IN ordinary circumstances, Ashleigh Hutchins would have just moved to Melbourne and embarked on tertiary studies in the field of event management.
But for this determined 19-year-old, 2013 is proving to be anything but ordinary.
She has deferred her course to concentrate on an intense training schedule and is instead preparing to represent Australia in the international sporting arena.
Ashleigh has been selected to compete in both swimming and track and field events at the World Dwarf Games in Michigan – and she can’t wait to don the green and gold.
“It is just massive,” she says of being named in the Short Statured People of Australia association’s 31-member squad that will travel to the US in August.
“It is good that we can compete against people similar to ourselves. I’ve never been able to do that before and sport is always hard when you’re competing against average-height people. This is an amazing opportunity.”
Ashleigh, who has a form of dwarfism known as hypochondroplasia, will contest the 25m and 50m freestyle, 50m backstroke and breaststroke, and freestyle relay in the pool.
Her schedule at the track includes the 100m and 200m sprints, shot put, discus and relay.
She is being guided by Bendigo Hawks swimming club head coach Ash Wain and Athletics Bendigo stalwart Peter Barrett, who both joined her quest last year and are helping her cut her times and improve her throwing distances.
Her weekly program includes five pre-dawn sessions at the Bendigo Aquatic Centre, an evening at the Flora Hill athletics complex, as well as home-based physical training.
Hundreds of competitors from more than 15 countries will take part in the games, held every four years and billed as the biggest sporting event exclusively for athletes with dwarfism.
They will vie for medals in sports as diverse as shooting, basketball, powerlifting, curling, volleyball and table tennis.
This is the second time Australia has sent a contingent and follows a successful campaign in Ireland in 2009, when our 14 athletes brought home a total of 24 medals.
That result inspired Ashleigh to be part of the action next time around.
“I got myself coaches both for swimming and athletics last year and I attended all the training camps – the first was in Melbourne in January last year and the other two were in Sydney.
“The final one was in January this year and they selected the team after that.”
As an indication of how far she has come, Ashleigh has lowered her times in the 50m freestyle from well over a minute when she started training for the games down to 56 seconds, and has shaved more than 10 seconds off her 50m breaststroke to 1min 11secs.
She can cover the 100m sprint in about 21 seconds and is putting the 3kg shot close to six metres.
“Within the Australian team, our swimming times are really close,” she says.
“There’s a girl in the team whose times are very similar to mine and another who went to the Paralympics, so she is faster again. But I still need to get a few seconds off my times to be near what the records were at the last games.”
She hopes to achieve that by clocking up 2-3km in the water most weekdays under the watchful eye of coach Wain.
“Ash is the best swimming coach I have ever had,” she says of her mentor. “When I first joined the club, he looked into my condition to find out what I could do and learnt about the association as well.
“He has been great and knows I can do the same thing as the other swimmers in my group.
“They are faster and I might end up a lap behind, but I can still do it all. The rest of the team has been so supportive, too, and they’re a great bunch of people to swim with.”
Ashleigh has never let her size hinder her and she’s been active in sport and the arts throughout her life. She was a squad swimmer during primary school, played netball in her teenage years and took part in aerobics, choir and theatre productions while at secondary school.
She also played basketball in Melbourne with a small-statured team in a domestic under-12 competition, but took a break last year while studying VCE at Girton Grammar School.
“I hope to do that again this year to help with my fitness and training,” she says. “Now that I’ve finished school, I have more time and can get down there easier.”
Having her driver’s licence also helps: “Yes, mum is pretty happy about that, especially with swimming and the 6am starts that she doesn’t have to drive me around.”
Ashleigh says her friends and family – including mum Fiona, dad Tony and brother Josh – are behind her all the way as she gears up for the games.
“Mum is so proud,” she laughs. “As the year’s gone on, she’s like, wow, she really wants this and has put in so much training for it.
“The same with my dad and brother. They’re just are a bit upset they can’t come over for the games because my brother is in year 12 and dad is staying home with him. They would have loved to come and watch.”
Fiona, however, will make the trip with her daughter and the pair will stay on after the games for a 23-day sight-seeing tour from New York to Los Angeles.
Away from her training, Ashleigh has been working at Sam’s Warehouse in Kangaroo Flat to help fund her trip, with costs estimated at about $5000 per athlete.
The Australian team is seeking corporate and individual sponsorship to help reduce the cost, as well as in-kind donations such as uniforms and venue hire.
A gala fundraising dinner will also be held in June, when team members will be presented with their official Australian kit.
Ashleigh says Australia hopes to host the 2017 World Dwarf Games and she would love to be involved, both as a competitor and by putting into practice what she learns in the event management course she plans to start at William Angliss TAFE early next year
Michigan will be her first international competition, but it could be a taste of things to come.
“Peter (Barrett) wants for me to aim higher than the World Dwarf Games and has been looking into the Paralympics and trying to get me up to that level,” she say.
“He thinks shot put is what I could be best in and maybe get to a Paralympics – he is great and has also researched my condition and put so much time into helping me.
“The next Paralympics are in Rio in 2016, but I will do these games first to see what it’s like actually competing and then start aiming even higher.”
Barrett says he is taking a long-term view with Ashleigh, but he believes she has plenty of potential.
“She’s really dedicated and a pleasure to coach because, from the first time she came, she’s always had a big smile on her face,” he says.
“It is a long-term development project with her as she only started last year, but I have selected shot put for her and she’s shown some talent in that event.
“I hope next season she might even come along and compete of a Saturday afternoon.”
The sixth World Dwarf Games will be held at Michigan State University, in East Lansing, from August 3-10.
Anyone able to offer sponsorship or in-kind donations to help the team can contact SSPA national sports co-ordinator Samuel Millard on email@example.com