As comebacks go, Timothy Disken’s rise from a medically induced coma in a Canadian hospital bed to double gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games takes some beating.
And now the music-loving 22-year-old, who says he “feels free” in the water, is making big plans as he plots a 1,000km move to be with his partner, a future working with young people with physical and intellectual impairments, and, of course, more success in the pool.
“The last 18 months has been a bit of a rocky road,” Disken said. “But there’s only 550-odd days left until Tokyo [the 2020 Paralympic Games] and that’s now the target. I want to get my physical and mental state as good as it can be before Tokyo, so I can really do my best out there.”
Disken’s traumatic eight-hour free fall from “a slight headache” to emergency brain surgery during the 2017 Para-swimming Canadian Open in Toronto has been well documented.
The shunt that drains fluid from his brain had broken and the subsequent build-up of cerebrospinal fluid left him close to death. But by pure chance, the University of Toronto boasts one of the world’s leading neurosurgery divisions, meaning Disken had ‘chosen’ one of the best places on the planet to nurse him back to health.
In one sense, the Melbourne-born athlete could consider himself lucky, but it was hardly the preparation he had in mind for the Commonwealth Games.
Already a three-time medallist from the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, Disken’s success in the men’s 100m freestyle S9 and men’s 100m breaststroke SB8 at the 2018 Commonwealth Games won him a new set of admirers, with one in particular inspiring a change to his long-term plans.
“It was good getting back in my home environment,” he said. “I love the water, I feel free in the water. To be able to do my first Commonwealth Games on home soil, in front of family and friends, was really special.
“I really enjoyed that period, and the icing on the cake was that I met my partner, Sinead, at the Commonwealth Games too.
“I’m moving up to the Gold Coast for about six or seven months so we can spend more time together.”
Known to friends and competitors as ‘Disko’, Disken is easily identified by the headphones that are clamped to his ears everywhere he goes – even on the pool deck pre-race.
A big fan of electronic dance music in general, he draws particular inspiration from the beats of the late Swedish producer Avicii.
“I think it’s really important in high-level sport to find the thing that works for you,” Disken said. “It’s not going to be the same for everyone.
“That’s what I use to get ready for a race. I have a playlist of about 160 Avicii songs that I sift through, depending what mood I am in.
“When I heard that he’d passed, that was a tough period.
“Watching the documentary on Netflix, Avicii: True Stories, really gives you an insight into the stress and anxiety that producers go through, but also what he was like as a person. He was very introverted and didn’t like being the centre of attention.”
Comparisons can be drawn between the life of a musician and an elite athlete, and Disken concedes:
“I guess there are some parallels with athletes in terms of the touring schedule, it’s tough in a sense.
“But it’s always an honour to represent my country. I love representing Australia at the highest level.”
Disken’s passion for music started young.
“When I was about five, I started piano as therapy for my cerebral palsy, because my hands are affected,” he said. “Luckily I had a really patient piano teacher, and I ended up playing until I moved to Canberra in 2015.”
Disken hopes to have many years of elite swimming ahead of him, but he is already busy considering what the future holds. One thing is for sure – he will never be far from a pool.
“One thing I’d really like to do is work as a teacher’s aide with kids with intellectual and physical disabilities,” he said.
“Through Years 10, 11 and 12, I was in a school for kids with with physical disabilities because of bullying through high school. They got me to do some work with primary school kids as a teacher’s aide and I really enjoyed that.
“Giving back to the community that’s given so much to me is really important to me.
“But I love swimming too much to go away from it completely. Even when I’m retired, I’ll still be in the water.”
By World Para-swimming