Meet the winning couple swimming past perceptions


Sean and Melisa O’Neill are a powerful duo. The swimmers push through the water, their arms propelling them forwards, eyes trained on the end of the pool. A quick tumble turn, and they’re on to the next lap. The husband and wife are training for their next competition. Between them, the athletes hold numerous medals and multiple records. They also each have an extra chromosome. But it’s their talent that sets this pair apart – not that they have Down syndrome.

The O’Neills have competed around the world, swimming in the face of prejudice and judgement. “As extra chromosome athletes we often face discrimination,” Melisa says. But people’s opinions don’t deter the couple, who represent the country as part of the South African Sports Association for the Intellectually Impaired. Every time they take to the water, the O’Neills strengthen both their skills, and commitment to their relationship. “First we fell in love with swimming, and then we fell in love with each other,” Sean says. Together they train, motivate one another, compete – and win.

This year, they participated in the Down Syndrome World Swimming Championships in Canada. Melisa walked away ranking fourth in the world, despite only starting swimming four years ago. She was also named the 2018 Sportswoman of the Year with a Disability at the KwaZulu-Natal Sports Awards. But true gold isn’t a medal or trophy. It’s those around us. Their achievements are proof of how much people are capable of if we encourage each other to go beyond circumstances. “If we can do it, you can too,” Sean says.