Para-swimmers talk sport's impact in and out of the water

3 Dec 2022

To mark International Day of People with Disabilities 2022 on Saturday 3rd December, we spoke to five of our world-class para-swimming athletes on the importance of their sport and the how their own experiences within the world of aquatics have affected their lives, careers and impairments.

The British Para-Swimming team are coming off the back of a successful year that saw them finish fourth in the medal table (with 32 medals to their name) at the 2022 Para Swimming World Championships in Madeira – before a medal haul of 10 across all Home Nations athletes at Birmingham’s Commonwealth Games was further testament to the improvements made by the team as a whole. They are now gearing up for a home World Championships in Manchester in July-August 2023.

Paralympic medallist and world champion Ellie Challis was one of the swimmers to have shone in 2022 and who spoke to us about her experience within the para-swimming world - the social impact, her love for the competitive edge and the practical role it also plays for her as an athlete in the S3 and SB2 categories following a bout of meningitis which resulted in the above knee amputation of her legs and a below elbow amputation of her arms.

“I've made the closest friends over the last couple years in swimming and it's a more fun way for me to do physio and that's still how I see it now - it's just what I enjoy more. Physio, to me, I used to get a bit bored sometimes so it's just another way of doing the same thing, but something more enjoyable - and the racing, it's just the best part of it," she said.

World Class Programme member Zach Washington-Young also commented on how swimming helped his recovery, after he suffered spinal injuries and was told by medical experts that there was no chance of him ever walking again.

“So swimming for me initially started out as part of my recovery process. So what was once a rehabilitation journey has now merged into a performance journey," he said.

"Swimming gave me an opportunity to feel free again. To able to put my physical impairments behind, to one side, quite literally at the side of the pool. While I got in the water and felt free, and it enabled me to feel and to reconnect with how life used to feel like. It was at that moment when I started to develop more and more passion for sport. I'm thankful that now I'm at a point where I get to do what I love every single day. 

"This sport has created focus in my life. It keeps me grounded. It keeps me disciplined. And I'm just really grateful for the lifestyle that it brings to me. It's a dream lifestyle and yeah, I just hope that what we do now can, potentially, inspire younger generations for years to come.”

Triple Tokyo Paralympic medallist and world champion S12 athlete Stephen Clegg also gave his take on how para-swimming has helped his life, as he looks to continue on from his most successful season to date. Stephen has a condition called Stargardt macular dystrophy, an inherited disorder of the retina, the tissue at the back of the eye that senses light.

“Swimming was an opportunity for me to rebuild myself leaving school. I had no idea what I wanted to do, I was very insecure about my visual impairment and it’s given me the confidence to kind of tackle life with a lot of energy. And I've managed to translate it into different areas of my life both professionally and personally," he explained.

“I can say I think para-sport gives you an opportunity to find passion in your life. I think that's a big part of what people lack confidence in. I think once you've got something you're passionate about, you feel comfortable to talk about it and I think that shows physically in yourself. Para-swimming offers you the opportunity to take control of your identity rather than letting your disability just control you and I think it's a big part of what I did. It gave me the confidence to have looked at other areas in my life and take other opportunities as well and it would help me reinvent myself.” 

Stephen Clegg world record 100m Butterfly BPSIM 2021
Clegg has been an active member of the team since his international debut in 2016

Making their international debuts this year were twins Eliza and Scarlett Humphrey, with Scarlett taking a bronze medal in the Mixed 49pts 4x100m Freestyle Relay at Madeira’s World Championships in June. The sisters are both visually impaired and swim in the S11 category. The Northampton Swimming Club pair also require the use of a ‘tapper’ to warn them when they are reaching the end of the pool. Scarlett began by recounting how welcome she felt as she started her swimming journey.

“We started swimming because Mum wanted us to learn to swim and then over time we've progressed into the competitive swimming route and swimming has offered us a sport that's inclusive, as right at the beginning we were able to have someone in the water to support us and teach us. So now obviously we can swim independently, I just need the assistance of tappers for our safety, but it's an inclusive sport where you can swim independently and that we can be integrated into a mainstream club," she said.

“We've grown up with the athletes in our club from when they were about 10, so about the last five years. They've been amazing and have been able to support us while we've progressed through swimming. This created a really good team atmosphere because they're not afraid of visual impairment in their squad. They just accept us as who we are rather than our impairment and the squad itself is really inclusive. So swimming offers us a space where we can be independent and enjoy ourselves in an environment that's also able to support us.”

Eliza also commented on the moment she felt like she could reach the elite level.

“I think para-swimming is very important because it gives me a goal to work towards, and as swimming is a sport where you can just look at your time and see how you've improved over time and then you can work on small processes and then it will gradually make you faster and then you go closer to the goal that you set yourself. In 2018 we watched on YouTube the European Para-Swimming Championships in Dublin, and it was really exciting to watch people with a similar impairment to myself, visual impairment racing, and it was quite exciting to see what people with visual impairment can achieve," she said.

All of these athletes were speaking at the British Para-Swimming Winter National Meet 2022. You can find out more about the event and how they got on here.

The observance of International Day of People with Disabilities aims to promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilize support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities.