A star at any age
Too many people allow themselves the luxury of believing that they can’t / shouldn’t / mustn’t / oughtn’t to / do some things. It’s a safe place to be. It means that they don’t take risks. If they did do some of those things, they might fail.
Once upon a time, Donna Gemaries believed that there were things she couldn’t do. Intellectual goals she couldn’t reach, physical hills she couldn’t climb. Her beliefs limited her quite obvious talent, both intellectually and physically. She’s a star and always has been but may not always have realised it!
Donna swam for her team in the Kapiti Women’s Triathalon in 2004. There had been a storm before the event so, instead of walking up the beach 500 meters and swimming back to tag the cyclist, the course was changed to swim down the beach and run back. Donna had never practised running, not even on a track or a footpath or even for the bus, let alone on a beach in front of a lot of people. But she’d set herself a goal and she completed it. Mission accomplished! But, she wondered, ‘would I ever do that again?’
That was in 2004. Roll forward to 2013. Her good friend and squash team member, Averalle Paenga, decided they both needed to get fit. She had recovered well from a hip replacement. So they went for a few bike rides together but Donna didn’t think that was for her. Conversations between Av and Donna’s gym buddies turned to the Kapiti Women’s Triathalon 2013 as a worthwhile goal. Donna was certain that she didn’t want to repeat the swim! Av was keen to cycle. Wendy Betteridge’s daughter, Julie, had returned home from the UK. She was a swimmer but had not swum in the sea for about 9 years. A quick dip in the sea the day before the Triathalon was all she needed. Donna decided to do the walk/run leg and had been practising ‘walk a lamppost, run a lamppost’ for her 4-kilometer effort so she felt confident. On the day, however, the run was through the park – no lampposts - so Donna improved her time by six minutes! Av took the cycling leg and the team celebrated the achievement of completing the goal by crossing the finish line together.
Averalle decided that they needed another goal – what about ¼ Iron Maori? Donna has links back to when the French settlers landed in Akaroa and married into Ngai Tahu so she qualified. It was decided that Av would cycle the 45-km, Donna would train to swim 1-km, and they would find someone to run the 10-km. Averalle’s son, Daniel Albert, was doing the whole Triathalon so they invited his friend, George Robin, who Donna had taught as a 9-year-old at Rangikura School in Porirua to be their runner. These three team members linked to Ngati Porou.
Donna had no idea how far she could swim so she took herself to swimming lessons and realised that she had many bad habits. She’d never had lessons so had to learn new habits with the benefit of a flutter board and also learn to breathe bi-laterally. This turned out to be a very useful skill when the waves came over her face. Eventually she could swim ten lengths of the H20 Pool without having to make too many stops.
Donna’s parents had both been good swimmers in Lyttelton. They didn’t have a swimming pool and had to walk a mile each way to Corsair Bay for a swim. She remembers the old ‘shark fence’. Her Dad and her Nana both told stories of swimming across the Lyttelton Harbour to Diamond Harbour. When she visited Lyttelton a few weeks before the event and looked across the Harbour she realised that she couldn’t imagine swimming that distance. The snow on the hills put the thought of crossing the Harbour out of her mind. She could only admire those ancestors who had gone before her - and they hadn’t had the benefit of a wet suit! ‘Oh’, she says, ‘the pre-swim struggle of getting into that suit! It still takes half an hour and I can nearly get it done up by myself’.
Twelve weeks out from the event and Donna felt she needed more of a focus. So she contacted Barb Watson of ‘Swimfitandtri’. She told Barb that she wanted to swim more efficiently and in the sea and Barb took her on. She made a few breathing adjustments and lifted her elbow higher so that she could feel the water flow passing her face. She was soon up to 20 lengths in the pool, then 30 lengths, then 45 lengths and finally 58 lengths of the pool. On Saturday mornings at 8.00 a.m. she started swimming at Hataitai Beach in the Duckling Group! It was still a huge effort to put on her wetsuit but it was accomplished with a few laughs and helping each other. Donna attempted dolphin dives and tried to ignore comments about how cold the water was. The group started swimming across the bay. She sometimes wondered why she was doing it, it was so cold.
One week a swimmer got into difficulties and had to be taken to hospital in an ambulance. Donna was scared to hear that the swimmer had had a stroke. It had the effect of making her more timid in the sea - less gung-ho – because that swimmer was younger and fitter than Donna was. So, sensibly, she paid a visit to her doctor for a check-up and was told that her blood pressure was the best it had ever been. And, she found that she had lost 4-cm off her bust, hips and thighs. A very good reason to keep training!
The first time Donna swam from Freyberg beach, to the first buoy, the second buoy, around the Oriental Bay fountain and back again, she couldn’t believe it. It took a few days to wipe the grin off her face. It was her first kilometer in the sea. But that was on a calm day. On a subsequent occasion, she had to contend with gale force winds and could barely make it to the first buoy. The second buoy was a goal but it was really hard to come back to shore against the tide and the wind. Some swimmers in the group got pushed by the tide to Oriental Bay beach and walked back.
Finally the team decided they were ready and had done as much training as they could. The weekend of the ¼ Iron Maori arrived and the team set off for Napier.
The race itself …
There were 2100 competitors up from 700 from last year. The whole event promoted healthy choices so was drug free, alcohol free, smoke free. There were contestants of all shapes and sizes.
Go Poneke Triathletes! Donna is really proud that she trained and had this goal. She didn’t realise how goal-focused she had become. The learning steps were scaffolded, she built up teamwork and encouragement and she discovered she could achieve more than she had thought possible.
So, against all the odds, Donna completed her first ¼ Iron Maori over the weekend of 2nd November 2013.
She came home just in time for the birth of her second grandchild, Isabella, to Jo and Simon. What’s next one wonders?
Donna qualified and worked as a teacher for many years but it wasn’t until 2002 that she completed her university training and became a Resource Teacher for Learning and Behaviour (RTLB). The average age of her fellow students was 50. Donna’s mother came up from Christchurch for her graduation and her daughter and grandson cheered her in the street walk. She remembers thinking back to the days when she had been labelled an academic failure by school certificate standards and how this had impacted on her decisions to undergo additional academic studies. Her mother died by the time she completed her Masters in Education in 2006. How proud she would have been.
Donna is a Special Education Specialist Professional. She loves her job as an RTLB. Donna worked for eight years in Tawa and Porirua, tasked with building the philosophy of inclusion into their schools. She has worked with teachers of students from the ages of 5-14 – new entrants to Year 10 – for thirty years. A friend had told her, ‘Donna, once you finish your Masters, more doors will open.’ And so it was that, after having a holiday in Bangkok which began on the day of the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004, she was offered a job at Ruamrudee International School in Bangkok, a country teeming with beautiful temples.
Her daughter, Jo, in Wellington and her son, Chris, in London both said, ‘Go for it, Mum!’ And she did, spending the next five years involved with the special education of 14-18 year-olds.
Over those years, both her children visited Bangkok. Chris and his wife, Hannah, spent their honeymoon there. Jo, partner Simon, and her grandson Tyler, came for a great holiday.
Trips home were frequent for Christmas, Chris and Hannah’s wedding at Te Horo and her Civil Union with Lyn.
Donna really enjoyed teaching Grade 9 in a Catholic International school in a Buddhist country next to a mosque. She saw inclusion, tolerance and service to the community first hand. Her students graduated and headed off to universities in Thailand and all over the world.
She made a difference in so many ways. One of her very dyslexic ADHD students was in the school swimming team and wanted to get his scuba certificate for summer school. Donna knew he could pass the science and the swim but she also knew how thick the Dive Manual was. She had learned to scuba dive and completed eighteen dives. She liaised with the Dive Master and asked for the manual to be sent early so that he could read it in her English class. She was told, ‘If I do that for one then I’ll have to do it for everyone’. That was enough to get her creative juices flowing so she asked for the manual to be sent as a pdf so that they could read it together on his lap top. This was inclusion at its best.
During her time at the International School, Donna was the Co-Faculty Advisor to the Interact Rotary Club for four years. She had been in an Interact Club at her own high school and later joined Rotaract in Nelson from the ages of 18-28.She was also the Co-Faculty Advisor to Habitat for Humanity, completing four house builds throughout Thailand. She remembers asking one of her 18-year-old students why the villagers were staring as she carried planks on her shoulders. He said, ‘Ms Donna, they’re thinking you should be sitting in the shade with them’.
And yet there’s more. She was also Co-Faculty Advisor to ‘Learning in Motion’ (teaching English after school to local Thai schoolchildren). The staff was also involved at the local remand prison teaching English to those ready to leave. She didn’t want to know what poor choices some of these men and women had made to be in a cell with forty-five others.
Having been through the after-effects and rebuild following the tsunami, a peaceful coup, riots where cinemas and malls were burned, a variety of travelling destinations and life-changing learning situations, it was time for Donna to return to New Zealand.
She had been on the Board of Trustees for the DARE Foundation New Zealand from 2005-2009 and she trialed “DARE To Be You” in Bangkok to test the International market. Since coming back to New Zealand in 2011 she has returned to the Board and is excited about the new community programmes that target teens and help teach skills for life. Recently she, Julie and another RTLB, Michael Te Tana, walked the 5km Round the Bays for Cotton On who donated nationwide to DARE as their charity.
Since 2011 Donna has a new RTLB job in Upper Hutt, a new home in Whitby and has completed her first year as a member of the Rotary Club of Plimmerton. She was on the Rotary Conference organising Committee in 2013 which opened her eyes to the impact that Rotary International has in almost eradicating polio.
She remembers walking through the jungle on one of her North Thailand orphanage weekends and noticing a water-tower with the Rotary symbol. She knew then that she wanted to be involved in something that can make a difference to the community she lives in, and to the global village. Goal setting has become part of her contribution to Rotary. She is involved with Plimmerton Rotary’s Grant a Wish project for Porirua schools. She is Youth Protection Officer for inbound international students within the District and she is supporting the literacy project rolling out in 2014 in Porirua primary schools.
And she has just entered the Ocean Swim and the 2014 Kapiti Women’s Triathlon – this time doing the whole thing on her own!