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The best moment of Rowan Crothers’ life came a day after winning his gold medal.

The night prior, the former VALORANT pro emerged from the pool at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre in Japan with his arms outstretched and a shocked look on his face. After more than a decade of daily training, he’d done it. He’d reached a goal Crothers set for himself at 10 years old, sitting alongside his mom watching the TV: a gold medal in the Paralympic Games.

The victor in the Men’s 50m Freestyle – S10 event climbed atop one of the pool’s lane dividers, screaming towards the cameras in celebration as his parents watched from home in Australia.

The celebration showcased the competitive side of Crothers – the fierce, relentless determination to overcome any demanding obstacle. The next second, as the pool divider gave way and Crothers tumbled backward into the pool with a toothy grin, the other side of his personality shined. A “gentle giant,” one of his friends said of the 23-year-old. The kind and humorous boy always thinking about the person next to him, now in the imposing frame of a 6-foot-5 man.

The hours following the race were a mixture of bliss and adrenaline. “You don’t sleep after winning a gold medal,” Crothers said. Finally, as the sun caught the sky, he made it back to his room for rest at the Paralympic Village, situated on the waterfront district of Tokyo, the famed Rainbow Bridge in the distance as he dozed off.

When he awoke hours later, an avalanche of messages awaited him on his phone. Texts from childhood classmates that he hadn’t heard of in years. Congratulations from people around the world, a majority of whom he had never met before. But as Crothers scrolled through the exorbitant amount of photo tags, well wishes and articles about himself, his eye caught one that made him freeze.

It was from a mother who had watched the Paralympics with her young son, who had cerebral palsy like Crothers. After seeing Crothers win the race and receive his gold medal, the boy felt enough confidence to ask his mom if he could try riding a bike for the first time in his life.

“If Rowan can do it, I can do it too,” the boy told his mother.

Crothers dropped his phone, tears unwillingly welling up in his eyes.

That message took Crothers back to his younger days before he found things in life that impassioned him. He remembered the days when he would have trouble walking down the steep stairs at school due to his condition, his classmates laughing at him as he tripped over himself and came crashing down to the ground. The days where he wondered why people had to be so cruel. All he wanted in life was to have friends, to be acknowledged, and he did all he could to find that fulfillment. It wasn’t enough.

Since those lonely days, Crothers has become an advocate for kids who believe they don’t have a voice in the world. Beyond the laundry list of accomplishments in the pool, Crothers has been a standout in esports, nearly reaching the peak of domestic competition in both Counter-Strike and VALORANT. Out of the competitive realm, he acts as an ambassador for the Cerebral Palsy League, a non-profit foundation that provides health services for people and families dealing with disabilities.

Years later, Crothers is still falling over and tumbling, even in post-race theatrics, but instead of laughter, there are cheers. He inspired a kid to find that spark that could change his entire life because he won a race on TV, just as he was inspired by the Paralympics so many years ago.

“Getting that message is my proudest accomplishment in my entire life,” Crothers said while quarantining in a hotel back home in Australia after the Games. “More than swimming, more than esports, more than anything in education. Just knowing I made a difference and changed the life of a young person with a disability.”

A struggle to stay afloat

Life started out as a struggle for Crothers. He was born 15 weeks premature in Gosford and flown to King George the Fifth Maternity Hospital, hours away in Sydney, in hopes of saving his life. His mother, Beth, could only lay and wait to be discharged from her own hospital bed to check on her newborn child.

Once released, Beth built a routine: Every night, she would board the evening train and take the lengthy trip down to Sydney to get to her son’s hospital before the doctors made their rounds. After gathering any info she could about his current condition, she would take the train back before doing it all again the same evening.

This all-day pattern continued for six weeks straight.

When Crothers finally came home, the challenges continued. Rob, Crothers’ father, pushed aside any possible career aspirations and bought a house close to his workplace, knowing that his son needed all-day observation and care. The parents worked in shifts, often waking up in the middle of the night to make sure Crothers was still breathing.

Crothers was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at nine months old due to intraventricular hemorrhage, leading to a weakness in his legs and impairment to his intellectual growth. At the age of four, doctors had advised that Crothers might not improve any further in terms of his mental development. His communication skills consisted of a string of single words and abbreviations.

Rowan Crothers Paralympics
Rowan Crothers swam as part of his physical therapy as a child, but he turned that treatment into a passion as he got older. | Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Beth and Rob, ignoring the warnings that their son’s progress had stagnated, invested in conductive education. Every day, for upwards of 12 hours, the two, splitting time, would work with their son to overcome the obstacles set in front of him.

Crothers had issues discerning shapes, colors and numbers, leading to years of daily practice to communicate such things properly. Even eating a cup of yogurt, which is second nature to Crothers at this point, was something that he had to work through on his own as a child. His parents observed and let Crothers keep trying, but something as simple to many as using a spoon could take an entire day.

“He was willing to push himself to do it,” Beth said. “He wanted to do the things his sister was doing. He just wanted to go to the same school as his sister.”

Tireless work finally came to fruition. As he grew and began speaking in whole sentences, Crothers also found his second love aside from swimming: video games.

He and his sister, Heather, 364 days his elder, would battle in Mario Kart. It was a fun distraction for his sister, a colorful animated racing game to pass the time before finding something else to do. For Crothers, though, it was a field of play where he could see himself as an equal; he didn’t need to use his impaired legs or verbal skills to keep up.

At first, like everything up to that point in his life, winning felt impossible. But as the days went on, Crothers kept playing. He practiced night after night.

Finally, he won.

Racing for greatness

“The thing that Rowan has over almost anyone else is this incredible desire to be good at what he does,” Beth said. “He would play Mario Kart until he could beat her. When he tried to play [World of Warcraft], he just wanted to fight people and win. Then came Quake.”

Video games gifted Crothers with an inescapable need to prove himself. Winning races against his sister in Mario Kart and mastering first-person shooters weren’t enough. Eventually, his mind turned to worldwide recognition. After watching the Paralympics, he decided on the next hurdle he wanted to conquer: swimming.

Rowan Crothers Paralympics
Rowan Crothers got his competitive edge from video games, and his love for competing led him to turn swimming into a profession. / Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images for Tokyo 2020

What began as something Crothers viewed as a chore – an activity he had to do at a young age as physical therapy – turned into a way to express himself. And a few years later, he was close to greatness. In 2012, at 14, he was a second away from qualifying for the Paralympics for Australia. Between his exhaustive daily swimming routine and competitions, he started taking FPS games more seriously, too.

Though Crothers’ arm strength and coordination aren’t as affected as his legs, moving from a console controller to a keyboard and mouse in games like Quake and Counter-Strike was tough. Crothers put hours a day into developing muscle memory, sometimes not even playing the game itself and only focusing on his spray control.

“In Counter-Strike, I tried to take the same philosophy I had with swimming,” he said. “It was focusing on breaking everything down to those very fine details. It was about how to play smarter and to work on specific things with the aim.”

As his mechanics got better and he became more established in the game, Crothers began to rise through the amateur scene rankings domestically under the gamertag “magnetbrain,” He gained notoriety in the Australian Counter-Strike: Global Offensive scene for ravaging opponents in deathmatch lobbies and pickup games with the SG 553, a scoped rifle that replaced the Krieg 552 from previous renditions of Counter-Strike.

His rivals saw the gun he used as inferior and reserved for newcomers in lower ranks of CS:GO. For Crothers, however, who had trained with the firearm for hours on end, grinding to the point where he knew it like the back of his hand, it was the ace up his sleeve.

Whereas other guns in the game required Crothers to know precise spray control, which was difficult with his cerebral palsy, scoped rifles such as the SG and AUG had easier patterns to learn. Spite and resentment from fellow amateur players turned into envy and admiration once his peers realized that Crothers wasn’t playing his own game; he was playing the game a step or two ahead of everyone else. The weapons he once was condemned for grew in popularity after a slight price tweak, and the community-at-large began to learn what Crothers had mastered months prior.

“I think that sums up Rowan as an athlete,” his friend, Mitch “Conky” Concanen, a professional esports commentator, said. “As a swimmer, due to his disability, his legs are nowhere near as strong as his torso. So he compensates by having an incredibly strong upper body. So in CS, the scope basically helped him become a god of aim.”

By the time he was studying at Griffith University in the Gold Coast, Crothers was living three separate lives: the world-class swimmer still searching for a Paralympic gold (he finished 5th at the 2016 edition in London); the aspiring Counter-Strike professional spending his nights working on every possible angle of the game to catch up to his peers with keener reflexes, and finally, the tired student, trapped between two worlds which devoured the entirety of his day (and night).

At the peak of juggling all three personas, he would wake up at 4 a.m, and take to the pool for hours of swimming practice. After his training there, he’d hop on the computer and practice his aim for another couple of hours in Counter-Strike.  That would take him to the middle of the afternoon, where he would once again head off to another swimming session, taking him to until it was dark out. After swimming finished for the day, the sun already down, Crothers moved back to the world of Counter-Strike, where he would scrimmage with his team sometimes until midnight.

Crothers would then be allotted a few hours of precious sleep before another abrupt awakening to begin the pattern again. And in the middle of all the various training stretches and having to eat, he’d have to masquerade as a typical student as well, struggling to keep everything together. The stress of it all becoming too much.

“I thought I was doing really well, but I was getting angry and tilted at the very small stuff,” Crothers said. “That’s normal for a [pro gamer], but I realized it was bleeding into my swimming life as well. I also understood that I wasn’t getting the recovery I needed to do my best in the pool and to focus on the game. That’s when it hit me that if I want to be good at any sport endeavor, then I need to be getting my sleep.”

Crothers worked his way up to near the top 10 Counter-Strike teams in his Oceanic region before deciding to hang up the mouse and keyboard to focus on his swimming, citing the need to take care of his physical and mental health.

A setback, a breakthrough and a triumph

As the road to the Tokyo Paralympics became clearer, though, the world around Crothers began falling apart.

The COVID-19 pandemic surged across the globe, and Crothers’ lone safe haven, swimming, was taken away from him. He couldn’t go outside, and all the pools around him were closed for safety reasons, putting him back into a state of melancholy. He possessed this indomitable desire to test himself and compete, scratching and clawing inside of him as his life came to a complete standstill.

That desire led to VALORANT, a first-person shooter created by Riot Games, the company behind the world’s most-watched esport in League of Legends. VALORANT’s developers, like Crothers, grew up loving and playing Counter-Strike, with the game having various transferrable skills for someone with years of diligent practice under their belt.

It was a no-brainer. Without the pool as an outlet, Crothers threw himself into VALORANT to satisfy his craving for competition.

In the early days, without a regional server to play on, Crothers and other Oceanic hopefuls connected to North American servers to test out the game. The restraints resulted in games with 180 ping, the equivalent of wearing 30-pound weights on each arm while swimming.

Still, Crothers and others persisted, with him eventually joining an amateur team known as Pants Down. The group was comprised of well-known Fortnite players in the region aside from Crothers. He was the fifth and final member to join the ragtag group and earned a reputation among teammates as a workhorse and motivator.

Unlike many come-and-go amateur squads, Pants Down stuck together, in large part thanks to Crothers. As other players swapped around teams like they were on a carousel, rotating their starting lineups at the first sign of resistance, Pants Down forged forward, emboldened by the launch of the Oceanic server. The only time the team made a roster swap was when one of their players needed to focus on his life by getting a new job.

Pants Down garnered a cult following in the small but growing Oceanic VALORANT scene, their proudest finish being their last. At First Strike: Oceania, the inaugural major tournament for the game in the region, Pants Down made it through the qualifiers before falling in the next stage. With the world slowly opening back up and the likelihood of making substantial money in VALORANT becoming more of a fantasy by the day, the team decided it would be best to part ways on a high rather than a low like so many others they faced.

Crothers, though, for one of the first times in his life, felt content. The final day before the team disbanded, the players getting into a Discord call together to scroll through their team’s Twitter account. For hours, they reacted and reminisced over past plays, blunders and triumphs. Although only together in the grand scheme of things for a short time, they carved out a period none of them would ever forget.

“We made this lifelong connection as close mates,” Crothers said. “Our Discord is still active, and we’re still chatting in it to this day even though it has been close to [a year] now.”

Months later, those same friends, family members and people across the country of Australia tuned in to see Crothers win gold at the Tokyo Paralympics.

His parents, sitting at home in the quaint, multicultural suburb of Moorooka in Brisbane, watched as their phones jittered with calls and text messages from neighbors when Crothers touched the end of the pool. “The phone didn’t stop for about four hours,” Beth said. Their house became the center of attention in a town where everyone knew each other’s names.

Their boy, the one who was once told he’d never string a sentence together, was a national hero.