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LIZ JOHNSON
a swimmer’s tale

My name is Liz Johnson. I was born in Newport on 3 December 1985 and I currently live in Bath. I was born with cerebral palsy and that kind of defined not who I am but the choices I made through life. My parents were always very proactive in making sure I got involved and was very independent, so sport did play a big part in my life from an early age and, I guess, that kind of shaped me into the person that I am now.

I needed to get as much movement and train my brain as much as I could so I could be on a par with my able-bodied peers, and so I went to all the classes. I learnt to swim, mainly because I think my parents were afraid I might drown when we were on holiday. I played all sports in the street like football, whatever was on the TV at the time, you know, whether it was Wimbledon or the Premier League.

driving lessons

I went through my whole school life in Newport. Then I moved to Swansea, primarily for the swimming, but it also meant that I could pursue a degree at the same time. While I was doing my A-levels at Basseleg Comprehensive School in Newport, I actually trained in Swansea. That was probably the most difficult time of my life because I was driving at least 800 miles a week and trying to train and trying to study. A standard day for me would be: wake up about half four and then drive to Swansea and swim for two hours from six until eight; then drive back to Newport to go to school; then, at three-thirty when the bell went, back to Swansea for another two hours training; and get home between quarter-to-nine and quarter-past-nine, depending on the traffic and how tired I was. It was my only option at the time, because there was nowhere to swim in Newport and it made sense for me to stay in school with teachers and friends that knew me. I sat down with my mum to try and come up with the best option to get to reach my goals. That was the only option and it paid off because I went to Athens and I got a silver medal which, at the time, was the best I could have hoped for, and I also got the A-levels that I needed to get into university. So, in 2004, I guess my goals were achieved, and that set me up to move to Swansea. I was going to be able to train like an elite athlete but also not have to take a stop-gap in my education, so when I graduated I was going to be on a level playing field with everybody else.

four seconds faster

I’m very motivated and, once I set myself a goal, I’ll do everything I can to make sure I give myself the best chance to achieve it. I don’t think at the time I realised how much that driving was taking out of me until I moved to Swansea. I was in my first year at university. I was living away from home.

My whole life had changed just by cutting out that amount of driving. I knocked four seconds off my best time in a year.

When I was younger I would sometimes miss out on a birthday party, wish I could have gone, but it was only really because people would be talking about it on a Monday morning and it would take me a little while to catch up because I had been at swimming.

But, generally, I got so much more out of the swimming and sport and my experiences that I don’t have any regrets. I haven’t really missed out on anything that my friends have done. But I’ve done so much more on top.
why can’t i?

I’m not so sure if anybody recognised that I was going to be a great swimmer straight off, but I can recall the moment that I decided I wanted to be a Paralympic champion and that I was going to dedicate my efforts to swimming. I was ten years old at my first National Championships and I’d met a few of the guys that were going to the Atlanta Olympic Games, and, because I had met them, and I had swum in the same races and I’d seen them at the pool, I realised that they weren’t super-human. If they could do it, then there was no reason why I couldn’t!

I’ve always been a very competitive person. I played all sports with my friends in school, but it got to a point where I was never going to be able to pursue some of them to the level that I wanted to because of the nature of my disability. It was just a fact and swimming was one that I could, so, at that point, I think I made a conscious decision that I was going to put more effort into my swimming. And, as I was doing that, I got on the radar and progressed through the system.

breakthrough

I don’t think you have to go necessarily to a medal to find your first success. I think the big one is when you feel you’ve made a breakthrough and so, for the majority of people, me included, it’s the first time you get that letter that says you’re on the national squad, the first time you get your British swimming cap and your British swimming t-shirt, hoodie and tracksuit. For me, that was in the year 2000. I think that marks the point where the sacrifices or the choices you’ve made start to become worth it, and you realise that, if you carry on, then you will get to where you want to be.

I’ve been on the British swim team since 2000, since I was 14, and it’s been full of high points and low points, but I think the ones that always stand out for you the most are the Paralympics and the World Championships. South Africa in 2006 was the first time I’d ever won a gold medal at a major champ-ionships and it was my twenty-first birthday that week, too. I won and I was part of two relays, so I came back with three gold medals and a world record. I guess that would be on paper my most successful meet, but then my first Paralympic medal will always be close to my heart – Athens 2004 – because I had to go through so much in a sense of juggling school and swimming to get it.

Obviously, my main, my biggest achievement has to be my Beijing Paralympic gold medal, because that’s what I worked my whole life for. That’s always been my dream. So, if I had to pick one moment that would be it. But, then again, I went to the World Champ-ionships in 2009, short course in a 25 metre pool, and I won another gold medal there, the first time they’d had a World Championships short course in disability swimming, so I’m the first World Champion, so that’s special. And, in a different way, the Manchester Commonwealth Games 2002 was a great experience because I got to represent Wales. It was a mixed experience, because, the way that the Paralympic swimming programme is run, they pick specific events, and they didn’t pick an event that I had a chance in. I swam the 100 freestyle which is my number five, number six event. It’s very hard to stand behind the block and know that you’ve got absolutely zero chance of winning as an athlete. But just to be able to represent Wales was amazing. I would really like to get that opportunity more often.

half a second

I think for me the most dramatic race of my career was the Beijing final. I think all the drama adds to the victory because, from the moment that I decided I wanted to be a Paralympic champion at ten, every decision I ever made, whether it was where I went to school, what subjects I took, who I went out with, when I went out, everything was to give me the best chance to win in Beijing. Six months before Beijing, I had hurt my shoulder, my left arm, my strong arm, so me and my coach at the time, Billy Pye, had to rewrite my whole programme. We had sat down after Athens and planned out the road to Beijing. It was all set in stone and we were just going to follow the programme. Then, six months out, we had to just scrap it, rewrite the whole thing. He was a person who was comfortable, and rightly so, in doing what they know works, and, suddenly, we didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know what the answers were and it took some time to work it out. So, that was the first hurdle to get over. In the same year, just three months previously, my mum got diagnosed with cancer, so that rocked us both a bit as well. But, swimming again really helped me, because it gave me an escape and it gave me a focus. My mum had worked as hard as I had, harder in fact, because she was the one who put me in the position to be able to pursue my dream in the first place, so it gave her something to focus on, as well. I think that really helped us all at that time.

I got to Beijing. I still didn’t know if I’d be able to swim because of my shoulder. I hadn’t done full stroke for the whole time, since the Paralympic trials. Since the day I qualified for Beijing to the day we got to Beijing, I hadn’t swum a 400 metres breaststroke, so I had twelve days to work out if I was going to be able to make it. On the day we arrived in Beijing, we got a phone call: my mum had passed away. It kind of put everything in perspective. I’d forgotten that my shoulder was hurting. I had to decide whether I was going to stay. No one would have blamed me for going home: I didn’t know if my shoulder was going to hold up, so it might have been the perfect excuse, but I don’t think it would have been fair on my mum after she put all that work in for me to turn around and go home. And, also, the Paralympic Games is so special and you don’t know if you’re ever going to get another opportunity – some of us are lucky to go to more than one – but you never know if you’re going to get that chance, so you’ve got to go for it, I guess.

I was lucky that I wasn’t racing until day six of the swim meet programme. When it first came out I was, like, “Oh, I’ve got to wait until day six”, but because I was injured, and with everything that went on with my mum, I probably needed that time to get my head somewhere back to normal.

Then, when race day came and I swam the heat and I felt okay, I surprised myself at how fast I’d gone. I’d qualified fastest for the final. I remember I normally get really nervous and I start to think, “What if it goes wrong?” or “What happens if this happens?”. But, that one race, I just stood behind the block and looked down the end of the pool and, when the whistle went to get on the block, you just have to get down there and back before anybody else. It’s that simple, because the two girls either side of me both had gone out in the morning a second and a half quicker than I had to the 50 turn … and I hadn’t trained for six months. Nobody else knew this but I hadn’t trained as hard as I thought I needed to for six months, so I couldn’t bring it back like I normally do, because normally I catch them in the second 50. But, I didn’t really think that was going to be an option. So, I just put all my eggs in one basket and, when the gun went, I just flew off the block and went as fast as I could. I got to the turn and if you stopped it then you would have thought I was going to win it comfortably, and I think people did. Then I turned and, like I said, I expected the other girls to be close to me and I couldn’t see them, so I was, like, “Okay, put your head down and go”.

So, as I was coming up the second 50, I’d done about 10 metres, and, all of a sudden, it felt like I was stopping and, as I was coming up and down with every stroke on breaststroke, you can see the wall and it wasn’t getting any closer, or it didn’t feel like it. The recollection I’ve got of the rest of the race comes from the video because, at that point, I was just holding on for dear life. The girls looked like they were catching me. They looked like they were going much faster than me and one of the girls, the Australian girl that beat me in Athens, she was the one that was catching me quickest and she’s a dwarf, and, as we were coming into the final five metres, our heads were in line and I think everyone’s hearts were in their mouths. And we touched the wall. I’ve got longer arms than her and I won it by just under half a second.

I didn’t know for sure that I’d won. When I turned to the board and they confirmed the results and there was a number one next to my name, that was when I think I was just hit by a big wave of relief, because that’s all I’ve ever wanted in terms of swimming, to become a Paralympic champion. And then I looked in the crowd and my dad and my sister were there, and then I looked at Billy and my room-mates. I think everybody just bought into that one swim for me and I think it helped me a lot. It helped everybody to realise the power that sport has.

obstacles and opportunities

I would like to say that I will never ever go into a race in a worse condition. I would like to hope that nothing worse could ever happen to me, but you never know. It went a long way to proving to me how important the presence of swimming had been in my life and that, if you set yourself a target, you can either be someone who makes excuses or you can just seize the opportunity. I’ve always viewed an obstacle as an opportunity, because sometimes it just creates a door or an avenue that you didn’t know was there. Whether it is how to juggle your studies and your sport, or something a bit more critical. I think I’ve got a lot of strength from that.

I would hope that, in London, I’ll get more of a free run-in and be in the best shape that I could be, because in Beijing I won, and the time is irrelevant because I’ve got the gold medal, but I would love to go to London and win in a world record. I don’t think I ever can be in that situation again because my mum was my best friend and she was such a big presence in my life that I don’t foresee any circumstance that could have that great an affect on my life, but, looking back, I take a lot from the experience, because, yes, it probably gave me an edge in the sense of a bit more fight and determination. I know now that I can cope with anything.

billy pye

Billy Pye and I worked together in Swansea for six years, so we went through two Paralympic Games together and a World Championships, and we both evolved as people, I think. He came in at the beginning from an able-bodied swimming background, so I would like to think I helped him a lot in understanding the Paralympic world, and he, obviously, helped me a lot because he enabled me to pursue a full-time degree and swimming because he gave up his time. He’d come in if I needed to be in early, before uni. Or, if we had to stay late, he would always give me his time.

Our relationship developed to the point where we would sit down and discuss, and we wouldn’t always agree, but we’d always end up coming up with the best outcome. And, even now, even though I’ve left, I know that if I ever needed anything I can call him and ask his opinion, or if I ever wanted to go back to Swansea for a weekend, he’d always take me. And, when we go away on British swimming trips, he’s still head coach, so I still see him there. I think it’s nice to have that understanding and that relationship where he trusts me if I say something or ¬if I question him, and I trust that he will listen to my opinion and that we will end up, between us, coming up with the best outcome. He even took me to watch Cardiff City play on Boxing Day.

I think Billy Pye’s main strengths and the reason he’s got to where he is is his commitment in terms of time. If I needed to be at the pool at 3am, he would have found a way to make it happen, and he would have come with me. On a personal level, I found that if you give he gives.

a different person

I moved to Bath in May 2009. I just felt that, if I was going to go to London and still love swimming and still better my career, I needed to mix things up a bit and maybe get a fresh input and a new squad. I had been with the same squad all that time and I’d graduated. I was a different person from when I first went there, and I didn’t want to be that same person in four years time. I wanted to develop and evolve. My squad here is a more senior one because it’s based at a university; the youngest person is 18. My new coach has never worked with anybody with my impairment before but then, nor had Billy when I first went to Swansea, so the first few months or the first year even is always a bit of a learning curve for both parties. I’m not a text-book case. Because I’m in an able-bodied squad now, I can look at my able-bodied swimming friends and think, “Oh, that’s how they swim breaststroke. I’ll have a go at that”. In the able-bodied world, just because of numbers, there’s more competition, so they have that competitive edge all of the time, and I’m a very competitive person. So, it’s nice to be able to buy in to each training session and have that drive and determination, even if it’s just I’ve got to get to 10 metres before they get to 20.

wales

I’m one hundred per cent Welsh. My parents are Welsh, I was born in Wales, I lived in Wales and Wales is my home. I’m in Bath now because that is the best place for me to pursue my career ahead of 2012, but if anybody ever asks me where I’m from, I’m always Welsh.

I’ve only ever been to one Commonwealth Games. Don’t get me wrong, representing Great Britain is a great honour and I love it, but I think the Welsh national anthem just brings a bit of extra passion, and I would love to get the opportunity to stand on the podium and listen to that play.

I don’t know if I agree with the notion that Wales should be a separate entity at the Olympics and the Paralympics because we are Great Britain and Northern Ireland and we always have been and we probably always will be. Yes, Wales has got a great contingent of athletes in both the Paralympics and the Olympics and we are very successful, but the same could be said for maybe Manchester, but Manchester aren’t going to represent themselves in the Games.

Sport has got an amazing power in unifying a nation. I think it can really inspire people to go on and achieve things in their life, individual goals, sporting or academic, or just personal, and I think the fact that we have been so successful and that success is building towards London – you can’t go anywhere without looking or seeing something about London 2012, whether it’s at your bank or in your phonebook or wherever it is – I think sport is really now touching everybody.

dreams

My ultimate dream would be to go to London and win another Paralympic gold medal and defend my title. Beyond that, I would be lying if I said at the moment I’m looking beyond London. I don’t think there’s any athlete in Britain that is looking beyond London 2012 right now, because everything is geared towards peaking at the right time. So, I don’t think you want to distract yourself in any way by even worrying about even what you have for Christmas that year after London. At the moment, London 2012, the Closing Ceremony is probably the last day on people’s minds. Everything right now is swimming, swimming, swimming for another gold medal. But I can’t control what other people do and if Beijing taught me anything, it taught me that you never know what is going to happen. You’ve just got to put yourself in the best position¬ to go out there and give yourself the best chance.


Three words to describe myself? Competitive, determined and, I would hope, in some respects, inspirational.

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