Swim To Rotto is a Swim for Reconciliation for Lockridge Senior High School students by Libby Elphick

On Thursday the 20 February, the setting sun over the Indian Ocean provided a stunning backdrop for ten brave Lockridge Senior High School Aboriginal boys who nervously waited for their call up to the stage at the North Cottesloe Surf Club.

These young Aboriginal boys, who predominately grew up in the metropolitan suburbs surrounding Lockridge, exist in a generation of Aboriginal young people who have had much of their Culture swept away and unknown to them.

This is why taking to the stage painted in freshly ground ochre and wearing a djoolib to perform traditional Aboriginal dances is an act that is not familiar to them. An act that is very scary for them. And most importantly an act that marks a significant first step in a process of reconnection and reconciliation with their identity and their rich history.

The boys were dancing at an event organised jointly by ICEA Foundation (Indigenous Community Education Awareness) and Reconciliation WA, which was held to celebrate and wish well the FIRST ever ALL Indigenous team of swimmers to compete in the 24 year history of the annual Swim To Rottnest event and to thank all of the swimmers and support crew who raised funds to support the ICEA Waves program. The boys, accompanied by ten bright and beautiful Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls, made up the Lockridge Senior High School group who travelled to Rottnest to support the ALL Indigenous team in last Saturday’s Swim to Rotto event.

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The twenty students are all a part of the highly successful Follow The Dream/Partnerships for Success Program (FTD/PFS), that is run at the school through a joint partnership between the Graham (Polly) Farmer Foundation, the Department of Education and the AMP Foundation. The FTD/PFS program exists at 31 sites around Australia providing after school tuition and individual mentoring support to aspirant Aboriginal high school students.

On top of educational support, the FTD/PFS program provides for other learning and development opportunities for its students, aiming to help shape them into the future generation of leaders within our community.

Late last year, Miss Libby Elphick, the program coordinator at Lockridge SHS, recognised what a meaningful Cultural opportunity this history-making event presented for her ‘Dreamers’. She discovered that Mr Dennis Simmons, a Noongar man and much adored Cultural Educator and Mentor at Lockridge SHS, was competing as a part of this ground-breaking ALL Indigenous Swim team. As a non-swimmer, who has lived through many of the intergenerational impacts of the injustices that occurred to his ancestors at Rottnest Island, Dennis had committed himself to learn to swim and participate as the ‘old man’ of the team! This was enough inspiration for Libby to cement Lockridge FTD/PFS students as his personal support crew!

So began an exciting journey of personal growth and reconnection for the students. Not only did the camp to Rottnest offer most of them their first experience on the idyllic Island, but it also provided a wealth of opportunities to deepen their connections with land, with reconciliation and with the strength and pride of their culture.

The trip to North Cottesloe Surf Club on Thursday night was the first time all of these young people had been to the Cottesloe area. For the boys, embracing the rich spiritual aspect of their culture and dancing in front of a crowd of 200 people, predominantly Wadjellas (white fellas) was certainly a first time and a huge step in character building.

Sleeping in the Lockridge Senior High School gymnasium on Friday night and waking at 4.30am to make it to Cottesloe beach in time for the history making ‘Welcome To Country’ was definitely a first for all students and staff involved!

At the starting line on Saturday morning, as the sun rose over the iconic Western suburb of Cottesloe making the finish line of Rottnest Island visible for this momentous occasion, the 20 Lockridge FTD/PFS students proudly stood unified in their team shirts that had been designed and screen printed by them. Three of the boys bravely stripped off their shirt at the encouragement of Noongar elder, Professor Len Collard, and Premier Colin Barnett, and performed an impromptu spirit dance in the sand to help ward of bad spirits as the lead-off Aboriginal swimmer Brianna Ozies, from the Kimberley, entered the water.

The Locko Dreamers then boarded a ferry to travel across the seas to arrive in Wadjemup, Rottnest, in time to greet the swimmers as they arrived. The currency for Reconciliation has never been stronger in the Western Australian community as was demonstrated by the Aboriginal team members crossing the line proudly flying the Aboriginal flag to the delight and applause of 3000 odd teary eyed spectators. Dennis Simmons, exhausted after his mighty effort, embraced the students at the finish line and pronounced that ‘this swim marks a great step in Reconciliation as for so many years in recent history Aboriginal warriors, leaders and people have been trying to swim away from Rotto to escape. Now with this swim we are showing that we are swimming back home.’

The message he sent to the students on Saturday night after the swim summed up the impact of the entire event for the Locko Dreamers- “Hi Libby and the Locko crew. Thank you for supporting me, the team and the spirit of your people. I’m so proud of you guys. You inspire me and give me hope for the future of our people and our boodja (land). Enjoy your weekend at Wadjemup and remember that pressure makes diamonds. Kgiaber, Dennis.”

The Principal of Lockridge Senior High School, Ms Anne Robinson, has commented on the profound ripple effect of the experience for the students. “They stand a foot taller. Proud of themselves for what they have been a part of and achieved. With the self-worth they gain through learning about their identity, the academic improvements, attendance and all round citizenship of the students follows.”

Four of the Locko Dreamers have already shared their desire to swim in the event next year! As they rode and swam around the famously spectacular landmarks of Wadjemup these young leaders of our community all had their sights broadened by the experience and have expressed a desire to lead a bright future for themselves, their families and their people. How deadly!!

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