On her childhood: Growing up with cerebral palsy, I always knew I was different from everyone else. I have right-sided hemiplegia, which means that I’m impaired down the entire right side of my body. From brushing my teeth to doing up buttons, it impacts everything I do – but I never felt like I was missing out. My mum started taking me to swimming lessons when I was four to strengthen my muscles and I started training with Cerebral Palsy Sport when I was ten. I was the youngest swimmer in the group by several years but that only spurred me on and made me more competitive. When I was 14, I was selected for Paralympics GB.
On her early career: Although I went to a comprehensive school in Newport, I trained at the Welsh National Pool in Swansea, which was nearly 55 miles away. My alarm would go off at 04.37 every morning and I’d squeeze in two hours of swimming before and after school, driving at least 1,000 miles a week. I missed out on socialising with my friends at the weekends and I went through a phase in my teens where I refused to wear my leg splint but I quickly learned that if you try to be like everyone else, you stifle your own abilities. The treadmill of swimming and studying paid off when I won a silver medal in the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games and passed the A-levels I needed to do a business degree at Swansea University. My whole life changed just by cutting out that amount of driving: I knocked four seconds off my best time in a year.
On her toughest moment: In September 2007, my mum was diagnosed with cervical cancer. The following month, we were told it was terminal. It felt like my whole life was crumbling around me but I tried to stay strong and I didn’t take a second of our time together for granted. She didn’t want to leave me with any unanswered questions so we discussed everything from burials to bridal dresses. I’m eternally grateful that we knew she was sick: we could try and mentally prepare for the inevitable. A year later, on the day I arrived at the Paralympic Village in Beijing, I found out she’d passed away. I knew going home wouldn’t bring her back, so I decided to carry on and compete: I owed it to myself and everyone who had supported me. When I won gold, the feeling was just relief. It was the greatest achievement of my career and I dedicated it to my mum.
On her current career: Having won that elusive gold, I could enjoy the London 2012 Paralympic Games in a different way. I got involved in designing the kit, I laid the last tile in the Aquatics Centre and I had the honour of reading the Athlete Oath at the Opening Ceremony. After adding a bronze medal to my collection, I retired from international swimming in 2016. I joined Channel 4’s broadcasting team for the Paralympics in Rio and became an athlete mentor for the Youth Sport Trust and Dame Kelly Holmes Trust. I never found it hard to transition to the “real world”. Two years ago I launched an employment consultancy called The Ability People. The aim: to close the disability employment gap, which currently stands at 28%. Staffed exclusively by disabled people, we work with corporates such as HSBC, Chelsea FC and Guidant on recruitment and retention policies and normalising differences within the workplace. We want to create an inclusive environment where everybody has the opportunity to work.
On her role models: I admire those with attributes and characteristics that I wish to emulate. My Mum was my ultimate role model. From the sporting world, it’s Michael Johnson and David Beckham (even as a Liverpool fan!).
On her style: I spent most of my life in a swimsuit or in joggers and a hoodie. When I stopped swimming professionally, not only did my body shape change but I had to rethink my entire wardrobe. Nowadays, I’ll go for a blouse and skirt or a tailored dress to accentuate my waist, teamed with trainers. I can’t wear heels with my splint.
On staying sane: My fiancé is a Brazilian international swimmer so we usually split our time between there and the UK. We love living near the sea. I have a group of close friends who keep me balanced. Our social life revolves almost entirely around eating and travelling.
On her most powerful piece of advice to other women: I can’t change or hide my disability, so I’ve just learned to be comfortable with who I am – and that’s the most liberating thing in the world. Being different gives you a competitive advantage.
Interview: Kate Bassett
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