With the 2019 season not going to plan, Paralympic champion Hannah Russell feels she’s been given a golden opportunity as the Paralympic Games have been pushed back by 12 months.
“I had a bit of hard time in 2018/19, having quite a bit of time out of the water, so I was actually quite positive going into the lockdown. I was out of the water for three months last year and I was able to gain my fitness back in six months, so when the Games were postponed until 2021 I thought to myself, ‘worse case scenario it could be a year for us to prepare for the Games, so if I was able to get my fitness back in six months, then anything can happen within a year’.”
It would seem with that mind-set there would be no stopping her, as Russell got to work on doing what she could to stay fit whilst pools were closed, but nothing could trump the feeling of getting back in the water last Monday.
“For me it was absolutely brilliant to be able to get back in the water without being tethered to a bungee cord! In lockdown I was very lucky to have access to a hydro training pool, which was really close to my family home. Going back into a normal swimming pool was very different, as you could feel the flow of the water and do tumbles turns and stuff, so going back into the pool on Monday it was absolutely brilliant. I was in my element and I just loved feeling free underwater.
“Hydropool Surrey and Bedfordshire Tubs have been really supportive in giving me access during lockdown and it’s definitely helped in giving me the benefit going back into the pool, especially from a technical point of view. In the hydropool you’re tethered but it gives you an opportunity to really focus on different technical aspects, such as rotation, having a high elbow, stroke count and various things, so when I got back into the pool on Monday I massively noticed and my coach picked up on it as well.
“Every swim session I did during lockdown I had a Zoom call at the same time, so my coach Lauren [Jocelyn] could see what I was doing. I got a waterproof phone case and put my phone at the end of the pool and she was talking me through my sessions, which made it feel more or less like a normal training session, which was really nice, especially having that interaction whilst we were miles apart.
“My mentality and motivation stayed really strong for the vast duration of the lockdown, but everybody has days where they might struggle. I tried to use my experience from last year to help some of the other athletes.”
So how has the team stayed connect during their time apart?
“British Para-Swimming have organised a variety of Zoom calls each week to ensure we have lots of interactions, especially from a social aspect. Training wise we’ve done a lot of strength and conditioning sessions over Zoom – with that type of training you do need a coach keeping an eye on what you’re doing, so to have Jamie [Barnard] on the call and being able to watch our technique was really valuable. We’ve also done Feel Good Friday's, which are often more social, be it pilates, yoga or listening to an inspirational speaker. Those sessions have been really good to tune in to, as well as the cooking sessions we’ve done!
“We heard from para-canoeist, Kelda Wood, who had a really inspirational story. She travelled on her own through the ocean and hearing that story about digging deep was inspirational for a lot of us. Not everyone is always able to make the calls but they’re recorded so you can access them afterwards.”
With the Return to Training underway for a small cohort of our Para-Swimmers, the motivation couldn’t be higher, however it isn’t without its challenges. Training out the East Manchester Pool, as opposed to the Manchester Aquatics Centre, means Russell, with her visual impairment, faces an extra hurdle in the process.
“Obviously with my visual impairment it has been a little bit different on my return. We had to do a Return to Training medical and psychological questionnaire and due to my visual impairment I can only see up to 0.5 of a metre – that’s my central range of vision – so with two metre social distancing rules my health and safety could sometime be put at risk. I really referenced that and the team have been so supportive in putting things in place.
“I had a virtual tour of the pool, as it’s a completely new venue for me, I didn’t know where I was going and so there was just a lot of communication before the first session. I was actually the first person on poolside and Graeme walked me through the pool. I was also allocated an end lane just to make sure I felt safe and so that I wasn’t going to go into any other persons two metre radius. I was quite anxious walking onto poolside on that first day, because I can’t see my surroundings to it’s a bit daunting when you have to stick by the social distancing rules.
“The format for training has changed as well, as typically I receive a lot of demonstrations and my coach will get right up close to me and demonstrate technique or even put me in the position that they want me to achieve, but none of that can be done right now. So what my coaches have done is send through all the sessions via email so I can have my iPad next to the pool and look at my sessions on there. Graeme is the coach on deck at the moment and he’s very aware of my sight impairment so he’s very good at being very vocal with me and makes sure I know where he is.
“It’s been very different to normal, as I can’t see my teammates – this is something I’ve spoken to our psychologist about as I’m a very social person, so it’s just making people aware that I might not be able to see someone but to make people aware that they need to interact with me as then I’ll know where they are! There are difficulties, but it’s not stopped me wanting to get back to training and I feel really safe – the team has done a great job.”
Despite all this it isn’t quite full steam ahead just yet, as Russell explains.
“We’ve been out the water for nearly four months so you have to be careful on your return to training, so it’s a very gradual return. We’re only doing three hours in week one, then we build up to five but we won’t start doing double days for about six weeks. The physios and coaches are very cautious, especially around shoulder health, as we do a lot of rotation and not being in the pool so long can lead to injury.”
Life has been very different over the last few months for everyone, but even more so for Hannah, who is now focusing on swimming full-time after graduating with a first class Sports Science degree last summer.
“I’m not doing anything else other than swimming this year, so I’m going to be a full time athlete. My degree took me five years, as I deferred a year going into Rio, so that’s going to be very similar this time around.”
However keen to not get bored, Russell has taken a hands on approach to her spare time.
“I’ve spoken to our Sports Lifestyle Advisor, Justine, and we came up with the idea of doing a sports massage course - I’ve always had a massive interest in it. In my downtime at the moment I’m completing a few assignments, having already done the practical side of things, so soon I’ll be a qualified Sports Massage Therapist.”
She’s also been making time for herself, as she explains:
“I’ve done quite a bit of baking and cooking, exploring some new recipes, some of them with the help of our Sports Nutritionist, and I’ve been walking a lot with my family. We got a new family puppy, so I’ve been trying to train him and spending time with him before heading back up to Manchester.”
Back in the pool though, Russell still has that focus that has seen her achieve all she has so far in her career.
“It’s a little bit uncertain when our first competition is going to be, so for now I’m just focusing on gaining that aerobic fitness back.
But for 2021 her goals are pretty simple:
“I want to retain my Paralympic title in Tokyo and hopefully swim a PB [which would break her own world record] in the process.”No mean feat, but as we know, she’s done it before.