Aussies racing at Gwangju World Masters Championships
Posted on Tuesday 3rd September, 2019

Stories from Gwangju Fina World Championships

MSQ Swimmers tell their stories from the Fina World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, August 2019.

Miami goes to South Korea

We arrived in Seoul after a very long journey via Singapore (28 hours door-to-door) to be met by our travel agent, Philip, in person. He guided us to our luxurious coach which whisked us away to Gwangju. The four-hour drive was broken by a welcome lunch and comfort stop. This was our first introduction to the local cuisine. All good – but we had no idea what we were eating! At Gwangju, we quickly dumped our stuff, grabbed our cozzies and hopped on a bus to the pool. Denise had to swim the 800 Freestyle first-up in the morning, so we needed to register first. Also hoped to have a swim – so we geared up and were about to dive in at a minute to five, when we were told that the pool closed at 5pm! Of course Denise is such an experienced little trooper, it made little difference to her gold medal performance the next morning!

The Athletes Village was interesting. The complex included around twenty tall blocks of apartments, twenty storeys high. Ours had three bedrooms and the first impression was of newness and cleanliness. Then we realised why! They were obviously built to be sold as brand new apartments. So, every surface, except the floor, was covered with sheets of plastic cardboard. The kitchen had been ‘disabled’ we were told, but actually it was incomplete. No taps or kitchen sink, no appliances (although we could see the oven, etc, behind the plastic coating, which even covered the bench tops). There was a fridge (filled with an endless supply of bottled water) and a kettle. In the bedrooms, the mattresses were still wrapped in thick plastic – which made for very noisy ‘turning over’ in the night. The walls of the lift were covered with something like carpet. The lift controls were plastic coated, as were the door handles and fittings. However, what was working, was adequate really, and good meals were available at the dining room over the road. Though we didn’t ever get used to soup, salmon salad, beef curry, hummus or cream puffs for breakfast. Breakfast was included in our rent and lunch and dinner were available for a reasonable price, with enough variety to please most people.

There were regular buses leaving the village for the pool every twenty minutes, others went to the airport, the metro, and other train stations. The city of Gwangju was interesting but it was often difficult to find particular places of interest. It seemed that the most important historic event for the city was a student uprising in 1980. We sought out the Museum of History and Culture, only to find the four buildings on the site, as well as the large square surrounding them, were totally devoted to that one event. We did manage to find another historic centre, and some lovely old traditional homes, but it took us a while! In retrospect, the best way to see things was on the organised bus tours. These usually involved a spot of cooking, learning how to make paper lanterns, or dressing up in traditional costume with a few sightseeing spots in between. We did find a free minibus tour to Muduengsan Mountain. This one was amazing! It is a UNESCO Global Geopark – of significant geological and paleontological importance. The main features are the huge polygonal columns of volcanic rock – most were between one and two metres across. In other areas of the park some are up to 7 metres in diameter. Our little bus was able to drive up what is usually a very bumpy walking track to the best viewing spots. A little rock-climbing then took us to the top – well worth the effort and the injuries!

The Open Water swim had taken place the weekend prior to the pool events. The Aussies were well represented with Tracy Clarkson and Margie Moore winning gold and six others placed in the top ten! We believe there were around 3000 competitors in the pool which was a bit disappointing, but we did have almost a hundred Aussies. At the same time there were other events underway – Diving, Artistic swimming, Water polo, etc. The organisation of the Meet was efficient and ran pretty much on time. The competition pool was excellent, but, as usual at these things, you took your life in your hands if you went into the very crowded ‘warm-up’ pool. It was easier to do your warm-up (and down) by using the lane reserved for dives and sprints. At least in those lanes, all the traffic was moving the same way! It wasn’t easy finding your way to the call room, or knowing exactly when your turn had come. A couple of our swimmers missed their races because of this.

As with past World Titles, the camaraderie around the pool was terrific. All our competitors, even the world-record breakers, were friendly and encouraging to everybody. Australia fared really well overall with the men winning 33 gold, 20 silver, 13 bronze, 14 fourth, 6 fifth and 12 sixth. The ladies scored 11 gold, 23 silver, 20 bronze, 8 fourth, 10 fifth and 10 sixth. In the relays, the men won 3 gold, the women 2 silver, and the mixed have 1 silver, 1 bronze, 2 fifths and 1 sixth. Our Miami swimmers brought home 3 gold, 4 silver, 3 bronze and a 5th. Thanks to Denise for the statistics and congratulations to all!

Lindy Salter, QMM Miami Masters

A life-changing event

The 18th Fina World Masters Championships was a life-changing event. We stayed in the athlete’s village in Gwangju, at the southern end of South Korea, and a two hour train ride from Seoul.  We were welcomed to the village amid fanfare and flag waving, something very unexpected and humbling as an older athlete.  We shuttled to the pool daily for our events, and to watch team-mates compete.  The pool itself was a world-class venue, and well organised.  Each event was in age-groups, with seeding according to times.  Competing alongside athletes of the same age provided the opportunity to test your mettle against the world’s best in your own age-group.  Occasionally a World Record fell, which saw raucous applause from the crowd. There is no other experience like having your name on the big screen next to the Australian flag.  It was exhilarating, and humbling.

Back in the athlete’s village we were provided with a range of free services/amenities including bottled water, laundry service, access to local tours, a games room, massage chairs, daily complementary room cleaning, and all shuttles to and from the pool.  The eating hall showed a kaleidoscope of representative shirts from many nations.  We ate together, travelled together and competed together creating a great sense of community.

My own racing experience was one of mixed emotions.  Injuries and fitness had been problematic in the lead-up, but with a focus on skills and execution I was able to enjoy racing, even though the times were generally off PB pace.  However PBs are often hard to come by, and the meet provided such a great buzz, it felt a privilege to compete at it and strive for the best result possible on the day.

The event was an amazing spectacle of comradery and had a great spirit of friendly competition.  It will form one of my fondest swimming memories, and I hope that fate allows me to attend more in the future.

Jamie Wright, QUQ The University of Queensland Masters

My First World Masters

Gwangju 2019 was my first World Masters Championships and it far exceeded all my expectations. I was hoping to swim well and have a good time but, realistically, I knew being away from my family in a completely foreign environment would impact my results. However, I was fortunate to share the adventure with the best group of people who made the experience all the more rewarding.

One of the most challenging aspects was getting to Gwangju! After twenty-four hours in transit featuring two flights, three buses and a high-speed train, we finally arrived at the athlete’s village. Not quite what we were sold in the brochure, our plastic-protected apartment was underwhelming in the beginning, but it become our home. Our apartment as well as the dining hall and games room were our sanctuary away from the pool and the backdrop to a lot of great times.

The competition pool at Nambu University Aquatic Centre is magic! The venue itself created a sense of occasion and, knowing what the professional athletes were able to achieve only weeks before the Masters competition, you felt compelled to lay it all on the line whenever you had the opportunity to do so. The warm-up pool was less romantic and more reminiscent of a wrestling ring but ultimately became part of the overall experience. I’m not going to lie though, the next Masters swim meet is going to be a reality check following the blue carpet treatment we received in Gwangju.

In addition to the highlights we were able to achieve in the pool, we created memories out of it too. Making spectacles of ourselves at local Korean restaurants, experiencing a Korean Baseball Organisation game, high-speed cab rides through the CBD, hiking through Mudeungsan National Park and exploring what we could of Gwangju and Seoul, we laughed until we cried and have a catalogue of stories to recall and reminisce over for years to come.

Silver in the 100m breaststroke, bronze in the 200m breaststroke, fifth in the 50m breaststroke and a couple of PB’s, Gwangju was a lifetime of Christmas, Easter and Birthday presents wrapped up in one! But for me, the amazing experience was all because of the people.  Coaches, training buddies and other competitors, both those who I shared it with in South Korea and those who I have been so fortunate to meet along the way, have become friends and family. Ultimately, they are the reason Gwangju was everything and more!

Corrine Fry, QUQ The University of Queensland Masters

RiverCity at Gwangju

Planning for Gwangju 2019 started right after the Budapest World Championships were completed. It was so good to compete and then travel with close friends that 2019 had to be on the cards again.

Travelling to Korea was quite the experience. Though we didn’t have our full RiverCity team from Budapest, we had a small contingent that made it all very enjoyable. Arriving in Gwangju at the Athletes Village was amusing to say the least, as we weren’t really allowed to touch anything! The transport to the pool was easy and accessible. Upon arrival, the warm up pool was jam packed but we could still manage the necessary warm up. Sitting amongst fellow Australians from Yeronga and PowerPoints in Melbourne added to the comradeship.

Racing was tough! Many said there wouldn’t be much competition but lots of the people from Budapest were there again and times were fast. With only one competition pool, days were long but the event ran pretty smoothly. Individually, I was pleased with my efforts with all pbs. My favourite success was the 50 fly finishing with a silver medal and national record.  I was fortunate to medal top 6 in all 5 of my events.

The fun day is always relays and that continued for our team this year. Casey Flouch, Stacia Kirk, James Alexander (second claim RiverCity) and myself made up the mixed relay team. There was much excitement for all of us when Casey swam over the top of a number of other teams to anchor our team to silver in the freestyle relay! That meant a shiny bit of bling, a diploma and most importantly an otter!

None of this could happen without having a coach on deck.  Not only did Casey race his heart out with a silver in the 200 IM and 100 free but he also provided coaching expertise. From race warm ups, to pre-race chats to post-race chats, what a difference it made. His sprint coaching has been invaluable to many of us and a number of us particularly in Gwangju. He has provided exceptional sprint coaching to the top two female Australian performers in Gwangju – Gillian O’Mara and myself.

Onwards and forwards to Japan 2021.  Bring on a bigger and even better Aussie team!

Kylie Fletcher, QRC RiverCity Masters

Swimming, Travelling, Eating

The 19th World Masters championships in South Korea was my third time competing at the World championships.  As South Korea had never been on my radar to explore, I thought it would be a great opportunity to not only compete so close to home, but also explore a country of such history and fascination. It definitely wasn’t like Montreal or Budapest with familiar foods, recognisable landmarks and the ease of asking the locals for directions.

We weren’t too far from home but far from our comfort zones when it came to ordering from the menu. With ongoing charades to figure out what meat we were eating, we would have looked like idiots as on-lookers watched us order our next meal. There was plenty of mooing, chicken wing flapping and holding our nose down and saying “oink, oink” to figure out what was in a simple dumpling. It brought great delight, relief and laughter once we were all on the same page.

The Koreans were all very helpful and spoke very good English but that didn’t stop their enthusiasm to help the obvious minority’s walking tall through the sea of short, black haired locals through a busy market to find something to eat that wasn’t still alive or looking at you from its death bed. With perseverance we always found new dishes to try that were always fresh and left us wanting more.

We spent three weeks travelling South Korea, and heading to Busan, a popular place for those who love the beach. Also Jeju Island, a huge tourist attraction and only an hour from land via plane. It was a huge island to explore but very relaxing. This would be my favourite for its food markets and ease of getting around.

Japan 2021 is on the cards next. If anyone is considering attending, go! It will be close to home which is an advantage to us with little jet lag. As a team we always travel after competition and make the most of our travels. It’s fun, exciting and you get to meet a lot of new people.

Casey Flouch, QRC River City Masters

Rats of Tobruk in South Korea

A massive sudden shift to urbanization: 71% of the 51 million population now in high rise apartments in big cities, 4 lane concrete motorways, suspension bridges & tunnels amidst hills, valleys and rice paddies. Temperature 34 degree & humidity 80%. Bottled water.

Yeosu, 3rd in the open water swim, very surprised. Gwangju: high rise athletes’ village, great breakfasts, crowded warm-ups, times faster than at Nationals. Great volunteers and plenty of officials on deck. Heaps of old faces, plenty of new ones. Great to see some younger Australians there, especially the adventurous ones, Suzanne & Jamie.

A country stuck between invaders, Japan, China, Russia, Mongol hordes. Buddhism, Neo-Confucianism. Post tour – you know you have been to one too many temples and markets when at the last stop for 1½ hr ‘free time’ most of us end up at the café drinking beer or coffee.

Kam-sah ham-nee-dah Gwangju. Konnichiwa Fukuoka 2021.

John Barrett, QRT Rats of Tobruk Masters, Townsville

OWS JB & Hobe

Karina’s Korean Adventure

Swimming at the World Masters Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, was definitely interesting, both in and out of the pool. Going with no expectations, apart from hoping to swim some good times, was the best way to experience the swim meet and the culture of the country.

The pool was great to swim in, although the atmosphere was stuffy and over humid as most indoor pools are. The warm up pool was the place to be as swimmers from all over the world fine-tuned their preparations before competing. Many different exercises, and poses, were exhibited by the fit and fanatic while others simply wandered around socialising. There were no problems circling the wrong way although some coaches seemed to think that warm up meant a pool version of the Fast and the Furious. Flat out sprints for their swimmers regardless of whom else was in the pool. For a while I thought I was back in the swim leg of a triathlon as the younger men swam over the top of those of us who were slower than them.

Medals were presented to those who finished in the top 6 of an event. Actually finding the medal presentation room was much like participating in a university orienteering trial.

Marshalling was extremely well organised as names and faces of swimmers were checked against the swimmers’ ID cards several times before walking out onto the pool deck. No chance of getting lost or left behind once you had signed yourself into marshalling.

Gwangju and the athletes’ village were  experiences that will not be forgotten: massage chairs that held you captive until they had finished pummelling your body; units with useable bedrooms and bathrooms but no lounge chairs, tables or usable kitchens; masses of free water bottles to stop you from melting in the high humidity; many young South Koreans ready and eager to help you in the welcome centre and the transport centre….if only they spoke a little English; security everywhere; fighter jets taking off and landing at the nearby airport, practising manoeuvres for several hours one day; cheap taxi fares; night markets with only fish available;  Korean barbecues; beautiful costumes with intricate details; ornate temple roofs and interiors; the army of volunteers who were always helpful; the flat land covered in rice paddies; the number of high rise buildings surrounded by concrete. The list is endless.

And the wonderful farewell ceremony finished it all.

Karina Horton, QAC Albany Creek Masters

Susanne’s Journey

Gwangju 2019 was my first FINA World Championship event and the experience was more than I ever imagined. The event for me was not just the racing, but the entirety of the journey including training, travel, people and the atmosphere.

My journey to Worlds brought me to train with a greater diversity of squads and coaches who helped me to work toward my goals. It also allowed me the opportunity to really engage with others who attended the event. It is wonderful knowing that I will always be welcomed and supported by so many in our community at home.

Some of my fondest memories are from my years of backpacking, so the opportunity to travel to a destination that was never on my ‘list’ was exciting. South Korea certainly delivered in a very surprising way. It was efficient, clean, easy to navigate, beautiful and full of kind and helpful people. A great evening was had out with fellow Queenslanders where we were taken in by locals who cooked our Korean BBQ for us, gave lessons in chop sticks, and helped us understand the real way to eat BBQ!

Village life itself was so much fun! Eating in the cafeteria with swimmers from across Australia was a great opportunity to bond with teammates. The village provided a games room with pool, table tennis, air hockey and more, which gave us so many laughs in our downtime from the pool and the massage chairs were great for recovery and relaxation. It was a unique opportunity to experience a village life which is a rare opportunity for us Masters.

The event itself was in a world class facility and offered a great atmosphere. My highlights included swimming next to fellow Australian and friend, Suzie Haddad, in the 800 free and swimming the 100 and 200 breaststroke events with the first representative of Lebanon at a FINA World Championships. I was pleased to hit my goals and was especially happy with my equal fastest 50 Free in 8 years and my 2nd fastest 200 breaststroke in 8 years which put me in 11th place.

Susanne Milenkevich, VP South, QYP Yeronga Yabbies

An Unforgettable Experience

Recently I participated in the 18th FINA World Master’s Championship held in Gwangju, South Korea. 

Being a mid-distance freestyler and a butterflier, my first swim was the 800m freestyle.  I had discussed the race plan with my coach and was extremely nervous (I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself).  I remember swimming the 5th lap and was looking up at the grandstand and I had a moment of realisation that I was swimming at the World Championships.  From that point on, I relaxed and just had the most amazing time!  My swims were a mixed bag of results, but I was able to enjoy every single moment that I spent in the pool.  I also had the opportunity to watch some other Australian (and more importantly, Queenslanders) swim and achieve their goals.  There were numerous PBs, top 10 finishes and medals, but most importantly the number of friendships that were forged have made this event a remarkable and unforgettable experience.

Swimming allows me the opportunity to travel and experience other cultures, and I am already on the countdown to the 19th Championships in Fukuoka, Japan in August 2021!

James Alexander, QRC River City Masters (Second Claim)

Gillian’s Gwangju Gig

After being glued to the iSwim app, watching the FINA World Swimming Championships in late July, it was fair to say I was getting pretty excited about the prospect of competing in that same venue in Gwangju a few weeks later.  The time couldn’t pass quickly enough: Work was flat knacker, I was in the “taper hole”, and I just wanted to feel fresh and bloody well race!

Speculation was also rife for those who were booked to stay in the Athlete’s Village: Would the lodgings be comfortable? (Some later asked, “Where IS the furniture?!”) What would the food in the dining hall be like? Would there be the same “digestive issues” that some athletes had experienced at the World Championships? Would this lead to incidents of “Gwangpoo”?!

It was fantastic to finally hop on that plane and spend a couple of days in Seoul, where I met up with a number of team mates and good friends from Powerpoints and Melbourne H20.  I lived in Melbourne for 6 years before moving to Brisbane, and I trained with both squads whilst Melbourne was home.  I had made a commitment to swim with Powerpoints months before Worlds.  I had some incredible memories from competing with Powerpoints in Riccione in 2012, particularly our mixed relay bronze and National Record with Mark Thompson, Jennie Bucknell and Matt Harry.  But also the people from Powerpoints (and Melbourne H20) were there with me the whole way from diagnosis to recovery from endometrial cancer 4 years ago.  So there was something special about being able to come “full circle”, competing at a level I had hoped to return to, and with the community of people who have provided me with such incredible support and friendship over the years. 

It was fantastic to connect new and old friends from my swimming life together in Gwangju: North Sydney Masters (where I originally returned to swimming), River City, Yeronga, Powerpoints, H20, and a raft of other interstate and international friends.  More friends were made in the marshalling area, in the dining hall, during the medal ceremonies, and in the warm up pool.  It is so inspiring hearing the stories of other competitors, what has motivated them to participate in Masters swimming, and the struggles and triumphs they have experienced along the way.

I’ve been fortunate to benefit from a range of incredibly talented coaches over the years.  Since moving to Brisbane, I’ve been coached primarily by Michael Bromley of Commercial and, more recently, Casey Flouch of River City.  I thank and credit them, along with my friends and club mates who I swim with each training session, for helping me.  Some of my personal performances in Gwangju reflected the work I invested, some didn’t.  But that’s OK, as the memory of the meet will forever be anchored in enjoying a wonderful shared experience with great friends. 

I’d encourage any Masters swimmer who hasn’t experienced a World Championships to give it a crack.  Brush up on your Japanese for 2021!

Thank you so much to all our wonderful Masters Swimming Queensland members who generously shared their Gwangju stories with us. We hope you have enjoyed reading them, and are feeling inspired to join us in Japan in 2021!