With his mother and grandmother cheering him towards what appeared to be victory, Matthew Wilson took his first, inauspicious strokes towards becoming an Olympian in the under-9 boy’s 100m freestyle event at the Faulconbridge Public School’s Swimming Carnival.

With the blue ribbon all but in his grasp, the eight-year-old ran out of petrol and came to a dead halt – and he says the disappointment that accompanied him out of the pool that day shaped his future.

“I was in the lead for about the first 60 metres, and I started getting a bit tired at 70m, and then 75m,” Wilson recalled in his five-part NSWIS Lights Up documentary. “I just stopped on the lane rope and didn’t want to keep going.

“I remember getting out and just feeling so embarrassed because – again – my mum and my nan were out there, two of my biggest supporters. It was from that moment I was like: ‘alright it’s going to be a goal of mine to not just do a hundred metres . . . I’m going to do it faster than everyone else’.”

Wilson’s first taste of swimming ought to have let the now 25 year old who grew up in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, that swimming’s high and low tides bring as much heartache as they do the head spinning excitement of becoming a world record holder or an Olympian.

“Swimming has taught me a lot in life, mainly about resilience and getting knocked down but always getting back up, never giving up,” he said.  “I think that’s the biggest thing, no matter what you do is never quitting on something that you love, no matter how hard it gets.

“I can accept failure, but I can’t accept not trying . . . I try and try and sometimes I fail but the whole thing is learning from the failures that gets you to the pinnacle, essentially. It resonates with me. I’ve had a lot of knocks in my career I failed multiple times, but I’ve never not tried.”

When Wilson received his New South Wales Institute of Sport (NSWIS) scholarship as a 14 year old medley swimmer, he trained under respected coach Brant Best and swimming alongside seasoned Olympians.

However, in the lead in to the 2016 Rio Games Wilson, dubbed ‘White Lightning’ by Best before Adam Kable became his coach, targeted the breaststroke event as his best chance to compete at the Olympics.

It turned out to be an emotionally painful experience.

“I was 17 at the time,” he recalled. “I was telling myself: ‘if I make it, great, if I don’t, then it’s alright.’ But I think secretly I was like; I’m going to make this team!

“I thought I could do . . . in hindsight, it was a two and a half second drop to make the team and I dropped 2.3, or something like that. So, it was a big ask, that’s for sure. I just missed that team by . . . I think . . . it was 0.26 [of a second].

“It was crushing . . .

“And you’ve got people all around you and they keep coming up and they try to console you and they’re like: ‘look, you’re young, there’s always the next one’ and that’s the last thing I wanted to hear. I just missed out on a dream of mine . . .

“I watched the 200m breaststroke [Olympic race]. I was in California at the time with Adam and he said: ‘that will be you in the next one, just trust the process, so that instilled a bit of belief in me.”

With hindsight, Wilson said what appeared to be the end of the world eight years ago was a blessing in disguise.

“Not making that Rio team . . .  it probably was one of the best things I’ve had happen to me,” he said. “I might not have had that fire lit under me as much if I’d made it . . .  might have got complacent or whatever.

“It was not making that team that really motivated me more to want to make it and want to be a better athlete and a better person.  Yeah, I learned a lot about resilience that year I also, missed a world short course team as well about four months later. And the same thing, like 0.2 of a second or something ridiculous.”

And while he did qualify for Tokyo, it was a drama and emotion-charged event, of which the memory still hurts.

“That 2021 Olympic trial, it was a roller coaster that’s for sure,” he said. “I probably hadn’t done the best training block I’ve ever done, but I thought I’d still be able to hit those times and get on a team and all that stuff.

“And then it was like the sudden passing of my Nan really took a mental hit on me and I wasn’t there. My body was there, but my head was elsewhere. And I think, you know, it was during COVID, and I didn’t get to see her before she passed away; I didn’t get to go to the funeral. And I think that took a huge hit on me.

“I was bit off [but] I was lucky enough to then after all that stuff went on. I remember sitting in the grandstand and Adam called me. [He] was like ‘Hey, where are you? Ron McKeon [NSW Head Coach] wants to talk to you.

“I thought it was going to be some, you know, motivational ‘don’t give up stuff’ which was again the last thing I wanted to hear at the time. So, I was a bit reluctant to go and talk to him.

“He goes: ‘Look I heard about your nan. We have this clause in the selection criteria which allows us to be a bit flexible with all these circumstances. And you’ve swum the time in the last 12 months so, we’re going to take you to Tokyo’” . . .  I was a whole mix of emotions.”

Wilson’s career has had its extraordinary and inspirational moments, including the time when he equaled the world record in the semi final of the 2019 world championships in South Korea.

“I heard the big cheer,” he said of the finish. “I quickly turned around expecting to just say like a PB and I saw the WR next to my name and I was like, ‘holy crap like no way did I just do that’ and, yeah, it was a big walk back to where we were sitting and everyone on the way congratulating me and getting all excited and pumped up.

[In] that final I did lose the world record. Yeah, it took a world record to beat me, and I think I did pretty much exactly the same time as I did [in the semi]. I’d never been under 2.07 before and I did it twice within the space of 24 hours!”

“I just got a medal for my country at a world championship, and the eight year old me would have been like ‘that’s impossible!’

Daniel Lane, NSWIS

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