After almost 20 years of searching, a determined son found footage of his mother’s gold medal win at the 1972 Paralympics in the NFSA collection.
For almost two decades, Andrew Pomierny searched the world for evidence of his mother’s gold medal win at the 1972 Paralympics in Heidelberg, before finally finding what he was looking for in the NFSA collection.
Both of Andrew’s parents had successful careers in sport, and their family home in Poland was filled with their medals and trophies. As kids, Andrew and his sister loved listening to the stories behind each prize.
‘My mother and father would tell us where a particular medal was from, how they won it and what it was like to travel to distant places to compete,’ Andrew recalls. ‘All of them were important and were proof of determination, thousands of hours of training and tremendous skill.’ But there was no denying that one of his mother’s medals was particularly special.
In 1972, at only 17 years of age, Alina Wojtowicz won the gold medal for the Women’s 50 metres Freestyle 4 at the Paralympic Games:
After suffering from polio as a young girl, Alina began taking swimming lessons as part of her rehabilitation. In a twist of fate, a group of athletes with disabilities also happened to be training at the same pool. One of their coaches spotted Alina and recognised her potential. She began training with him when she was eight years old, and by the age of 11 was competing in professional competitions.
Her first international event was the Stoke Mandeville Games (which went on to become the Paralympics) in England. At 16, she was representing the Polish National Team in swimming competitions and managed to secure a spot at the 1972 Paralympic Games in Heidelberg, Germany. It was there that she won gold.
Although Andrew heard the story of his mother’s victory many times growing up, he never got tired of it and has always been very proud of her achievements. It was for this reason that he became determined to discover any surviving record of the 1972 games.
‘In Poland, especially back then, nobody besides the people involved in it knew anything about the Paralympics,’ he explains. ‘People like my mother that devoted part of their life to achieving excellence in sports didn’t get any recognition for their achievements after they came back. The only thing that my mother had from those times were memories of the event and the medal she won.’
Andrew’s search spanned almost 20 years. He looked through regional newspapers from the time in an attempt to track down photos, and scoured the internet time and time again without success. He knew the Games had happened – Alina’s medal was proof of that – but without finding any visual evidence, it sometimes felt like he was chasing after a long-lost dream.
Then one day in August 2018, everything changed. While looking online, he came across an article about amateur filmmaker Don Worley. A dentist by trade, Don became involved in the world of para-sport after a car accident left his wife Barbara with a broken spine. The couple became passionate about para-sport, and Don used his Super 8 camera to capture the earliest known footage of the Paralympics.
In 2016, Worley (who passed away on 31 December 2019) donated almost 10 hours of film material to the NFSA. The collection, which was shot between 1972 and 1988, covered hundreds of different sporting events from around the world – including the games Alina had competed in in Heidelberg. ‘My hope came back stronger than ever,’ says Andrew.
It was a very emotional moment for my mother and the rest of the family. She could relive the moment, feel all those emotions again – and for the rest of the family it was a chance to actually see it for the first time. There were tears but it was a very happy moment.
He contacted the NFSA and Senior Collections Reference officer Sean Bridgeman was able to help him sift through the material. Not only had Don Worley shot footage of the 1972 games, he had actually filmed Alina’s race and documented her winning the gold medal.
With Sean’s assistance, Andrew contacted Don to thank him for his work and asked for permission to acquire a copy of the footage. Don happily agreed. Andrew, who is now based in Canada, was able to get a copy of the clip to his sister in Poland, who then shared it with their mother on her birthday.
Alina was not only surprised that the race had been filmed, she was also amazed that the footage had been archived for future generations. To learn that such an important moment in her life had been recorded and preserved was incredibly special.
After her gold medal win, Alina continued to swim professionally until 1976. Interestingly, her last event was the same place as her first: Stoke Mandeville, the first home of the Paralympics.
Andrew is glad that he persisted in his hunt for information and that his family were able to witness Alina’s 50 metres freestyle victory more than 40 years after it took place.
‘Technology has become a way for us to preserve our history, our heritage and our memories,’ he says. ‘Those might be things important on a world scale, to a family or even one individual. As long as material has potential to have a profound meaning for anyone, it should be preserved.’