Disabled Swimming: A Sense of Freedom in the Pool
Robin Surgeoner MBE is a former Team GB Paralympic swimmer. Robin, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, won nine gold medals between 1984 and 1992. He’s now involved in music, poetry and empowerment training.
Robin’s wife and kids use wheelchairs too, so he is something of an expert when it comes to accessibility. That’s why he co-founded The Accessible Planet, a website that compiles all sorts of useful information for Disabled People – from wheelchair accessible vehicles to holiday camps for children with learning disabilities.
If I could breathe underwater, I’d live in the pool
Swimming is extremely popular among people who have disabilities and Robin thinks that’s because of the freedom of movement it offers.
“If you’ve got a mobility issue, there’s a sense of freedom that water gives you.
“I am so much more comfortable in water, if I could breathe underwater, I’d live in the swimming pool. I feel free and I can move easily thanks to the weightless feeling of being in the pool.
“When people experience pain and discomfort on a daily basis, water can offer relief.”
Swimming Gives Confidence to Disabled Children
Robin supports getting Disabled Children into swimming because it builds confidence and teaches crucial lessons about water safety.
“I think it’s utterly important that all Disabled Children are taught to swim. Whether they go on to be Paralympic swimmers or not doesn’t matter, it’s about giving them confidence and a freedom of movement they might not have on land.
“There are important safety lessons that learning to swim gives you too. I know my kids can swim. If they were to fall in a pond or they were on a boat that tipped over, I know they’d be okay. If they saw someone else in trouble they would have the confidence and know how to help.”
Robin has been swimming for as long as he can remember, and jokes that he is more at home under water than on land.
“I started swimming when I was about three in hydrotherapy and I could swim long before I could walk. I was a very natural swimmer and it was something I loved from a really young age.
“My family moved to Hong Kong when I was quite young and I spent practically every free moment either in the pool or in the sea. I’d spend hours on end snorkelling and looking at sea cucumbers and starfish.”
Ellie Simmonds is a Fantastic Role Model
Robin wants to see more young Disabled People getting involved with swimming and thinks the stars of the London 2012 Paralympic Games are helping with this.
“I hope more young people will be encouraged to start swimming because of people like Ellie. She’s done incredibly well for herself, four gold medals is an amazing tally.
“I think her age has helped her in terms of attracting media interest, and although she looks different, she isn’t different. She’s very easy for children to identify with, although she’s very identifiable as a disabled person too. I think she’s a great athlete, swimmer and role model.
“You’d be astonished by the amount of people I meet who say things like ‘you’re just like us really, aren’t you?’ or ‘I’ve never met a disabled person before, but you’re alright really’ and you just sort of think to yourself ‘thanks for the vote of confidence, but why were you expecting anything else?’
“People like Ellie and Tanni Grey-Thompson, who have been instrumental in the progression of disability sports, are really important in tackling those stereotypes.”
Swimming for Great Britain
Swimming has always come naturally to Robin. As he progressed through his career the only real barrier to reaching the Paralympics was funding.
“I joined a club called the Rushmore Mallards in 1974 when my family moved back to England. I trained with them and competed in my first national gala when I was 12. I did really well and was pretty quickly picked up to go the GB training squad.
“I started swimming as a hobby, but after that point I never looked back.
“Back then, disabled swimming was completely self-funded. You and your club had to pay to get you to the Paralympics.
“Today disabled athletes get funding from central sources like the national lottery. It’s not a huge amount, like the powerful endorsements some non-disabled sportspeople receive, but at least it means our top athletes don’t have to work and can train full time.
“I trained with my disability sports club, which helped keep our camaraderie and team spirit together. My best mate, Andy Gilbert, and I also trained each other. We managed to negotiate free membership to the local sports centre, to get lane and gym time, which helped a lot.”
Winning Paralympic Gold
Robin took part in the 1984, 1988 and 1992 Paralympic Games, in New York, Seoul and Barcelona. Robin bagged an incredible total of nine gold medals in the 100-metres breaststroke and 400-metres freestyle.
“It’s hard to pick just one highlight, because there were so many great moments.
“Watching my best mate, Andy, win a silver medal in Seoul was pretty special. That’s probably the memory that means to the most to me because we had trained together for so long. Obviously it was great to win myself too, that’s what we do it for.
“The stadium in Seoul sticks in my memory too because that was the first Games that shared all Olympic Games facilities. Lining up outside this huge stadium with the Olympic rings on the outside and then going out in front of nearly 100,000 screaming Koreans, with jets flying overhead, was an unforgettable moment.
What did London 2012 do for Disabled Swimming?
Robin has concerns that not enough is being done in leisure centres and schools to build on the interest in Paralympic sports that London 2012 created.
“The Paralympics Games in 2012 were a fantastically positive event. There was a huge short term change in the general public’s perception of Disabled People – they saw them as sportspeople.
“There are more disabled people taking part in sport which is great. But at the political level I don’t think there’s been much change, mainly because a lot of the right wing press portray disabled people as scroungers, dole cheats and lazy layabouts.
“Playing fields are being sold off across the country and sports in mainstream schools for disabled kids are practically non-existent. A lot of the time they’re totally excluded from P.E. lessons.
“My son was in a mainstream school that couldn’t offer him any sport at all because they just didn’t have the facilities or the inclination. Outside of school he was involved with GB basketball squads to an international level, but he wasn’t able to do any sport in school.
“Disabled People just aren’t expected to play sport as part of their everyday lives. It’s almost a separate existence. I’ve seen kids that play wheelchair basketball at the weekend, and they absolutely love it. Playing sport is their whole life, but they only get to do it one day a week.
Sports Centre Changing Rooms are a Big Problem
Inaccessible changing facilities are a major barrier that prevents Disabled People getting involved with sport, according to Robin.
“Many health centres just aren’t accessible. We go as a family and that causes real problems.
“Sports centres usually only have one disabled changing room, and there’s often an assumption that any disabled person who wants to play sport will have someone with them to help them get changed. There’s very little consideration given to those who want to go independently or in groups. These institutional assumptions
often exist about Disabled People and one of the biggest ones is that families with several wheelchair users are just not expected to turn up.
“Accessing lockers can be tricky too. Our local health centre has a staffed locker room which makes things easier, but I’ve never seen mid-height lockers, without another locker underneath. That would be a big help. Lockers are never big enough for crutches or false legs either.”
This interview was sponsored by Total Locker Service, experts in supplying lockers and other secure storage solutions for all sorts of needs. They provide an excellent range of accessible lockers for disabled changing rooms in sports and leisure centres and gyms. Contact the team on 01284 749211 for more details.