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Written by Tessa Duder




‘Alex’ is the story of a young New Zealand swimmer whose dream is to one day represent New Zealand at the Olympics.  The story captures the commitment and passion of this dedicated athlete as she works towards fulfilling her dream.  Alex becomes a very real person as the reader becomes involved in her journey.

 Alex’s life revolved around swimming.  She dedicated many hours of her life to the sport.  From an early age her skill in the water is recognized and developed through many hours of training untill she became a swimming force to be reckoned with. Alex’s ambitions and competitive spirit combined with other aspects of her life are put aside. Her desire to be selected as a member of the NZ Olympic swimming squad meant Alex had to spend more time training and competing.  As a consequence fitting in the other activities, hockey, piano and ballet that were important to her became difficult.  However it not untill Alex broke her leg that she realized how much swimming meant to her. “I know now it is the water I missed more than anything. I need the swirl of water around my body, the actual touch of cool water on my skin, the feeling of flying, of lightness and of power “ (page 70).


Alex’s commitment to swimming meant she gave up much of her social life but maintained her friendships with Andy and Julia. Julia was a school friend whose friendship was special because Julia was understanding of the commitment and dedication that swimming required of Alex and Julia was also proud of who Alex the person was.  Alex was dedicated to her friendship with Andy. These two shared a special bond supporting and encouraging each other.   Andy’s death provided Alex with a direction for her passion and dedication to swimming.  Alex dedicated her swimming to Andy, her way of keeping his friendship alive, involved in and part of her world  “it would be my silent private memorial, my gift”. Through her unrelenting dedication and commitment to swimming it is easy to feel as Alex does her oneness with the water.


“I have always known that in another life I was – or will be – a dolphin. I am silver and gray, the slickest thing on fins, with a permanent smile on my face. I leap through the waves, I choose a passing yacht to dive under and hear the shouts of children, as I emerge triumphant close to the boat:” Competition was a huge part of Alex’s life. Like most swimming champions Alex knew what it was like to win and to lose in the pool. Winning was preferable to losing.  She was driven to succeed.  “Reach for a star, Alex…. The gold one with a record and Rome written on it…” (page 166).


However Alex also knew what it was like to win and to lose in everyday life. Alex was successful in many aspects of her everyday life; she achieved in hockey, ballet, and school and worked hard to maintain her friendships with Julia. However her relationships with other people were not always so successful and like many ‘tall poppies’ Alex often was on the receiving end of others’ judgments and perhaps jealousies “You mean Alex Archer?…. what a figure! If you want to be six feet tall and built like a tank“ (page 43).


In comparison within her swimming world Alex was always aware of her main competitors. Like a true champion Alex knew about their swimming styles, swimming times and weaknesses.  This awareness of other swimmers becomes a strategy that Alex used to her advantage, “If there’s a break, go with it. Don’t waste energy on getting angry. Use the time in the water to relax, get out last. Keep them waiting” (page 14).  With a true competitive ‘grit’ Alex was able to focus this knowledge into ”desperation and rage” (page 72); the ingredients needed to push herself harder.  Alex desired to be the best she desired to win.


Alex’ competitive spirit helped to focus her in the water. She was instinctively aware of what she needed to do to win or to push herself harder.  This focus is shown in the way Alex talked to Andy and turned over swimming strategies in her mind as she swam, “Five yards, Alex. There’s nothing in it, nothing. You just need a fingernail that’s all. Oh Alex, stretch, …” (page 166).


In comparison to Alex’s competitive spirit, commitment and passion for swimming Alex’s sensitivity shows the reader a softer, gentler and more human Alex.  Alex’s tough swimming nature provides a barrier for her vulnerability and innocence.  She is often surprised, hurt and humiliated by the reactions of other young people to her “ My hands were shaking. Is that what people were saying?” (page 43).

Even though Maggie is a rival Alex feels empathy for her as a fellow swimmer whose goals are the same.  Alex also felt a certain amount of sympathy for Maggie whose mother’s expectations were hard to live up to. Alex at the same time is suspicious of Maggie’s attempts at being friendly; Alex found it hard to separate her competitive life from her social life. 


However in Maggie she finds a fellow friend against the jealousies of the many insincere people around them  “Good luck Alex she whispered. I knew she didn’t mean it for the race itself, but for the other battle, against people, hypocrisy, jealousy, pomposity and gossip...” (page 171).


Alex’s friendship with Julia is based on mutual trust.  In this friendship Alex is able to be herself and this allows her to respond to her friend with open care  ”Rubbing Julia’s back when she got the wheezes” (page 43).   Alex encourages her friend to follow her dream just as Julia supports and encourages Alex in hers ‘ I hugged her and wiped away her tears……Julia don’t ever lower your sights”.


Alex’s friendship with Andy gives her confidence in herself as a normal person and gives her courage in her swim training.  Alex feels safe with Andy because he believes in her, encourages her and likes her.  Alex returns these feelings and her world is turned upside down when Andy dies. Her loyalty to his friendship is so strong that she gifts him her passion for swimming she swims for him.  In swimming Andy is able to live on.



Alex is a very complex character and while her character can be analyzed under the themes of commitment, dedication, and competitiveness it can be seen that these are intertwined.  And while these three characteristics describe the qualities of an athlete Alex is also a typical teenage girl who just wants to be like the rest of us.











 Alex's Character


In the 1950s, doing any sort of sport as a woman was hard work, and frowned upon. Alex lives in the 1950s and was a swimmer. A very good one. She had her ups and downs but her personality and the way that she individually handled things were one of the things that got her through. She had a tough fight ahead of her. She was a very down-to-earth girl, and knew what she wanted. These are the most bold and biggest aspects of her personality: dedication and commitment,stubbornness and courage.


 Alex was very stubborn. She was stubborn to her teachers, coach, parents, siblings, and her boyfriend. She wanted her own way for everything and was very stubborn if she didn’t get it. ‘…What are you trying to say? Are you ever so gently advising me to get out now? Don’t you think I’m going to make it? … and hint that I’m wasting my time doing four miles a day…I will not be told to calm down. And if that’s the way you feel, I can do a bit more training, right here and now.’  At that time, Alex and Andy were sailing together. Alex was stubborn because she got the wrong idea of what Andy was saying. Andy was saying that he admired her working so hard and then being beaten by Maggie again would be all of this hard work for not such a gained reward. ‘You can’t run away , you can’t always be in control, and you can’t always get what you want… you’re so damn stubborn, sometimes you’re right , but not always… you were wrong just now.’ Alex was stubborn about Andy’s death. ‘No, not Andy, never. He heard the car coming and stopped just in time… He’s in hospital, broken legs, the car only ran over his legs. Soon fixed… ’ Andy did die, and Alex was wrong. Then Alex was stubborn about going to the Olympics for Alex. She wanted to do it for him. Not for herself, but for Andy.


Alex was dedicated. Not only to her sport, to her school work, her family, her drama (when she performed in the Wizard of Oz), but most of all to her boyfriend, Andy, when her died. When he died, she made up her mind to win the race for the deciding of the Olympics, for Andy. She said to herself ‘I’m going to Rome. For him. I’m going to Rome.’ When Andy died, she thought that her life had ended, but then changed her attitude. ‘For Andy I’d train harder than I ever trained in my life. Every time trial would be an ordeal, maximum effort, every length a test. For Andy I would beat Maggie at the nationals.’  She was also dedicated to beat her rival, Maggie Benton. She lost race after race to Maggie, but finally came out on top for the Olympic selection race, by beating her by one hundredth of a second.


Alex had very strong courage. In herself, mainly. She had the courage to go through with the Wizard of Oz. She had the courage to get out of the car at Helensville. She had the courage to give up her piano, hockey and ballet lessons to be able to train harder. She had the courage to face up to Mr Upjohn what had really happened with her and the pool manager, Mr Phillips, so that she could swim the race that she won to propel herself another step forward to the Olympics. ‘You played to the gallery, you carried it off superbly. Now, I’m asking you to use that discipline, that control that I’ve just seen, to finish the show. There’ll be no more pranks.’  She went back onto the stage and performed her heart out, even though she had just had a major prank played on her for no apparent reason. She also had courage to sing the song ‘Room with a View’ for Andy. ‘ The other thing that I was going to do for Andy would be short and sharp, all over and done in the next week… I found Miss Macrae and asked if it was too late for me to do a song in the Coward bracket for the revue.’  Alex had the courage that she needed to get through the ups and downs of her life and to come out on the top.


Alex had a very outright personality, but that is what helped her get through and achieve her goal to get to the Olympics. She has supportive family members, friends, a boyfriend for most of the time, coach and teachers. Who would want more than that?



Different Aspects of Alex’s Personality


Alex has a complex personality made up of many different aspects.  Throughout the book Alex expresses many different sides of her personality, whilst she is determined and stubborn she is also caring.  Alex’s personality influences the choices she makes and her actions.


One of the traits of Alex’s personality is determination.  In the story Alex always pushes her limits, once she has set her mind on a goal.  Alex always continues to persist even when things go wrong.  Her goal in the book is to qualify to represent New Zealand at the Olympics in Rome.  Alex is an over achiever who tries to do everything as well as possible.  For example: (Chapter 3)



  • Become national sprint champion. You can. It just means beating Maggie.
  • Pass my Grade seven piano, ballet exam, School Cert.
  • Get in the First Eleven hockey team.
  • Shut my big mouth. Be nicer to the brats.
  • Look after Gran.
  • Stop growing. I’m tall enough.

          Signed: Alexander Beatrice Archer

1 January, 1959


Throughout the story Alex is faced with a number of obstacles including breaking her leg, her family’s financial difficulties and the death of her boyfriend Andy.  Instead of allowing the tragedy of Andy’s death to destroy her swimming career, Alex uses it to motivate herself, by dedicating her triumphs to Andy:  (Quote from page 133, chapter 12)

“For Andy I’d train harder than I ever trained in my life…For Andy I would beat Maggie at the nationals.”

She is determined to do her very best at everything she does and never lets her heart drop, even when her rival is always half a second in front.  It is Alex’s determination that stops her from giving up on her ‘hard to get’ goals.


As well as being determined Alex is also stubborn.  Once Alex has made up her mind she will not be influenced by other people’s reasoning but stubbornly sticks to her views.  For example, when Alex and Andy were in Keith’s car, Alex decided that it was unsafe and she stubbornly refused to listen to anyone else, including Andy, and she did whatever she could to get out of the car: (Chapter 7)


“ ‘I’m getting out.’

   ‘Suit yourself.’

   ‘I will. I can think of better ways…’ ”


Once Alex sets her mind on something, it is set in concrete.  This was again shown when the organiser of the opening of a new swimming pool tried to convince Alex to attend.  Alex made up her mind at the beginning of the conversation that it would harm her preparations for the Nationals if she swam at the opening and she did not change her mind, no matter how much pressure the organisers placed on her.


Even though Alex was highly competitive and would not let anything get in her way, a contrasting aspect of her personality was that she could be very caring, at times.  Before Alex ever knew that the baby clothes her Grandmother made were helping to pay for her swimming lessons, Alex made an effort to set aside some of her valuable spare time to sit with her Grandmother and help her with her sewing and knitting: (Chapter 2) 


“It was Gran I worried about…Sometimes I helped her with the more boring jobs…We were two of a kind, Gran and me.”


 Another example of the caring side of Alex’s personality is whenever her friend, Julia, gets an asthma attack Alex always tries to help her by sitting her down or rubbing her back.  Alex tried to help wherever she could.


In the book, Alex’s life consisted of many challenging and confusing circumstances.  These drew out a large range of aspects of her personality, including her determination and stubbornness.  However, even though Alex was focused on her own success she could still be a caring person.





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