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a swimmer’s tale

I was born in the Rhondda Valleys, in Pontypridd, on 25 May 1980, and I currently live in Cardiff Bay. I’ve swum for Wales since I was eleven years old, for Britain for the last fifteen years. I’ve been to the last three Olympics and I’ve travelled all around the world as a swimmer.
cerebral palsy

When I swim, I don’t know I’ve dived off the block until I’m in the air. When I push off the wall, I don’t know I’m moving until I see the tiles going the opposite way. So, I have to be a little bit more careful. But I don’t see myself as disabled. I just see myself as me. Cerebral palsy is a tag that comes along with me because that’s what I have. But I’m not a disabled person. I’m as able as any of you guys.

There is no actual known cause for cerebral palsy; it’s a lack of oxygen at birth or at some point in your life. A lot of people have road accidents and have brain damage, end up with cerebral palsy because they’ve been starved of oxygen. There is no cure.

I was told I was clumsy. My parents were told that they were being over protective and I was clumsy. It was only when we saw a consultant from Great Ormond Street who actually said, “No, you’re not clumsy. This is what your disability is and this is how it’s going to affect you for the rest of your life”. Everything that he said on that day at eleven years old was completely spot on. At that point, my feet weren’t turning in, but he said. “As you get older, your feet are going to turn in, and eventually they’ll break themselves”, and they’ve done that twice, so he was right.

I wasn’t treated any differently by my friends, though. I still climbed trees and played football, rugby, and did everything I normally did. It just meant I used to go and see physiotherapists a lot more frequently … and I started swimming more.

I became a swimmer completely by accident. I was going to physiotherapy and kept getting told that I needed to do something, otherwise – because of my disability – I’d end up in a wheelchair. I used to think that climbing trees was good fun, but apparently it wasn’t. So, my physio told me to go to a disability swimming club in Cardiff. So I went along. I had one lesson and I was better than the person teaching me. So, I joined the club. I won every race I could, and I’ve just carried on swimming ever since.
the greatest

I’ve done Olympics, World Championships, European Championships, and, my favourite, the Commonwealth Games. I spend most of my time looking at the bottom of a pool and lots of different coloured tiles, the complete ability to just switch off from the rest of the world and just focus on myself, because swimming is not like a team sport. I don’t have to worry about team-mates, just me, and I quite like that.
Obviously, I’d like to be the greatest. That’s what drives me to be better, so that’s why I’ll go to London and I’ll try to win one more gold medal. To win that one more gold medal, to beat Tanni Grey, that’s my only driving force, to be known as the greatest, not joint.

Tanni is a fantastic athlete and she’s someone who people worldwide look up to and respect for what she did in sport, and it’s nice to be in the same bracket as her.

When we go to an Olympics, I spend most of my time looking in the crowd to find my mam, dad and girlfriend when I’m going into a race, whereas most people are very much in the zone and don’t even notice there is a crowd there. I’m very aware they are there. I just enjoy it, kind of a show-off, really.

I loved Beijing because the rest of the world suddenly decided that disability sport was something that they could really take up. The British swimming team has always been very far ahead of the rest of the world.

Now, all of a sudden, different countries are putting money into it, a lot of money, and it’s becoming a lot harder. When you go to China, they want to be the best at everything they do, and so do the Americans and the Australians, and then, all of a sudden, there’s real competition.

I missed the European Championships and the World Championships last year because I was walking my dog and, unfortunately, she spotted a squirrel and pulled me into a tree. I broke my arm in two places and I broke my top two ribs.
My most memorable Olympic experience was carrying the flag in the Closing Ceremony in Beijing. It’s the ultimate honour to be able to carry the flag of not just your team but your nation and it was spectacular. It was a good end to a good Games because obviously I’d equalled Tanni Grey, as well. It was the cherry on the top.

Well, they present you with your medal and then you want to keep it on. Officially, you wear it for your medal ceremony, then you parade it around the pool to thank the people who have come and to catch flags and flowers and every other thing, and then you can take it off and go and swim down … or, like me, you can just keep wearing it! What I find I do, and I think most people who do an Olympics will tell you the same, you sleep with it the first night, no matter how many you win, you sleep with your medal under your pillow, and you wake up the next morning panicking because you’re wondering if it’s still there. And you wear it and you’re proud to wear it, so you’ll go to the food hall the next morning still wearing it.

I met my girlfriend through swimming. She used to swim for Sweden. I’ve got friends all around the world. I’m going to Mallorca in a fortnight’s time to train with a couple of the Spanish swimmers who I’ve known for years and years. A lot of my main rivals are quite close friends, so I spent a lot of time in America last year, training with my main rival in Georgia.

I’ve met probably the most famous lady in the world, the Queen. I’ve been to her house a few times. I’ve been to her garden party. She was no different to my nan. She just lives in a bigger house. That’s the way to look at it. You don’t look at people as celebrities. They are just people. That’s all they are. They’re no different to you.
I’ve met David Beckham, Steven Gerrard. I’ve met princes and princesses. The most famous person that I’ve met, the person I was most excited about meeting, was Nelson Mandela, and I met him completely by accident. I was eating my dinner in the Olympic food hall in Sydney, minding my own business late at night, and somebody sat down opposite me and I thought, “Okay, that happens”. I didn’t look up, but I noticed that there were two security guards standing next to me and next to him and I thought, “Mmm, I think there’s someone famous in front of me”. I looked up and it was Nelson Mandela and he was eating dinner in the food hall, and we sat and spoke like I’m speaking to you guys. He interviewed me just like you are and it was really good. I’ve met Lady Gaga. I’ve met Madonna. I’ve met lots of crazy people just because I can swim.

wales (and cardiff)
I always compete for Wales, always. Whether it’s under a British flag or a Welsh flag, I’m always competing for Wales. Is there a conflict? No, not really. I’ll always take the Welsh flag wherever I go. Wherever I go in the world, you can spot where I am because my Welsh flag is there. You go to the Olympics and you’re told you are not allowed to take your Welsh flags but, I’m sorry, I always will, and that’s not being disrespectful. It’s just that, when it comes to the media, if I win I’m British and if I lose I’m Welsh, and I don’t like that at all. I always make sure people know I’m Welsh.

Unfortunately, in Sydney we were not allowed to take Welsh flags up onto the podium with us, but the guy in charge of the medal ceremonies was from Ely in Cardiff and he gave me his Welsh flag every time I went up. In Athens and Beijing, we were told we weren’t allowed to because they are not nations recognised within the Olympics, but I always take it. I will always carry a Welsh flag wherever I go.

And, when I win, I do the Ayatollah. It’s a Cardiff City thing. I’m a Cardiff City fan. It’s just a thing to remind people that I am who I am and that I miss the city and I miss the people. Doesn’t matter what city you compete in or where you are around the world, you always look for the football results and I always look for that one first.

I’m always told I’m going to be beaten by rivals and different coaches, and it just makes me more determined to prove them wrong. You use that as an incentive. If someone says you’re not very good at this, I’m pretty sure you’ll try and make sure you are.

I come from a small town in a small valley that was completely destroyed. There was a coke works right in the middle of it and obviously that’s shut now. I’ve been able to branch out and see different things because I decided that I didn’t want to stay in the valleys, forever. I wanted to do something with my life, and I was fortunate that sport was my route out.

In Cardiff, you know, there’s not a day goes by where someone doesn’t recognise me. More often than not, it’s the little old ladies packing their shopping up, and they’ll go, “I saw you on telly”.
At the end of the day, I’m in the public eye and if someone wants my autograph, if it makes them feel better, then, of course, I have no issues. If every kid in this school wants my autograph, then I’d stay here all day. I’d sign every kid’s book or whatever they wanted, because that’s part of being an Olympian, part of being a sports person. I don’t see myself as famous. I see myself as me.
london 2012
London has a very, very important job. London will make or break disability sport in Britain. This is its chance to become mainstream, mainstream in this country. It happened in Athens, it happened in Australia, it happened in China. It’s our chance to get it into the public eye and keep it there because, let’s be honest, once every four years you know about Paralympic sport. Nothing else. None of you knew I did the World Championships trials, yesterday, I’m pretty sure of that. The team was announced at eleven o’clock this morning. I haven’t seen it yet. I’m guessing that I’m going because I did the qualifying times but I haven’t read it yet. That’s the difference.
When a team is announced within the able-bodied world, you know about it … so it’s little bricks but we’re building a nice big house.

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