I’m sure many of us watched the Tokyo Olympic Games with our hearts in our mouths. Seeing all those elite sportspeople give it their absolute best, with everything coming down to that. One. Moment. In. Time.
Try being a parent of one of those Olympians – I can’t fathom those nerves! But that’s just what Sonia (Garreffa) Cleary (1988) experienced as she watched her eldest son, Jack, row his heart out to narrowly win bronze for the Australian Men's Quad Scull.
I got the inside vibe on the moment, and I love Sonia’s advice for the parent of an ‘average’ child.
How did it feel to watch Jack and the crew cross the line?
It was an absolutely insane experience to watch Jack's race on livestream TV at the home of WA Rowing. The finish line was so intense because it was so damn close and you could feel them all pushing. The whole room was screaming. It was a surreal collapse of joy, pride and relief when his crew crossed the line to take out bronze for Australia. But I have to say, those few minutes leading up to the race were the most powerful for me. The camera crossed to a close up of them in the boat while they were waiting at the start line. I felt the stillness and the noise. All the years of blood, sweat and tears, his hopes and dreams, all riding on the next few minutes.
It must have been incredibly hard to not actually be there?
So many people ask me that or have said 'you must be so disappointed you didn't get to go to Tokyo' but not at all. As a parent, we were all in the same boat – the whole world was. The Tokyo Olympics will go down in history and not once did my son ever complain or wish his circumstances were different.
As a mum, what effort did you put in over the years? Was it 4.30 am starts for you too?
Sure, there were early starts, but it's like those years when you wonder how you are going to get up for your newborn and do the midnight feeds – it's your child and you just do it and somehow you get through it. All four of my kids rowed including Jasmine Cleary (2014) so I did it for many years. But I have to admit, I was never a morning person, so I was the embarrassing mum doing the mad dash in her PJs too many times to count!
Any advice for other mums out there that may have an Olympian in their midst?
It's advice more for the parents of the 'average' child or the kid who isn't necessarily genetically blessed for sport. Allow them to dream, fill them with hope, praise their efforts and remind them that as long as they put in the effort and keep trying, they can be successful. Despite what you see today, Jack wasn't my sporty child. He was a very 'solid' kid who also suffered ADHD and he wasn't the most popular at school. But Jack has resilience. He's faced so many knock backs, disappointments and hard lessons, but he's got back up every time a little stronger. I'd say that’s his secret weapon. He was always the underdog, but he never gave up.
Is Jack in Perth? Have you seen him in person since the win?
Yes! Jack is back in Perth for a while and I feel so blessed to have him home and not stuck over east in lockdown. My heart goes out to the many other athletes over east who came out of hotel quarantine only to go home into lockdown. I was working the day Jack flew in, so he swung past my work and surprised me with a huge hug! I didn't think I'd get emotional, but I burst into tears! Although he's home, I hardly see him. He’s so busy with appearances, community projects, giving back to his old school (Trinity College), plus he’s back in training already.
What about you Sonia – what are you up to these days?
I have been teaching the joy of dance to children for nearly 30 years. I’m currently choreographing a ballet, The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, and I’d say it's been my most challenging but magical production to date. But turning 50 makes you re-evaluate life. After raising four kids on my own, I'm exhausted. I feel ready to pack up and go travelling. The next chapter is about me! Ha ha! Stay tuned!
I’m tired even thinking about raising four kids on my own, especially who were all rowers! That’s next level exhaustion! I salute you Sonia, and our sincerest congratulations to Jack.