Mentor Text Wednesday: Swim Your Own Race

Mentor Text: Swim Your Own Race by Mbali Vilakazi


  • Form
  • Purposeful Use of Figurative Language
  • Exploring Clichéd Sports Metaphor
  • Using Contrast


I love the Winter Olympics. I’m setting my alarm to get up in the morning before school to watch sports that I normally dismiss. The excitement is so infectious. Especially fun this time is watching events with my oldest, this being the first games she’s really aware of.

The games also coincide with our new semester. As my coworker Alicia and I were talking plans, talking Olympics, we realized that we had a perfect subject to explore within our Grade10 theme of Facing Adversity and Being a Hero – the Olympics. The next couple of weeks are going to be focused on Olympic adversity and heroism.


Image via

One of the first activities we did in this was one of my favorites, the Poetry and Image Pairing, or PIP. As is the case whenever  I’m putting together a PIP, I opened Google and looked for “Olympic Poetry.” After I learned that there was a time that poetry was an actual Olympic event, I came across NPR’s Olympic Poetry contest results from 2012’s Summer Games. The winning poem, “Swim Your Own Race.” gave me my poem. This beautiful poem, by South African Mbali Vilakazi, was written about swimmer Natalie du Toit. After losing a leg, du Toit continued to swim, not just as a para-athlete, but also qualifying for the 2008. This kind of story is what makes Olympic viewing so damned compelling, and if we’re using the Olympics to explore a theme of facing adversity, well, what a perfect story for that!


In planning our couple of weeks of Olympic related reading and writing, we decided we’re going to focus a bit on the story of women’s slopestyle this year. There are a handful of storylines in this, but chief among them are the havoc that the wind played with the event. Many athletes were tossed around by the wind, crashing hard, and feeling as if their chances to medal were adversely affected. Canadian Laurie Blouin won silver, which may not have happened without the wind, as it caused qualifying rounds to be cancelled. This worked in her favour, as it gave her an extra day to recover from a training fall. Her black eye was as widely shared on social media as her silver medal!

Our students will be crafting poems using an article about the slopestyle event, and the reaction to the weather’s impact. (We’re borrowing an idea Penny Kittle showed us, where the form is the focus, and the writers are arranging the article into poetic form, looking at the impact the form has on the delivery of the story.)

How We Might Use This Text:

Form – Encouraging our writers to arrange existing writing into poetic form relies upon them having a working knowledge of poetic form to work. This poem actually has a number of cool things happening that make it a useful mentor text. There are lines and stanzas of various lengths. There is purposeful use of the em dash. There is an element of narrative, but isn’t overt.

Early in the course, we want them to play with the form. If we’re crafting poems later and we will be, this should pay off then. Kelly Gallagher reminds us that we need to give students multiple low-risk opportunities to write. I contend that this kind of play with words is an important part of this.

We’re also planning on having our students spend some time researching Olympians, looking at the amazing stories of adversity, of their becoming Olympic heroes. Though this isn’t our plan, how wonderful would this poem be as a mentor text to share that research? There is a narrative element, as well as strong use of poetic devices. Vilakazi’s use of a quote in the poem is neat too, giving students something to look for as they research, “forcing” another consideration of words and their impact. (I think i just added another activity to our Olympic unit!)

Purposeful Use of Figurative Language – Discussing poetry is eternally a challenge. You don’t want to embed the message that everything has a deeper meaning, but the fact is, many times, it does. This poem does this in an exemplary fashion.

The early example of “Beneath the surface tension…” sets this up. That line is obvious water imagery, so appropriate when writing about a swimmer. It also speaks to the body, beneath the surface of the skin. Inside, the subject of the poem is “broken” physically and metaphysically. The impact of this is a doubling down on the multiple interpretations of the words being used. This is compounded throughout the poem, where words that can be interpreted figuratively are used, such as “tread the water” and “strokes.” What a delightful conceit, using the language of the sport so deliberately.

Exploring Clichéd Sports Metaphor – The titular idea of swimming your own race, or he last line’s “in your own lane” are oft spouted clichés. This familiarity is exploited in this poem, exploring what this metaphor means. The literal and figurative meanings are present in the poem, and they are explored. du Toit obviously has to swim an individual race. However, the emotional turmoil of her missing leg adds great adversity to this, giving that cliché a bit more depth. And, as with great poetry, the implications of what the clichés mean for the reader are there, waiting to be drawn out.

The sport specific vocabulary is a part of this. Freestyle and long distance evoke not just the events by those names, but the idea that one has freedom to choose, and that there may be an amount of time to pass before life ends. Such choices add to the exploration of the sports metaphor, and would be powerful for writers to play with, and use in their own writing.

Using Contrast – When we dealt with this poem as a PIP, I did as is standard practice, and ask for lines that “popped” for the students. Two phrases came out immediately –  “The disabled-abled body” and “tears of loss flowing / towards your many firsts.” They loved the contrasting ideas expressed so succinctly. These contrasts worked so wonderfully for them as readers, communicating concrete ideas. “The disabled-abled body” highlights the reality that disability does not mean that people can do nothing, a reminder that ability remains. That other line resonated for them, highlighting an important message within our study of adversity – the idea that challenges often lead to growth. Though it didn’t come up in our discussion, the line “Woman of scars, and triumph” presents another of these contrasts.

These contrasts highlight a core big idea in this poem, which would be important to point out to our readers. This is repetition of a sort, using the same device multiple times. That core idea is so strongly reinforced, without being explicitly stated, something I’d love to teach more writers.

Good poetry gets better each time you read it. As we discussed it in class, more of the poem’s beauty and power was revealed to me. Consider then, the power of using it as a mentor text after studying it as a PIP. We’ve analyzed the piece, and have plans to use it as a mentor text for a poetic form activity. Should we decide to use it that third time, as a mentor text for writing about an athlete, the students will be familiar with it. We’ve encouraged multiple readings of the poem, perhaps each having a different purpose, but the collective result should be a comfort level with the poem, its form that they can exploit in their own writing.

Do you use a piece for more than one purpose? What does that look like? What’s your favorite Winter Olympic event?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!



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