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Byron Bay News

Petria Thomas The Golden Girl of Byron Bay

The Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu said a journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step. For Petria Thomas, the long journey to Athens began 15 months ago, with her third shoulder operation. Tim Sheridan was there with her when she said, "You have to be positive about it ... I may as well give up and I'm not ready to do that yet."

Earlier this year (March 28), Sunday covered Petria's comeback from that hospital ordeal to the Olympic trials, which also ended in success. Even that achievement was enough to make Australia's great swimming coach, Don Talbot, look back over his 50 years of mentoring and struggle for comparisons. "I don't know anybody who's done what she's done."

As the oldest athlete on the Australian swim team, Petria's body has been battered by years of hard work, but those years never put a dent in her determination, which has earned her the respect and admiration of swimmers around the world. As a teenager from the New South Wales north coast, Petria made her first Australian swimming team in 1993. For many years she swam in the shadow of the great Australian swimmer, Susie O'Neill, known as Madame Butterfly. "She could've gone 'to hell with it!'" says Don Talbot. "But she didn't. She kept going and kept improving herself."

This week, Petria well and truly stepped out of Susie's shadow. But in 2000, when Susie retired, the years of chasing were well on their way to wearing out Petria's body. She met power lifter Julian Jones at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra and they married in 2001, but in sporting terms she was still a bridesmaid.

By the time Petria went to the 2001 World Titles in Japan, she'd come back from two shoulder surgeries and an ankle reconstruction. It was quite a comeback. She won three golds, including the 100-200 butterfly double. 2002 was almost as good, with Petria bagging five gold medals from eight events at the Manchester Commonwealth Games. But by early last year, her body was again failing to keep up with her ambition.

She went to see her regular surgeon, Dr Des Bokker, for another reconstruction, passing up the 2003 World Titles in Barcelona, where the 200 butterfly was won in a time well below her best. After another long period of convalescence and hard work, Petria Thomas made another comeback ... and what a comeback it was. In March this year, she entered the Olympic trials, knowing that if she failed, there would be no trip to Athens.

Petria Thomas did not fail. She made the team and broke a record in the process. Back in March, Petria Thomas told Tim Sheridan, "It'd be nice if one day people got to know the real me."

This week, people did get to meet the real Petria Thomas, the version that can wear three gold medals, if she wants to! And in one shining moment, she was given a guard of honour by her team-mates as she left the medal dais, in a tribute to her determination and grace under pressure. She said, "I think I enjoyed that moment the most."

The story of Petria Thomas is a profile in courage.