Our Olympic athletes may have just returned to a heroes’ welcome after a record-breaking Games, but they are now handing over the baton to their Paralympic counterparts who are about to take their place in Rio. The Mixed Zone is committed to highlighting the stories about world-class sportswomen not only in the Olympics, but the Paralympics as well. The XV Paralympic Games start on September 7, and The Mixed Zone continues our Road to Rio series with swimmer Charlotte Henshaw writing exclusively about competing at her third Games
I’ve always felt completely free in the water. I suppose that’s probably an important reason I took to swimming so quickly. Having had both of my legs amputated above the knee when I was eighteen months old, I began swimming lessons when I started school. My parents always encouraged me to be as independent as possible and swimming helped that. I was able to be out of my prosthetics and on a level with everyone else. My teachers never let me take the easy route in the pool; I was taught to swim as if I had legs.
From lessons, I progressed to joining a local club. The real turning point for me was a multi-sports weekend in Swindon with my parents at the age of 10. I remember meeting Emily Jennings, a Paralympic swimmer who had returned from the Atlanta Games with a gold medal. I tried the medal on and felt totally awestruck. From that moment on I knew I wanted to try and race for Great Britain. I was 16 when I received the letter inviting me to swim for Great Britain on the World Class Potential Squad.
My first Paralympic Games in Beijing were actually a huge disappointment. I’d come into the competition ranked second in the world and had put a lot of pressure on myself to win a medal. I became quite unwell in China and realised it would be hard to compete to the best of my ability. I finished fourth and returned from Beijing in a pretty dark place, unsure whether or not to continue. After conversations with my coach, I realised I had unfinished business. I was determined to use the negative experience to fuel myself and become a stronger athlete.
The following year I won my first international gold at the European Championships. Watching the British flag rising up the pole to the sound of the National Anthem was a moment I’ll never forget. Fast forward three years and I was competing at the London Paralympics. The sights, sounds and smells of the whole event were totally unforgettable; to have my whole family there to cheer me on was truly special.
I won a silver medal in the 100 metres breaststroke and I’ll never forget what happened next. As I left the pool, having won a medal in front of my home crowd, I walked straight into Emily Jennings, the same Paralympian who had inspired me all those years ago. She was working as a Games-maker and was my medal chaperone after the race. The person who had inspired me to become a Paralympian was there to share the moment I won my first Paralympic medal.
Looking ahead to Rio, I’m feeling excited. I’m in a really good place in terms of fitness and consistency of performance and I feel confident in the work I’ve put in since the World Championships last year. It was a big learning curve leading into last year’s competition and I think my coach and I have used that to build confidence approaching Rio. Until last summer, I hadn’t achieved a personal best for five years. Then I broke my European record three times in three weeks. I quickly realised the huge steps I was making towards performing at the top of my game.
Rio will be my third Paralympic Games and my attitude towards winning and performing has changed over time. Obviously medals are a driving force to some extent – it is what teams are judged on – but the most important thing to me is to be better than I was yesterday. If I achieve that, I can hold my head high. I’ve found that taking that pressure off myself to win a certain colour of medal allows me to swim to the best of my ability.
I think that attitude is not exclusively useful to sport. Swimming has taught me so many valuable things; I combined competitive sport with a degree from Stirling University. I was adamant I wanted to get a good degree while swimming at a high level, so I really had to make sure I knuckled down to keep both afloat.
Sport is such a phenomenal tool for bringing people together. After Rio I plan to rest, relax and enjoy the buzz that surrounds the Games. But it’s also crucial that we maintain the interest in Paralympic sport. I met so many young kids after London who had real interest in the Paralympics, and I want to make sure that the movement continues to grow and get the recognition it deserves.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
This article was written by Charlotte Henshaw with Tom Morgan.