Her name might be Lucky, but this inspiring young Paralympian doesn't owe her success to chance.20-year-old Lakeisha ‘Lucky’ Patterson is one of the newest athletes in the True family. In her short swimming career, she has already won numerous gold medals across the Commonwealth Games, Paralympics and World Swimming Championships, and there’s no sign of her slowing down.
Lucky has overcome more than her fair share of challenges to claim such prestigious accolades. Born with left hemiplegia Cerebral Palsy, Lucky has struggled with pain and muscle tightness her entire life. When she was just five, it was discovered that Lucky also suffered from Epilepsy as well as the onset of micrographia – a condition which means her handwriting is abnormally small and practically illegible. But one thing is clear – not one of these conditions has stopped her from achieving incredible things.
Faced with countless challenges throughout her young life, both in the sporting arena and personally, Lucky has all but overcome them with great determination, sportsmanship and unwavering optimism. I had the pleasure of speaking to Lucky recently and getting her take on swimming, the Paralympics and her resolute positivity.
Lucky’s life in the pool began at age five when she started swimming as a part of a hydrotherapy program designed to relieve muscle pain, build coordination and assist with her balance on dry land. It wasn't long before her mum could barely drag her out of the pool when sessions were over. Wanting to give every sport a go, Lucky tried her hand at a little bit of everything in the coming years; athletics, karate – you name it! But there was something about being in the water that just stuck. It made Lucky feel free.
‘It was the one thing I could actually do,’ Lucky says, ‘It just felt so natural, like I didn’t have a disability.’
Lucky was spurred on to keep swimming by some healthy competition with her two sisters and she eventually became faster than her able-bodied siblings. But growing up in the community of Bribie Island, where the population was relatively devoid of people with disabilities, left Lucky feeling isolated at times. It wasn't until she watched the 2012 London Paralympics on TV that she was even aware of para-sports.
‘I remember watching the Paralympics, seeing the array of people with disabilities competing for their country and just smashing it,’ Lucky remembers. ‘It really opened up my eyes that I could do something like that one day. I told my mum, “that’s going to be me! I’m going to Rio and I’m going to win a gold medal!”’
Once she had her heart set on competing at the 2016 Paralympic games, Lucky had to start the process of being classified in order to assess her swimming ability. The left hemiplegia Cerebral Palsy means that the left side of Lucky’s body is largely affected. She describes herself as having a ‘wonky gait’ that causes her to walk on tip-toes due to her inability to relax the muscles in her foot. She is currently classed in para events as S9, a swimming classification that hosts a range of disability types. Lucky’s main hinderances are that she is unable to completely open her hand to scoop through the water or kick as effectively with her left leg. Essentially, her right side has to work harder to compensate for her left side, which tends to drag through the water.
After being assessed, Lucky joined the Australian Development Squad and stepped up her training. The following year she made the national team and then, indeed, did make it to the 2016 Rio Paralympics just as she’d predicted. Despite the obvious nerves of a debut Paralympic event, Lucky won Australia’s first Paralympic Gold Medal of the Games as well as slicing 0.11 seconds off the previous record set by her idol Jessica Long, who placed second. She also brought home a second gold and three silver medals as part of the 4x100m Freestyle relay team.
Lucky hopes to make history again in the Tokyo Paralympic Games next year: ‘Competing at the Paralympics is insane – it’s next level!’ Lucky says. ‘Being exposed to all the different athletes from different countries and different people; just seeing everyone was extraordinary. Hearing their stories and the challenges they faced to get where they are. It’s just inspiring and it really does make you want to lift and bring that extra hustle.’
Her mum and sisters are currently saving hard with the goal to be front and centre in Tokyo when Lucky goes for her next big win.
For Lucky, her biggest pride and joy is having her family cheer her on from the sidelines as she competes. She recalled her time at the 2018 Commonwealth Games: ‘I won two gold medals and a world record in front of my family. It was the first time they’d come to watch me compete at a major international competition, so it was really special. It meant a lot.’
But it’s not all glitz and glamour in the pool, even if you are a para-champion.
‘What I love about swimming is there’s always so much you can improve on. You may be number one in the world but that’s no reason to stop working hard,’ Lucky explains. With under a year now until Tokyo, she’s gearing up to swim harder than ever.
An average day starts at 4.40am with a morning swim and another in the evening, then everything from physiotherapy, gym, uni and massage appointments in between. Acknowledging how important it is to maintain her nutrition, Lucky tells me how crucial it is to put in as much as she’s taking out.
‘I have a pretty balanced diet: fruit, veggies – all the good stuff! Breakfast is my favourite meal of the day, and then I’ll have a shake or protein bar in between sessions. Lots of carbs and protein. I’m always hungry!’ Lucky laughs, But I do enjoy some apple pie every once and a while…’
But the challenges Lucky faces day-to-day go far beyond satiating her unabated appetite. Being successful often comes with strings attached, and for her one of the side effects has been the implications of social media, leading her to becoming a victim of cyber-bullying from the likes of random trolls, families of swimming rivals and those jealous of her success in the pool. Lucky touts having a great support network as the thing that gets her through it: ‘My coach is incredible,’ says Lucky, ‘He tells me I can only control what I can control, and to trust the process.’
Despite accrediting these words of wisdom to her coach, it strikes me that Lucky is the kind of person who has been fiercely strong since long before Paralympic success. She attributes a lot of this to her mum, who never made her feel different to her sisters.
‘It was fantastic because I grew up with the mindset that I can do anything. Yes, I might do things differently, but I can still do it. I’ve really tried to apply that to every aspect of my life no matter what the challenge is,’ Lucky says.
“I like to think that I’m not disabled, I’m uniquely abled – I just have to do things a bit differently.”
Lucky lives each new day striving to be the best version of herself, in and out of the pool: ‘It’s not just about swimming, it’s everything surrounding it,’ Lucky explains. ‘The gym work, what you’re doing at home, the mental side of things, the recovery, the nutrition – it all adds up. I want to know every time I’m standing on the blocks that I’ve done all I can to get the results.’
If that leaves her short of a medal, then so be it; she’ll be back at the drawing board undeterred to start over again.
As much as swimming is the source of a lot of Lucky’s tribulations, it’s also the thing that keeps her mind and body in one piece. She is noticeably sorer when away from the pool, and swimming offers a great relief for her tight muscles. But even more than that, it allows her time to breathe and quiet her mind for a while.
‘It’s so calming, the water splashing against your face,’ Lucky says, ‘There’s something freeing and magical about that and you can just lose yourself in the laps. It’s definitely a fantastic form of therapy.’
It’s not just the pool that Lucky enjoys swimming in; she also loves the beach and stand-up paddle boarding with her family or, as she puts it, ‘It’s more like sit-down paddle boarding for me!’
Relishing a challenge and the opportunity to try something new, Lucky has recently been involved in open-water swimming. There is currently no international para-competitions for open water swimmers, so she competes in standard able-bodied events locally and statewide. Although to most she might seem right at home in the water, she did admit to having one fear: ‘I’m not going to lie, I’m a great swimmer and I love swimming but there’s something about open water swimming that freaks me out a bit. I’m majorly afraid of sharks, so that gives me a bit of anxiety! But once you get past that fear you kind of get into a natural rhythm and keep going,’ Lucky says.
Thankfully there are no sharks in the pool, but there’s plenty of other obstacles on Lucky’s radar. Muscle pain, cyber bullying and fatigue are a few of the problems that take time and mental energy to comprehend: ‘When things are tough, I just remind myself why I started swimming,’ Lucky reflects, ‘And that’s because I love it and it helps me. I want to show people that I can do all of these things and prove to everyone out there, whether they have a disability or not, what people can actually achieve. I want to show that if you work really hard, you can gain great results. That really drives me, and if I can inspire at least one person to get up and face their challenges and achieve their goals then I’m happy.’
When I asked Lucky how she’s managed to stay so positive despite all the challenges she has faced in her short life, she became candid with me: ‘I guess I haven’t always been so strong, it takes a while to grow that kind of confidence,’ Lucky admits. ‘But I do believe everything happens for a reason and I couldn't think of myself any other way. I’ve been doing this for a while and it doesn’t get any easier, but I’ve found what works for me and I’ve overcome a lot.
‘This is me and I’ve learned to embrace that. I can’t change who I am. Take me or leave me - this is me.’
Follow Lucky's journey on Instagram @lucky_patterson99