I know it’s an old cliché, but life really is a rollercoaster.
I am so happy be involved in so much in the sport I love but at times I really was close to giving up.
Although I am almost profoundly deaf now, I was not born that way. At the age of 5 it was identified I had a moderate hearing loss which fortunately for me stayed pretty static through primary school and the start of secondary, so much so that I chose not to use a hearing aid as I was coping so well. I did though have to go to hospital every 6 months to check for deterioration. Although not ideal, everything seemed fine.
At the age of 6 I had followed my sister’s footsteps into the world of competitive swimming with North Ayrshire ASC and made my debut one month before my 7th birthday in ARDS, Northern Ireland. I had a ridiculous smile on my face and waved at the crowd without a care in the world and not understanding anything about winning or pressure.
My first home competition was at the Carnegie mini meet in November 2003 a competition which over the years was very kind to me.
I was lucky that I quickly developed into a fast swimmer and even at that age was extremely tall so short sprints came naturally to me. We all love winning and I didn’t have to wait long for my first medal which was a bronze at a graded meet in Cumbernauld.
Life was great. I was now winning golds and breaking gala records on a regular basis and then came the expectancy. I was now the favourite to win and as many of you will know that comes with pressure. I was loving competing but now I was getting nervous and I was conscious that everyone was out to beat me.
In January 2008 aged 11 I swam one of my best ever races in the final of the Scottish Schools 50 metres freestyle winning in a new Scottish age group record of 30.06, which is still ranked as 5th fastest of all time in Scotland for 11 year olds. But then things started to change.
As I have grown I look back and realise that it’s not necessarily about the winning but how you win and ultimately lose and the impression you leave on your fellow athletes. I like to think I won well but probably didn’t lose so well. I was becoming very frustrated as having been at the top at a very young age I was struggling to increase my training due to serious knee and ankle issues which had been identified. My tendons hadn’t fused onto my shins properly and as a result I was limited to very little leg work over the next few years and was quickly left behind in terms of any strength and stamina although I managed to throw in the occasional decent sprint. It was at this time my hearing had started to deteriorate too and I needed to wear a hearing aid at school and was struggling to hear my coach yelling at me.
From 12-15 I was struggling to come to terms with swimming when I knew I had more to offer if only l could train. I broke a bone in my foot in Sept 2011 and it was almost the final straw for me. I was out the pool and decided I wasn’t going back.
My rollercoaster was well and truly at the bottom of a dip, my hearing was deteriorating at an alarming rate and I was out of all sport, my passion. In hindsight it was this decision to stop all sport that allowed my tendons to fully develop which ultimately has given me the opportunity to take my swimming to a whole new level.
Sept 2012 I was asked to attend a disability gala next to my school and was humbled to see children with severe disabilities enjoying the thrill of a swimming gala even being helped across the teaching pool. It was amazing and a memory I will never forget.
I swam 100 metres freestyle and although way off my previous best the organisers were clamouring around me wondering what my disability was as deafness is not easily recognisable. I have to admit I was unaware of deaf swimming within the UK as it doesn’t get much recognition so was shocked to learn that the GB Coach had identified me as a potential for the Deaflympics which were to be held 6 months later in Sofia, Bulgaria.
I was suddenly back in the pool but my training was cut short as although I was an accomplished horse rider I fell off a horse in January 2013 injuring my back on a fence. I was in a panic and was now banned from anything except swimming. I finally was able to properly train late February, just 5 months before the Deaflympics and although I could train longer and harder than I ever could and my times came back down rapidly it would prove too short a time to prepare.
What I hadn’t realised was that although I had been selected to represent GB I had to raise funds myself to go. I couldn’t understand it however with help from many people I was able to go and narrowly missed out on a medal making all 7 finals in the events I had entered. It was amazing to meet deaf athletes from all over the world and a whole new opportunity had opened up to me.
I was now part of the Scottish disability team and loved the team events where all the disability classifications swam together at the Disability nationals. It was there that I broke my first deaf world records in the 100 backstroke and 100 I.M. and breaking the 1 minute for 100 Freestyle for the first time winning a race in which Para swimming Champions Jessica Jane Applegate and Hannah Russell also dipped under the mark for the first time too.
2014/2015 has been a blur, I had always believed that given the chance to train properly I could go faster but I couldn’t have dreamed about not only how my swimming would go but all the other fantastic things I would be involved in.
I travelled to the International short Course Championships in the USA where I beat both the gold and silver medallists from the Deaflympics as I set 4 deaf world records and picked up best overall female performance, an award I would also pick up in the European Championships in Russia later that year as I set my first World Long Course records while beating the fully funded Russian athletes in their own backyard which was particularly pleasing.
Back home I was being supported by so many people without whom I simply couldn’t have competed. It is the support you get not just financially but moral support and opportunities that you get which all contribute to success and I have to thank many people and organisations whether it has been £50 or simply publicity and being there.
I had picked up local awards such as “Rising Star” and the “Provosts Civic Pride Award” and was so proud to be selected to carry the Commonwealth Baton through my home town of Stevenston and my own School, Auchenharvie academy where I had been Head Girl. To cap it off I was awarded Deaf Youth Sports Personality of the Year.
The knock on effect of my Deaf Swimming was I was climbing up through the rankings and my potential identified so was selected to be part of the University of Stirling Scholarship programme which meant mainstream swimming with some of the top swimmers in the GB Olympic programme. I was a bit nervous but I quickly realised I needed to be there if I wanted to continue to improve. I took part in my first British University competition finishing a creditable 6th in the 50 freestyle just 0.01 seconds behind Caitlin McClatchey who I had watched competing for many years so that was pretty special.
My first major mainstream event since my move to University saw me make B finals at the Scottish Short Course Nationals and set 4 deaf world records so it’s fair to say I was pretty pleased.
In June this year I again made a National final and set a new deaf world record in the 50 Backstroke. I was well and truly established as one of the top deaf swimmers in the world in the backstroke events and now held all backstroke short course and 2 long course World records which took me full circle as I knew the pressure would be back on with a GB expectancy of a medal as I prepared for my first Deaf World Championships to be held in the searing heat and humidity of Texas.
Texas was an amazing experience meeting up with the many new friends I had made from around the globe. Overall I was delighted with my performances despite missing out narrowly in the 50 Freestyle medals. I had gone focussing on the Backstroke events and knew that the Eastern European swimmers would be ready for me and with their fully funded Deaf Programme had everything they needed from doctors, physios and nutritionists, a luxury our team can only dream about at present. 6 days of competition saw me break the World record to win individual gold in the 100 Backstroke, Silver in the 50 metres (despite breaking the world in the heats and again in the final) and bronze in the 200. I was over the moon.
My Deafness, while not what I expected in life as I first stood on the blocks as a smiling 6 year old, has made me the person I am today. I am now proud to be a UK Deaf Sports Ambassador and recently became Scotland’s first National Deaf Children’s Society’s Sports Ambassador.
I have been honoured to be asked to give inspirational talks at Deaf learner’s conferences and to be a guest for a question and answer session alongside Scottish curling legend Rhona Howie at the North Ayrshire Community sports awards.
Even more recently I have also been selected to be part of SDS Young Persons Sports Panel which hopefully allows me to continue to contribute towards a fair and equal opportunity for all our amazing disabled athletes across all sports in Scotland.
I was truly honoured to have been shortlisted for the Scottish Women in Sport Sportswoman of the year especially with the fantastic athletes who have also been selected and maybe that inspired me to break my own Short course 50 metres Backstroke World record at the British University Championships on 14th November.
I capped of an amazing 2015 with 3 appearances in the ‘A’ Finals of the Scottish Short Course Nationals held in the Royal Commonwealth Pool in Edinburgh 11-13 December. I broke the Deaf World records in all 3 of my events, 50 & 100 Free as well as my own 100 Backstroke record.
I am looking forward to continuing my training at Stirling University and my hope is to win Gold at the next Deaflympics in Turkey in 2017, and to establish myself as one of Scotland’s top mainstream swimmers now that I can finally start to fill out my slightly bigger than average frame as I have at last stopped growing at just under 6 foot 4 inches.
To have won the Award of Scottish Women in Sport Sportswoman of the year is just out of this world and hopefully it will inspire me and other women in sport to realise that anything is possible.