“We’ve been through some tough, sad times,” Nada says, turning to her son. “But we’re riding them through, aren’t we?”
Nada Miller grew up in a family of eight in Tasmania’s north. Her father worked in forestry, and at home everyone pitched in to farm their 80 acres, growing vegetables, bringing livestock from paddock to plate. “When you had a big family, you just did it.”
At 16 they moved to Bridgenorth on the West Tamar. Playing badminton a year or two later she met Ian, the son of farmers and orchardists who were as deeply rooted to the area as their apple trees. They were married for seven years before Narelle arrived, and when a sibling was even more elusive they took in foster children.
“We had them straight from hospital, which I loved,” Nada says. Sometimes the children were older; they fostered around 30 in all, for roughly six months at a time. Giving them back could be heart-wrenching, but seeing them go to families who were aching for children of their own was a warming reward.
When Narelle was nearing her 20th birthday Nada fell pregnant again. “I was 48 when I had Aran,” … I really believed it happened for a purpose, that he’d be fine,” Nada says. “And he is fine. We’re very blessed to have him.”
Tests were taken and sent off to Adelaide, and two days after Aran’s birth he was diagnosed with Down Syndrome. 'They knew little of the genetic condition; Nada admits it took time to adjust, but Ian was unperturbed. "He’s our little boy," Ian said, “and we love him to bits.” She soon fell back on the doggedness that underpinned her upbringing. “That’s what you do – you put one foot in front of the other and get on with it.”
Aran is now 22, and they’ve got on with it very well. In July he swam in the World Down Syndrome Swimming Championships in Florence, won nine gold and a silver medal, and added to a growing haul of world records. Bundle in his bounty from previous world titles – in Mexico two years earlier and Italy in 2012 – and he’s won 20 gold medals representing Australia on the world stage.
His story runs deeper than the spoils of sport. Observers point to Aran’s motivation to excel in the pool, his joyful celebration each time he does. Nada thinks standing on the dais singing the national anthem is his favourite thing about winning. His personal take on what he likes most about swimming is more soulful. “Just being in the water.”
In doing so with Launceston’s South Esk Swimming Club he has a profound impact on those around him. “There’s a word that’s thrown around a lot at the moment, that we’re ‘inclusive’,” club president Jayne Shepherd says. “I don’t think people truly understand what that means until you have someone like Aran come into your club.
“We used to pride ourselves on doing certain things that we considered ‘inclusive’. Catering for people of all abilities and backgrounds, we used to do that. Then Aran came into our club. It was like the blinkers came off. He didn’t deliberately do this – it was just from being involved and being the type of person he is. He’s allowed us to really understand what it means to involve all different types of people of all abilities in your club.”
In a personal aside, Jane Shepherd notes that getting to know Aran has enriched her 15 and 12-year-old children. This is fitting, as family is at the heart of his tale.
Ian and Nada Miller would eventually buy the bus company that still ferries children to school from all around Exeter, but Ian always had tractors and trucks for his work in land management and rehabilitation of sites such as old mines. In the early 1970s, with other young soon-to-be fathers he knew from Apex, he put his backhoe to use as they helped each other build in-ground pools. More than 20 years later that’s where Aran, aged three, first felt the power of swimming.
Nada recalls a school event at Georgetown as the day the spark was lit. “Aran didn’t come anywhere near the front, but he went up to the table with the winners expecting a ribbon.” She’s always been grateful to the teacher who gave him a red one (which Aran still has). “To me, it made him interested.”
At the inaugural junior Special Olympics, aged 10, he swam in a 50-metre pool for the first time. Nada feared he might not make it to the other end. “But he won easily.”
Now Aran swims in 50, 100, 200 and 400-metre events, with butterfly his favourite and best stroke. Being the only swimmer with a disability in a club with more than 160 members presents challenges, not least in seeding his races, but all are on board for his journey not just the victories.
They’re up at 5am for morning training and Nada reckons the car just about drives itself the half hour to Launceston. Jayne Shepherd hails her as “a pool Mum” who meets not only her obvious challenges, but the unique ones presented by a demanding sport. “She gets in to training every morning. We’ve got kids who complain about getting to early morning training who only live five minutes down the road.”
If it takes a village to raise a child, you need an entire community to send a swimmer around the world. Aran is the only Tasmanian is the Australian Down Syndrome Swimming team, and funding for international competition is virtually non-existent. Fundraising has been a team effort, from the Christian church Nada has attended “since 19-umpteen” to the South Esk Swimming Club, to local businesses around Exeter who have responded to letterbox campaigns. More than $10,000 is needed for each overseas trip, and Nada hails local woman Betty Tasker (“an amazing cook”) who hosts dinners at her home where meat, machinery, garden equipment, hand-made jigsaw puzzles and other donated goods are auctioned for the cause.
“People are so generous, amazingly so,” says Aran’s sister Narelle Howell, who is vice-president and a team leader at the swimming club. “It just blows your mind how people give so much when they have so little really.”
Ian was never one for travel, telling Nada someone had to keep the home fires burning. By July his long battle with prostate cancer had reached a critical stage and Aran made the trip to Italy unaccompanied by a family member. “He’d been at home – we had a hospital bed in our loungeroom, Hospice At Home came, would stay three nights a week so I could go sleep in my bed,” Nada says of her husband’s struggle. “All of a sudden, after Aran left for Florence, he just got worse.”
Narelle flew to Melbourne for Aran’s return, as a crowd and local media were mustered for a Launceston airport homecoming. At the airport in Melbourne, aching at her father’s decline, Narelle told her brother the grim news. “Having to tell Aran that Dad was dying, we might not see him again, that was really, really hard. Aran was on such a high from achieving so much, then coming home to that, it was so hard to adjust to.”
A cancelled flight then a mix-up with alternative arrangements heightened their agony; at length they were diverted to Devonport and Aran missed his homecoming party. But they reached the hospital in time to show his father his latest swag of medals. “I feel sad for him that homecoming wasn’t how he or we would have liked,” Narelle says, “but Dad was more important. Dad was so proud of him.”
Ian Miller died the following day. Asked what he’s found most challenging in life Aran says, “When Dad died.” They followed Hawthorn together, and ritually sat down each Friday to do their footy tips. “We’ve been through some tough, sad times,” Nada says, turning to her son. “But we’re riding them through, aren’t we?”
The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) has brought access to occupational support services that have broadened Aran’s social circle. “Monday I do drama and in the afternoons social,” he says. “Thursdays I go to the gym, then social.” Bus training with an eye to navigating Launceston on his own is another key part of the timetable.
Their early contact with the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) featured discussion of what would be needed for Aran to one day have a place of his own. “Mum and I have talked about how that might look,” Narelle Howell says. “It couldn’t be done without support, without something like the NDIS there’s no way you could even entertain the thought.”
The first time Narelle took Aran to Melbourne for what have become regular trips to the football, he told her he loved it so much he wanted to live there. “That’s good,” she replied. “Who’s going to do your cooking and washing?” Aran has a girlfriend, Samantha, who he met when she was playing soccer at the Special Olympics. Through swimming he knows Michael and Taylor, the young couple with Down Syndrome recently featured on Australian Story, whose parents are concerned about their plans to have children. “As a mother I could see their concerns,” Nada says. “It’s a difficult one.”
Narelle shares her concern. In a recent submission detailing Aran’s achievements for Down Syndrome Awareness Week, she recalled thinking on that long ago day of his diagnosis that nobody could put him in a box with a label on it. Yet she also knows that, for example, Aran will never be able to drive a car, as much as he’d love to. “You tell your children, ‘You can do anything you set your mind to.’ But sometimes that’s not necessarily true.”
Wherever their journey takes them, they are grateful and proud. “I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t have him,” says Nada, who recently made a DVD out of old Super Eight movie footage taken of Aran as a boy, when he was forever on the go, wandering off without a care or a backwards glance. “He’s certainly enriched our lives, for sure. I don’t know how you say in what way. In every way.”