Competitive sport and the barriers – My experiences
By Katherine Healey
From a very young age I was always taught the benefits of sport, but I never realised how important it would become to me. I’ve been registered as severely sight impaired from birth, with a number of conditions including Nystagmus and Photophobia, with about 5-10% vision, and I learnt very quickly that there were extra barriers to accessing sports for VI people. I’ve never let that stop me, and I’ve managed to reach an international level of competition in Para swimming, but there are still difficulties out there for VI athletes, in any sport.
When I was in primary school I was never able to fully participate in the PE curriculum because of a lack of SEN provision at primary level, and even when I could join in, I was often left with the task of keeping score as I found it extremely difficult to keep up since most of the time we played hockey, netball and badminton. This carried on in secondary education as although I was given a learning support assistant to help me, large class numbers and quick paced lessons meant I did have to sit out at times, although I always tried to participate in some way. However, I had taken swimming lessons since the age of 4, and some of my family were very keen runners, so I did used to try and join weekend activity clubs in those sports. In year 6 I also helped to represent my school in cricket at some local inter school competitions, as I was very fortunate enough to be given 1-1 sessions with a teacher and felt like giving myself a challenge.
When I was 11, I went to a Playground to Podium talent ID day with other SEN pupils from my local county and it was there that I was encouraged to join a swim team. I had always liked swimming but never really thought that I was any good. A couple of years later and I was competing in able bodied competitions all around my county, and when I was 14 I got my Para swimming classification through British Blind Sport. Since then I have entered and won medals in many Para swimming regional and national events as well as local ones with my swim club, and the past couple of years I have competed in international competitions, including the Rio 2016 Paralympic trials. I also became National gold medallist in my favourite events in 2016, the 50m and 100m freestyle, and National gold medallist in the 100m backstroke in 2015.
Swimming is probably one of the main driving forces behind my self-esteem, it has allowed me so many wonderful opportunities and I have met some fantastic people, even if I have had to make sacrifices along the way. I have also become much more independent and focused on what I want to achieve both in and outside of my sport, and am forever grateful to my parents too. Who always kept encouraging me through the horrible training sessions, and drove hours on weekends so I could compete.
However, although the Para swimming world is inviting for VI swimmers, there are still difficulties. When I have received target sheets and results from national coaches they are often handwritten or in very small font, making it difficult for me to access them. In addition, competition set up can mean that officials and technical equipment can be in the way on poolside, therefore sometimes it is difficult to make my way around them. From talking with other VI athletes, it is also a common trend to find that in a lot of sports there is still a lack of awareness on the difficulties visually impaired athletes face; one of these particularly being when sorted into our race positions with other competitors, as organisers can be very vague in explanation or try to rush.
Although these are challenges, improvements are being made, particularly in Swimming, and many more VI children are being encouraged to be involved with sport. Overall, I couldn’t have asked for a much better experience in Para Swimming, and over the next couple of years I hope to achieve even more as I go to university and compete there. Even though there are people who will question your commitment to sport, who may not believe that you have much potential, the most important lesson I have learnt is to prove them wrong. Do the unexpected; go to that extra practice, because it is really worth it.