Huon Valley News

Power of the pool – how tragedy, swimming and art brought about a new beginning

“Swimming’s my godsend. I’m oblivious to anything else going on when I’m swimming. It’s just me and the water and I love that.” – Nicola Oliver, Geeveston resident and regular swimmer at Port Huon Sports and Aquatic Centre

If Nicola Oliver had been able to gaze into a crystal ball just over a year ago, she certainly wouldn’t have recognised herself.

Before June 2022, Nicola was a full-time rhythmic gymnastics coach. She describes herself as a perfectionist, with a strong drive and competitive streak.

“The old me would just push myself until I drop,” she said.

“I can’t afford to do that now.”

A chronic asthmatic, Nicola and her husband Dave made the decision to move from Queensland to Geeveston 10 years ago.

“It was the best decision of my life,” she said.

“I moved primarily because my asthma was critical in the heat and humidity. I was just existing.”

“But I’m not one to give up. I’m not one to just go ‘well, this is how it is…’. I said ‘no, this isn’t how it is. I have to make a better way.’”

Nicola couldn’t have known how well that approach would serve her through what would become the greatest challenge of her life.

No going back

On 28 June last year, unable to get control of her asthma, she went to the GP. But it wasn’t just her asthma flaring up. It was COVID-19.

Five days in ICU and two more weeks in hospital later, she had lost her ability to think clearly, walk or talk. She was eventually transferred from the Royal Hobart Hospital to Calvary Hospital and then to St John’s campus for intensive rehabilitation.

When she finally moved home, Nicola had completely lost her core strength. Her physio suggested hydrotherapy.

“When I first started in the pool I couldn’t walk in the pool,” she said.

“When a kid went past me, it didn’t matter their size, it would knock me over. Now I can walk in the pool.”

“Then I started adding things, trying to swim laps. And once I could swim a lap, I just kept building more. Now I swim between one and three kilometres at a time.”

Swimming as therapy

It’s not an exaggeration to say Nicola’s regular visits to the Port Huon Sports and Aquatic Centre have changed her life.

“When I swim, I just get lost with the sound of the water and the smoothness of it,” she said.

“It makes me feel free for the first time. When I got in the pool after I first had COVID I felt free for the first time in 12 months. I could move!”

“When I swim, swimming takes away the pain in my lower back, which fixes my neck and my shoulder. When I’m swimming, my coordination is better, my speech is better, my walking is better.”

Nicola said she was relieved to learn that the refurbishment and temporary closure of the Port Huon pool – due to start this month – had been pushed back to October.

The date change means she will now be able to access the Huonville pool in the interim.

“It’s such a vital part of my rehab program and when I’m doing it all the time it really does make a difference. It helps with my mental health as well,” she said.

Art revelation

Swimming is not the only transformative pastime Nicola has discovered in recent times.

She has become a prolific, and celebrated artist.

“Even though COVID has affected me badly, this is like the amazing light that has switched on in my brain. I don’t know how else to explain it,” she said.

“I’ve never been able to paint in my entire life and now it’s like, wow! It’s wonderful. Some people would ask me if I would like to go back to how I was, but no. I don’t want to lose the gift that COVID gave me.”

Now days, it’s not uncommon for Nicola to paint four or five paintings a day, or even up to 10.

She has tried watercolour, acrylics and oils, as well as embroidery, cross-stitch, long-stitch, metal work and woodwork.

She has also taken up archery.

A new outlook

While there are still tough days, Nicola said she’s “so grateful” to have the support of many, including staff at Port Huon pool.

“They say ‘have you tried this, have you tried that?’ Without people like them who have a bit more knowledge of resources and things that are available, you wouldn’t know,” she said.

“I can still do everything with a smile on my face and just encourage other people to keep going and push through. Swimming has provided me with wonderful opportunities.

“When you have a grateful heart then if it’s a bad day it doesn’t matter, because tomorrow’s a new day. And so tomorrow can be a better day than the day before.”

In her latest artistic accomplishment, Nicola recently won the Outstanding Achievement Award at the Art from Trash exhibition at the Long Gallery in the Salamanca Arts Centre. She is pictured with her winning artwork.