Deaf Sports Events17th April 2014

National Deaf Swimming Championships 2014

Deaf swimmers came from across there UK to compete in their National Championship at Loughborough University

by Sarah Lawrence

Despite great efforts by the National Deaf Children’s Society and some local councils to promote swimming opportunities for deaf children, lots of deaf youngsters in the UK do not consider competitive swimming because of the communication barriers at club level. In recognition of the inequality deaf people face and to ensure deaf swimmers can compete on a level playing field, deaf swimming was recognised as a disability competitive group in 2006 and is now notified by the S15 classification.

Swimming has also been an integral part of the Deaflympics since the 1924 games in Paris and remains popular and well-supported at the pinnacle of international deaf sport. In the UK, deaf swimming is now overseen by GB Deaf Swimming and they hold the national championships, attracting swimmers from all over the UK.

On Saturday 12th April, the 2014 National Deaf Swimming Championships took place at the impressive National Centre for Swimming at Loughborough University. Aged between 9 and 20, many of the swimmers arrived for the championships the night before, giving themselves the best opportunity to prepare properly for the competition. Meeting up with some of the swimmers and parents on the eve of the event, there was a buzz of excitement at the hotel in anticipation of the following days competition.

I took the opportunity to ask Assistant Coach Martin Lee a little about his role and what he has to do differently when coaching deaf swimmers. An experienced multiple gold medal winning swimmer from the Deaflympics in New Zealand in 1989, Martin told me, “You have to ensure you have the swimmer’s attention before explaining sets. It is important to communicate well and to check that you have been understood. Because the start is by a flashing light, we also have to teach a slightly different start.” Ambitious for his swimmers Martin told me that his greatest challenge is “to get a deaf swimmer to win a Deaflympics gold medal and get a world record at the same time.”

Head coach to the GB Deaf Swimming Squad, Sam Chamberlain would like to see more deaf people enter the sport and compete at national level. “One of my greatest challenges is to encourage and support more deaf swimmers to join the GB Deaf Swimming team in the future,” he explained.

Trooping off to the pool at 8 - 10pm, the competitors were given an opportunity to familiarise themselves with the pool, with the water in each venue being a little different, some pools being regarded as fast and some slow. With events from 50 to 200 metres, some swimmers had the opportunity to compete in 9 different events, all within four hours of competition and it is this punishing schedule that helps you understand why swimmers train so hard.

Returning from a training session that would leave most people gasping for breath, these youngsters returned to the hotel in fine fettle, seeming as though they had just taken a quiet stroll around the block. Early to bed, I sensed the following day would leave me in awe of the dedication and fortitude of these deaf youngsters.

Speaking to Nigel Kenny the father of 16 years old Oliver, I was given a real insight into the importance and impact of the national championships. “We have really enjoyed deaf swimming (nationals),” Nigel told me. “When my son was young he was inspired by the older swimmers and found the environment so relaxing and enjoyable as he could communicate with everyone. Since then he has built lasting friendships and even though they only meet two or three times a year, the swimmers have a great bond.”

Arriving early at the pool on race day, I was stunned to see just how far 50 metres looks when poolside. It seems an awful lot further than half the straight of an athletics track and the thought of trying to do one length brought shivers to my spine. The venue as a whole was fantastic and fitting for any national swimming championships. With 32 swimmers and 5 ‘guest’ hearing siblings taking part in 19 events, the water was soon a frenzy of activity as the swimmers began their pre-competition warm up. That seemed exhausting enough!

Before the main event we were treated to a preview of the GB team outfits for the upcoming European Championships in Russia, with those swimmers already selected for the team modelling it on poolside. 

With the officials making their way onto poolside under the stewardship of the Championship referee, all dressed smartly in white, I could feel expectation starting to rise. Parents and supporters were gathered in the viewing gallery and the big digital results board changed to show the names of the four swimmers taking part in the first heat of the ladies 200 Individual Medley. I asked Ian Allchin, a referee at the event whether there were any adaptations as this was a deaf event. “Only for the starting procedure”, he told me. “I understand that there is development work going on for a better starting process with a strobe for each lane.”

Before the start of the first race, the referee gathered all swimmers at the end of the pool to demonstrate the starting procedure, a flashing light being used along with the usual high pitched beep the starting machine blurts out. Fully briefed and raring to go the first swimmers approached the starting blocks. As they stood on the blocks I couldn’t help myself thinking about how small they looked with that vast expanse of a competition pool ahead of them. Two strokes of butterfly is my life time best and these youngsters were going to do 50m butterfly, followed by 50m backstroke, 50m breaststroke and the final length using freestyle.

In the referees hands, they were called forward, “take your marks”, and with swimmers looking towards the starting machine, the flashing light beeped on and they were off, diving sleekly and expertly into the water, before rising back out of the water to take their first butterfly stroke.

Race after race followed, with some of the best deaf swimmers in the world on show in amongst some relative newcomers. Danielle Joyce, multiple world champion was in the final heat of that first race, winning the race in a personal best (PB) time and missing out on Hannah Fitton’s British Record by 4 seconds. With all but one of the swimmers in the first race setting a new PB, there were smiles aplenty amongst the much travelled parents looking on.

In the men’s 200 IM, further successes followed with some of the swimmers easily beating their PB time, including the impressive 16 years old Oliver Kenny who took 4 seconds off his previous best time, winning the race in a time of 2:27.31.

In the expert hands of the organisers, referee and officials the Championships ran smoothly, and despite the gruelling schedule, many swimmers achieved personal best times, some of the younger swimmers such as Evie Gallen, Lucy Jordan-Caws, Natasha Milton, Andrew Gallagher, and Ciara Tappenden taking more than 10 seconds off their previous best times.

Following  Event 11, there was a short and welcome interval for the swimmers for the presentation of medals for the first six events. Guest of honour to make the presentation was James Mander from Advanced Bionics UK Ltd.

Back under way shortly afterwards, there were further excellent performances from swimmers in all categories. I particularly enjoyed the two head to head events between twins Lewis and Fraser McCulloch, aged 13, with less than a second dividing them on both occasions.

At the end of the racing, I was honoured to be asked to present the medals and trophies to the swimmers for events 7 onwards. With beaming smiles and rightly proud of their achievements, it was lovely to play even a small part in recognising the huge endeavours of these youngsters.

As with most sports for youngsters, parents play a pivotal role in nurturing their children, supporting their development and getting them to training and competition is vital in respect of that young person being involved. In speaking to parents of the swimmers, there was significant praise for the National Championships themselves but widespread concern about the lack of financial support for deaf swimming. Additionally, several parents made comments about the flashing light starting system not being available at mainstream swimming events and the lack of equipment such as white boards to write up sets and better deaf awareness amongst some coaches.

It was also a record breaking day, with no less than 26 National Deaf Records being beaten and 5 new Northern Ireland records being set. Four Deaf Welsh age group records were beaten by Emily Noden; Danielle Joyce set two new Deaf Scottish records, and new National Deaf age group best times were set by (11 and Under) Jake Bayley, Zack Merritt, Kieron Harris, Evie Gallen; (12 years) Martha Ryan and Ciara Tappenden; (13 years) Lewis McCulloch; (14 years) Kieran Holdbrook; and (16 years) Oliver Kenny.

You can find out the full results on the GB Deaf Swimming website at GB Deaf Swimming  or on our results page at slfirst deaf sports results

In speaking to some of the coaches, swimmers and parents, one consistent comment about the future was for deaf swimming to be given equal status, importance and funding to Paralympic swimming, but that is a common problem right the way across deaf sport and is a discriminatory problem that the powers to be seem quite happy to ignore.

Commenting on deaf swimming, some of the swimmers said:

Does being Deaf affect training at all:

“No because all my peers and coaches are aware therefore are willing to help as I am seen as an individual just like them who wants to achieve goals” Lucy Walkup (17)

“Not really because my coach and mates are deaf aware” Matt Oaten (14)

“Yes as I have to make sure my coach tells me everything that I need to do as I cannot hear much in the water” Luke Nisted (17)

“No my coaches sign for me and also tell me what to do on the whiteboard” Fraser McCulloch (13)

I asked the competitors about their swimming aspirations. Most wanted to improve personal best times and compete in some of the bigger competitions. These are a few of the comments:

“To get selected for the worlds and Deaflympics 2017” Polly Saines (15)

“To win a medal at an international gala” Annabel Towns (17)

“Swim in the Commonwealth Games of Olympics for Scotland and Team GB” Shiona McCafferty (13)

Article by Sarah Lawrence

posted in Deaf Sport / Deaf Sports Events

17th April 2014