(image via pinterest)
I visit schools a lot. A lot. I love visiting schools and interacting with the genuine curiosity and open-mindedness of the children - whether they be 5 or 16. However, there are some common questions that I get asked about how I swim, what is Paralympic Swimming, how is Paralympic Swimming fair, etc. So I am going to start a series of FAQ posts that look at commonly asked questions, not just about swimming and disability, but life and disability, relationships and disability, school and disability, careers and disability, you know, all the things that people (not just children) are generally interested about.
So, my first FAQ post is about Swimming and Disability . . .
(image via pinterest)
Question: How do you swim?
Answer: Just like anyone else really. I may be missing an arm and a leg, but that has never stopped me from being a water baby, and like many able-bodied people I just took to the water easily. I guess the main reason that I can swim is that floating has always come easily to me - and when you can float well you can learn how to swim well.
Question: Okay . . . well how come you don't swim round and round in circles?
Answer: Probably THE most common question I get asked about my swimming . . . and I really have no scientific answer to it, I just don't. In fact, at an Australian team camp down in Canberra one year, we were being filmed underwater, so the coaches could look at the efficiency of our strokes, and I was told I have one of the most able-bodied style strokes for a disabled swimmer!! Hence, so going round and round in circles . . . go figure!!
(image via pinterest)
Question: Do you swim with your prosthetic leg on?
Answer: Ahhh, noooo, in fact I have an irrational fear that if I did wear my leg in the pool I would sink rather quickly to the bottom (my prosthetic does weigh a few kilos, plus it has metal components . . . not very floatable).
Question: How is the Paralympic Swimming races fair? I just saw you swim against people with two arms and two legs??
Answer: There is a classification system in place that allows for athletes to compete as fairly as possible. This classification system is something that every athlete must go through to be allowed to compete at the Paralympics; each classification system is different for each sport. In swimming the classification system runs thus - S1-S10 is physical disability, S11-S13 is vision impairment, and S14 for intellectual disability. When you are classified you go through a series of measurements and tests by Doctors, physio's and specialists. These measurements and tests include looking at limb lengths, strength and flexibility, as well as looking at how you swim. You are then assessed against a criteria that gives you points. These points are then added together to give you an estimate of class. Your classification can change if there is protest, but this is rare. My classification was S6, which meant that I raced against other S6's, which is why there could be such a variation in disability for the classification - during assessment we were all assessed as having similar swimming abilities, despite different disabilities.
Question: How come some people started in the water and others, like you, could dive in?
Answer: Actually I used to start in the water!! When I first started competing I would start all my races in the water . . . and then when I was about 12, my best friend taught me how to dive in in my pool at home - and I never looked back. Because I do have one leg that is strong and balanced, I can use it to propel myself off the blocks, just as an able-bodied person does. For others, that I used to race against, they would either be paraplegics, or simply not have the strength in their legs to hold a dive position for the required time, hence, that would start in the water.
Question: Can you do all the strokes?
Answer: Nope, not at all. Like most athletes I have my strengths and weaknesses in my sport, and as any elite athlete does, I focused on my strengths. My strong strokes were - Front Crawl, Backstroke, and Butterfly. My one HUGE weakness? Breaststroke! I could not do breaststroke to save my life, though I had three coaches try and teach me. It was just I couldn't seem to get the technique right for the legs, and therefore my timing was always out of sync, and it just didn't pull together as effortlessly as all the other strokes did for me . . . the ramifications? Meant I could never be a medley swimmer :-(
(image via pinterest)
Question: Do you use your right arm when swimming? Or do you just kinda drag it along?
Answer: I definitely use my right arm and it definitely has an impact on the strength of my swimming. When swimming my right arm is used just like your right arm is used, I swing it round to catch and push the water. Using my right arm definitely contributes to propelling myself, as well as counterbalancing for my left side.
Question: Do you kick with both legs?
Answer: Nup! Unlike the way I use my right arm, I tend to just let me smaller right leg drag through the water and my left leg does all the kicking.
Question: Can you do tumble-turns?
Answer: Why yes I can . . . quite well in fact. I love to do tumbles through the water, for racing as well as for fun, can you do tumbles in water? You really should give it a go!!
Question: How many times a week did you train? As much as the Olympians?
Answer: Oo gosh, I always astound the students when I tell them the effort that goes into becoming an elite athlete. My training regime looked like this -
Swimming: Monday morning for 2 1/2 hrs and Monday evening for 2 hrs
Tuesday morning for 2 1/2 hrs and Tuesday evening for 2 hrs
Wednesday morning for 2 1/2 hrs and Wednesday evening off
Thursday morning for 2 1/2 hrs and Thursday evening for 2 hrs
Friday morning for 2 1/2 hours and Friday evening would either be 2 hrs of training or club competition
Saturday morning for 2 1/2 - 3 hrs and Saturday evening off
Sunday was a rest day.
Then, in-between all of this would be gym, massage, rest, etc. My whole world was focused on my goal of the Paralympics, I literally gave up any social life, holidays, study, etc to pore all my energy into my dream - something I still tend to do now, though with an awareness for more balance . . . The things is, all the sacrifice was completely worth it, so yes, training was as tough and as dedicated as the Olympians, cause, you know, Olympians/Paralympians = same thing.
Whew, there are a kazillion other questions that I get, but that would mean this blog post would probably go for days . . . the ones that I have asked and answered here are the most common . . . BUT, do you have a question about swimming and disability YOU would like answered? If so, don't be afraid, pop in a comment below and I will answer to the best of my ability . . .
What can I tell you guys . . . it's been an interesting week or so, with quite a few epiphanies popping into my ol' noggin' (epiphany, one of my favourite words . . . ep-iph-an-y, epiphany!!). Do you have those weeks? They seem a little crazy, a little "what the hell is going on," a tiny bit of this is good . . . but this over here is really frustrating!! Well, yep, it's been that kinda week, and I have been presented with a few opportunities for personal growth and I would like to share some of this with you through some pertinent themes I have been exploring these past few weeks with schools . . . so here we go . . .
The title of this blog post was the central theme of the talk I have been doing for students at Fairfield Prep, Wellington School and Woodbridge Comprehensive. So let's have a look at what I talked about . . .
are those events that happen everyday. They may seem insignificant at the time, but can end up being such an important moment in your life. The thing is, it isn't even about being aware they are life changing moments when they happen, but it's about acknowledging your past as having been a part of creating your present and then showing gratitude for that.
The moment I often talk about is the moment my brother introduced me to our swimming pool sans floaties. It was a scary moment, a little moment, a split second event that shaped my future - yet at the age of five I had no idea that this event would affect me so much.
Can you think back to such a moment in your own life? One that has so blatantly influenced and affected your future? How has it impacted your life?
In life we are constantly faced with decisions - what to wear, what to eat for breakfast, what time to leave the house, where to fill up the car, what to say, what to think, what to feel . . . . cause you may not realise it, but how we feel, think, and speak are decision processes that can affect us on either a negative or positive level. SO, decisions will usually be based around HOW you DECIDE to feel (or respond or action).
One of the BIGGEST decisions I ever had to make was entrenched in feelings of embarrassment, shame, and mortification - the event that caused this? Being disqualified from my first ever swimming race at a disabled competition . . . and not just ANY competition, but the STATE CHAMPIONSHIPS as well!!!
I was petrified, I was a shy 13 year old clinging desperately to a dream, a dream so big that many people usually don't even attempt to go for it. This dream? The 2000 Paralympic Games - so important! Right? My very first race was the 50m Breaststroke - a stroke that I am so rubbish at that I couldn't even do the kick properly. Up on the blocks I felt sick, and had to consciously try and hold back heaving into the pool. My toes were white as they gripped the edge of the block and my hands wouldn't stop shaking. The gun went - BANG!! - I dove in, glided, surfaced . . .
and started swimming front crawl . . .
about ten metres into the race I realised my error and quickly switched to breaststroke, but essentially the damage was done. As I finished the race I hoped upon hope that my error hadn't been noticed . . . but it had. As I got out of the pool an official walked up to me and informed me that I had been disqualified. I did what any 13 year old, painfully shy girl would do and burst into tears, mortified. My dad came running down from the stands and took me aside. We now come to decision time . . .
My dad said to me "right, you want to go home so we will, lets go pack your bag, pull you out of the other races, go home, I won't take you training tomorrow or the next day, or the day after that, forget about the Paralympics, move on from your dream . . . OR, we stay, learn from your mistake, swim in the next race, and that race after that, tomorrow I'll take you training, I'll take you to your next competition, and the one after that, and the one after that, keep going with your dream and succeed."
Well, I am sure you know which path I decided to take . . . (the three Paralympic Medals I have are a dead giveaway!) I decided to take my embarrassment and funnel it into a learning experience, what could i learn from that mistake, how can I step into the future knowing that it will never happen again, it will make me better!
AND then there is the rewards from those momentous events and difficult decisions. I know your expecting me to say the Paralympics was my reward, the medals, the records . . . they were amazing and definitely worth the pain, but my true reward, my most treasured prize was my self belief. Without the self belief in myself, in my abilities, in my 'gifts' I would not have won my medals . . . I don't even know if I would have made the Paralympics!!
This true realisation of absolute belief in my self came in the 400m Freestyle. Ranked 16th in the world I felt that my chances of a medal were low, but my home coach had been telling me for months, 'That 400m's in YOUR race, that is your race for a MEDAL!" He was right, he believed in my abilities, and I learnt to as well. When I had my silver medal hung around my neck it was the culmination of all the physical/mental/spiritual strength that had developed in the preceding seven years. All the lessons, moments, decisions, led to that point - MY BIG REWARD!
Do you have a dream? A goal? It can be something as big as the Paralympics, or it could be something as simple as being able to cook a meal better. Whatever it is it is valid and open to HUGE lessons, lessons that can affect all areas of your life. SO, as you journey on your path of life, keep your eyes open, be aware of each moment, each feeling, don't leap at decision making, take time to open your heart to possibility, and reap the rewards whatever they may be . . .
Hello!! It's been awhile, or rather a few weeks, but work has taken me from home a lot the past two weeks and I really haven't had the time to sit down with a cuppa and a blogging idea. How are you? I hope your well, I am.
So, where have I been . . .
Belfast! I was fortunate to receive a great opportunity to speak at the HMC Conference 2012. It was a hugely interesting trip and I met some great people (and contacts for schools). I was on a panel talking about the Olympic/Paralympic Legacy in education . . .
Now, unlike my fellow panelists - Lord Moynihan and journalist Jim White - I don't claim to be an expert on independent/state schools and how sports is promoted in either . . . I do, however, know what it is like to be a Paralympic athlete AND a Paralympic athlete that regularly talks in schools. On this panel I did my talk "old school;" I gave them all a "taster" of my story and some examples of the impact that a Paralympian's story can have on students.
Did I get rave review or what!!! It was a raging success in my book! (P.S. I was there to inspire, but, as usual, I got inspired myself - I learnt, absorbed, debated, and generally could feel my little brain soak up new information!! When a new opportunity presents itself remember to see, hear, and learn as much as you can from it!)
Where else have I been?
I have been to Manchester to visit three schools over the course of a week. Each school that I go to always blows me away with the students questions, respect, care, and curiosity - these three Manchester schools were no exception. I have already rebooked one of the schools for next year and am looking forward to visiting the others again soon.
Now, please keep an eye out on this blog, as I have some, kinda, crazy, amazing posts coming up!! Especially tomorrow (hint hint). I have had some fantastic blog ideas coming to me of late (and when I say late, I MEAN late, i.e., 2am this morning I had such a great idea I had to power up the laptop in bed and type like a crazy lady!!), and I really want to share with you all my thoughts on positivity, self belief, and life in general.
This blog post is a little late . . . you see it's been about two weeks since the Paralympics finished and I am only now getting to a summary of my thoughts and impressions of the greatest sporting event in the world (yep, you read right, THE greatest sporting event . . . the Olympics comes a close second, hehe).
(My reason for being a little behind in my blogging duties? I have recently had some terrible news from my family in Australia which rocked me to the core. One of the most wonderful ladies in the world and someone who has so positively influenced my life, my Auntie, is in a bad way healthwise. Christmas this year will probably be the last Christmas spent with her. It is hard, but I am cherishing the time that is left that I can talk to her. Please send happy, positive thoughts to Australia!!)
SO, the Paralympics . . . what can I say! Amazing, Inspirational, Mind blowing, Immense, Formidable, Crazy, Insane, but most of all Revealing! Revealing a truth about disability, revealing the opposite of all the disabled stereotypes, revealing to the world the Paralympians in all their "Superhuman" glory. For so many people, able bodied and disabled, the Paralympics became an eye opener of possbility - possibility for everyone.
The possibilities have become apparent to me in my school visits. There is one particular story I have to share with you -
I was spending the day at Mt St. Mary's Catholic High School in Leeds; I did a keynote speech and then I ran a workshop four times during the day. My workshop was to address goals, overcoming obstacles, and motivational tools. The very first workshop had a late arrival. It was a young man who had missed the keynote and therefore, walked into the workshop with no idea what was happening or who I was. I actively encouraged him to participate in the activities, but he was resistant, muttering constantly that is was "all a waste of time" and that he "had no goals and that goals were stupid." The teachers sat with him, tried to get him to participate - but he refused. Then it happened, a lightbulb went off in his head - two minutes before the workshop finished. He realised I was a Paralympian. His attitude changed . . . I have never seen a kid finish the activities from my workshop so quickly. He even took and kept the stars I handed out at the end (the stars were for the students to write their powerwords on). He realised I was a Paralympian.
That is the power of the Paralympians, that is the legacy. A respect, an admiration, an esteem has been created for people with disabilities. People (and particularly students) now openly have Paralympians as role models; people with disabilities are being seen as being able to achieve great things in life. It is the self belief, the determination, the purpose, and the focus that Paralympians can model for students and schools. Cause, you know, ask a child if they know who Jonnie Peacock and Ellie Symonds are and their hands reach higher then ever before in their eagerness to discuss these athletes races and triumphs. I don't think you could ask for a better legacy.
There was a quote from someone on some show (my bad for not remembering these things) that hit the nail on the head for what the London Paralympics did - "The Sydney Paralympics made the Paralympians equal, London made them superstar!" DO you agree? I do.
I am so excited that the Paralympics are now underway . . . and I am a little envious as well. Green around the gills. Eaten up with jealousy. You know what I mean right? I feel this way because I remember what it was like to compete in a home games, and the GB Team are getting to experience that right now.
To compete in a Paralympic Games means you are the best in your sport, it is special, astonishing, and confidence building and you never forget what it is like. To compete in a home Paralympic Games is to have a once in a lifetime opportunity to represent your country against other elite athletes with your country right there, behind you, supporting you, cheering, waving flags, clapping, calling your name, generally being with you in every dive, stroke, turn, and finish.
Let me describe to you a moment -
The stands were full, the crowd was already boisterous; flags were rippling and faces were painted in country colours. I sat in the marshaling room. Nervous chatter gushed from my quivering lips. Feeling cold and goose-pimply, I remember rubbing my arms, trying to maintain feeling and limberness. Just before walking out to the pool I managed a glance out of the rooms window into the crowd. There! Just there, close to the front and at the starting end of the pool. My nephew was holding a banner, a white slash through the sea of faces. Upon this banner he had written - "GO Aunty Bess." Stunned momentarily, I felt that feeling I had been waiting for. Here I was, about to swim in front of my family and friends and countrymen in the biggest moment of my career, and there was my nephew, my sweet, brown haired, excitable nephew cheering just for me. He had faith in me, he was proud of me, even before I had walked out and swum my race. A confidence surged through my veins. The adrenaline kicked in forcefully; my shivering stopped, my nervous chattering died; I knew what I had to do."
That moment . . . can you imagine it? This moment was right before I won my silver medal in the 400m Freestyle. I remember every moment of that race, every moment directly before and after. It is emotionally significant to me and I draw on these moments to motivate myself, to remind myself that as long as i do my best my family and friends (and most importantly myself) can be proud of me. Memories are so important, and we can all utilise our past moments to vitalise our futures.
For Team GB it is there home games and it will be filled with many moments that they will never forget, that they will draw on to inspire their future lives. What does this tell us?
We can find inspiration in our own lives if we look hard enough. What have you achieved that further inspires you?