At the end of the TEAN Orientation, our orientation leader suggested a few ways to make Aussie friends. Some of these suggestions were quirky, some were practical, but one that really stuck with me was joining a club at university. Naturally, I had only one club in mind: the swimming club. “Everything will be okay once I join the swim club,” I kept saying to everyone. Aussies are, after all, serious about their sports—they’re a country of swimmers, and I really like to swim, so I figured it would be a good fit. In general: I just really want to keep swimming.
Swimming here doesn’t just come for free, however. It’s a process, a long and arduous one. At my school back home, you just walk into a room or put your name on the email list and you’ve joined the club. Here, there are documents to be filled out, emails to be sent to the club officers, and fees to be paid. Only then can you do a trial where you attend practices for a week and decide whether or not you want to join the club.
The walk to the 5 AM practice was all nerves and the practice itself served as a wake-up call for me. Not only was I woefully out of shape, but I also lagged behind most of the swimmers—the vast majority of these swimmers being in primary and secondary school. It was inspiring to see all of these youngsters in the pool so early in the morning.
While swimming with the club might not have fulfilled my desire to make university-age Australian friends, it did teach me a lesson about sport in Australia. While Australia is just as serious about sport as America is, it’s serious in a different way. In America, sports are woven into the school experience—from grade school to college and beyond, if you’re a decent athlete, you play your sport for your school. In Australia, everyone goes club, as there are no “varsity” sports. If you are part of the official college swim club at the University of Sydney, you get scholarships to swim on the club and you compete in national and world championships. Whether you are 5 years old and just learning how to swim, or 65 and wanting to compete in an after-work league with some work mates, you join a club. It’s not uncommon to see clubs practicing soccer at the Domain or to walk by the very intimidating rugby league at the University of Sydney on a Wednesday afternoon.
It really boils down to a difference in sporting culture. In America, all but the best are expected to give up their sport just prior to, or perhaps after college, but here that notion is nonexistent. Anyone of any age and ability can play sports if they so choose, which is a fantastically democratic practice. If you happen to be really, really good, say at soccer, rugby, cricket, or “footy,” (which is Australian Rules Football) then you get to be on one of the numerous sporting teams in each city or region and be the toast of pubs everywhere. Because if there’s one thing that Aussies love more than playing sports, it’s watching sports, as they follow these sports fervently. It’s always fun to sit down with a pint in the local pub and watch a rugby match with fellow Aussies—even if you have absolutely no idea what’s going on or how the game is played, it’s great to simply soak up the excitement in the air.
So I had wanted to go to the swim club to make some college friends, and while that didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped, it taught me a little something. Sports here seem at the same time less fair and way more egalitarian than sports in America because it’s less about age privilege and much more about how hard you work and how talented you are. While I’m really only a middle-of-the-road swimmer, it was fantastic to see these young kids with so much talent and dedication at their age. Perhaps the club and I aren’t such a good fit after all. But that’s okay. For the time being, I can content myself with swimming in the super neat outdoor pool in Victoria Park, right next to our university, taking runs in the morning to Circular Quay, and practicing my surfing technique. It’s not a bad life!
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