeed, otherwise she may given up on swimming altogether when she realised not everyone believed in her ability.
Having competed at the nationals as a 12-year-old and not made the finals, being told she should stop swimming was just the challenge she needed to dig deeper, going on to be number one for her age group as a 13-year-old and competing in open age by 14.
“When I didn’t place in the finals at nationals when I was 12, I had a club team manager and manageress whose daughter had won a medal, sit me and another girl down and tell us we were wasting our time being swimmers and we should try something else,” Anna said.
“I think that sparked a little fire.
“Not long after, my coach told me that I said I think I can make it to the Olympics – I’m not sure if I really said that or if he told me that, but it was enough to push me along.
“I remember during the Olympics before LA, my friend who was also told to give up swimming and I were playing with her pet budgerigars and we were pretending we were flying to the Moscow Olympics on the budgerigars, just playing and dreaming like kids do.
“But I just had a dream, and when someone tells you that you can’t, it just made me more determined.”
In 1986, having moved to Brisbane under the guidance of coach Laurie Lawrence, Anna competed in the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games.
Plagued with injury in the lead-up – including a stress fracture to her leg, sustained during stair runs during her intense training schedule – she finished fifth and eighth and did not make the finals in the team relay.
The following year she began studying physiotherapy and ‘retired’ from swimming just before the 1988 Olympic trials.
At 22, Anna made a comeback, moving to the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, but just missed out on a place in the team for the Barcelona Olympics.
It was far from the end of her Olympic journey however.
She moved overseas and while there, took up a position as physio for a number of elite sports teams.
Among them was the Australian diving team and she followed them as their team physio to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
“That was amazing, to see the Olympics from a different side which was quite an eye-opener,” Anna said.
“Quite political, but still really fun.”
As an Olympian, Anna was also fortunate to gain access to many events including the opening ceremony and social functions at the Sydney 2000 Olympics.
She moved to Clare, joining her husband Tom at the family farm, in 2001 and has been heavily involved in the Clare Swim Club, along with many other sports in support of her four, now teenage, children.
Anna also runs her own physiotherapy practise from the farm, with a focus on musculoskeletal and sports injuries and active pilates-based rehabilitation.
She said she loved what swimming offered to everyone, young and old.
“Once you can swim, you can swim for life,” she said.
“It’s just such a great sport for so many reasons. It teaches kids about discipline, routine and has such a strong camaraderie.
“And the physical benefits are so wide reaching, which as a physio I’m so aware of.”
Undoubtedly, now is one of her favourite times – every four years, or five in the case of this year’s Tokyo Olympics – when our television screens light up with Olympic sport.
And even if her children get embarrassed, Anna said she cannot help but feel the emotion of all the athletes.
“The kids say ‘mum, why are you crying?’, but I certainly get very emotional watching,” she said.
“I think it’s just so amazing, the effort to get there. It does frustrate me sometimes that there’s such a focus on gold medals, because to make it to the Olympics, representing your country, is an incredible achievement.
“I just love everyone’s stories, how they got there, and their support networks behind them.
“The Olympics brings people so much joy.
“I think that’s what is so fabulous about the Olympics, it brings all the countries together in such a positive, special environment.”