The 2012 Paralympics were a showcase for Britain’s swimmers who maintained their incredible run of success in home water, and brought about a new level of awareness of elite disabled swimming in the public at large.
Swimmers such as Ellie Simmonds are now household names, but just as Olympic swimmers don’t grow on trees, Paralympians need to start somewhere too and just like their able bodied counterparts, that will usually mean swimming lessons at their local pool. Only that’s not always a practical solution, be it for financial reasons, logistics or just the lack of suitably skilled instructors, it can be unsafe for disabled youngsters to be integrated into mainstream lessons. This means they can miss out on swimming altogether.
Legacy is an overused word, but a fledgling charity set up in the aftermath of 2012 is looking to remove those barriers by giving disabled children a leg up as they start their swimming journey, one that might even lead to a Paralympics.
Founded by Ian Thwaites, a former University of Bath swimmer and national finalist, supported by philanthropist Stuart Rhodes, Level Water is a charity committed to getting disabled kids swimming, through the provision of 1-to-1 lessons. These are only a means, not the end, with the aim being that the children attain the water skills to swim 10m unaided, using the three main strokes, thus enabling them to join mainstream classes and to progress their swimming from there with the same opportunities as their able-bodied peers.
Thwaites cites the case of five-year-old Daisy, who suffers with cerebral palsy. Inspired by the Paralympics, she wanted to emulate her swimming heroes, but neither her school nor her local pool could teach her to swim. Level Water has given Daisy a term of 1-to-1 lessons and she is now physically independent in the water giving her the same opportunities as any other child. She can swim with her friends and take the sport as far as she likes.
The charity has been running a successful pilot in Putney for the second half of 2013, teaching a dozen disabled children including Daisy, with the first swimmers about to graduate from the programme into a learn to swim scheme. The plan is now to roll that model out to additional centres around the country and to provide swimming opportunities for further disabled youngsters.
“We’d like to open a further 10-15 centres during 2014” explains Thwaites, adding that discussions are well advanced in several areas in the south of England. “Each centre will cost between £5,000 and £8,000 to set up but we have funding in place for the first half of our expansion.” Excitingly, there’s talk of launching a Level Water programme in the London Olympic Aquatic Centre when it reopens to the public in early 2014.
But there remains much work to be done and many funds to be raised if the vision is to be achieved. “The Paralympics created a substantial shift in public perception of disability, but there doesn’t seem to be any direct funding for community-based sports teaching for primary-aged children.” says Thwaites. “We’ve had some great support from people doing open water swims and triathlons, but we are now asking swimmers across the country to get behind the charity and help us fundraise.” The charity’s admin costs are met by their chairman, so “every penny we raise is spent on swimming lessons” he is keen to stress.
“We have worked hard to find a simple solution to the inequality that exists for disabled children in sport today, and are very proud to work in a way that we believe creates a lifetime of change for these children”
Level Water has just launched the Level Water 50 initiative, seeking fifty people to pledge to support their charity in 2014. Find out more at http://50.levelwater.org or if you would like to support in a different way, visit their fundraising page at www.levelwater.org/fundraise