Swimming for gold

In the sweep of arid land that extends as far as the eye can see, there is one patch of brightness; a gorgeous, sparkling swimming pool set in the middle of nowhere. It’s part of a privately run swimming centre in Colonia Sant Jordi, in the south-east corner of Majorca, and it is where some of the world’s greatest swimmers escape to for a few weeks every year, for intense pre-competition training. In this Olympic year, it has been bustling.

Teams from Spain, Germany, France and Canada have already trained here in the run-up to the London Games, and five-time Olympic gold medal winner Ian Thorpe uses the pool when he’s away from his native Australia. For two weeks in May, the 31-strong British Paralympic swimming squad arrived for their final pre-Games training camp. I went along to see what sort of training Paralympians undergo as part of the long haul to – hopefully – a place on the podium.

It’s a sun-drenched Wednesday morning when I arrive in Colonia Sant Jordi to find the place teeming with sportspeople – not just Britons, but also Spanish and Chinese. Coaches in tracksuits, clutching clipboards and stopwatches, chatter away outside the door to the building. One of them has a laptop on which he is watching a recording of his team’s early morning session.

Inside the building there are people everywhere. Even the small entrance hall that leads through to the 50m pool has been appropriated by physiotherapists from the Chinese team. They have set up makeshift beds and are pummelling and stretching the aching limbs of their charges as I pass by.

The pool is a magnificent sight. It’s big, of course, far bigger than at an average sports club or leisure centre, and it is packed with swimmers, racing up and down the lanes, as coaches watch eagerly, pulling swimmers aside, motivating them, correcting them and then setting them off again, to swim further in this early morning session than most people do in a year.

The British swimmers are taking up most of the lanes. It’s illuminating to see the sheer determination that is put into every stroke. “You have to swim every length as if you’re in the final of the Olympic Games,” says Ellie Simmonds, who took double gold at the Beijing Olympics at the age of 13. “You can’t swim a bad length. It does you no good.” She has emerged from the pool after a two-hour session. “These training camps are great but they’re hard work,” she says. “I’ve been training and sitting A-levels at a local school while I’m out here. I think some people have this idea that Paralympic swimmers don’t train as hard as Olympic swimmers, but that’s just not true.”

Amy Marren, aged 13, training at the Colonia Sant Jordi swim centre. She will make her Paralympic debut at London 2012

Most of the British swimmers are in the water for this intense two-hour session, though others are dotted along the poolside, wrapped in towels, talking to coaches. There’s a huge variety of age and experience on display, including Jim “The Swim” Anderson, who will be 49 during what will be his sixth Games. He goes into the competition already holding six gold medals.

Swimming has been a Paralympic sport since the Games started in 1960. It is largely the same as the Olympic sport, but modifications are made where necessary. Thus, for example, swimmers who cannot dive start in the water, and blind swimmers have people known as “boppers” to tap them on the heads to let them know they are nearing the end of the pool. Swimmers in some of the visually impaired races wear blacked-out goggles to ensure the same level of blindness. Furthermore, all swimmers are “classified” according to the type and extent of their disability to ensure that they are well-matched in each race.

Emma Hollis

Brother and sister James and Emma Hollis are two of the stars of the GB team. The siblings, from Epping, Essex, suffer from osteogenesis imperfecta, otherwise known as brittle bone disease. “Basically, it means that we ‘break’ easily and don’t mend as simply and easily as someone without the disease,” says Emma, 20. “I’ve always broken. You kind of get used to it.” Her last break was in November when she slipped off a kerb on her way to lectures at Loughborough University, where she is studying geography. She broke her ankle. “You can’t avoid it – however hard you try. I’m just praying that I don’t break anything between now and the Games.” Her brother James, 18, who has just finished school, was also on this training camp but had to leave because of a broken bone. “It’s always a fear. You fall or trip and think: ‘No! Please don’t let anything be broken.’”

Ellie Simmonds (l), Emma Hollis (c) and Gemma Almond with their coach

Emma talks about the bones she and her brother have broken so matter-of-factly that it is startling. James, she explains, has broken all four limbs many times in the past, as well as ripping a bone from his elbow and knees and smashing his ribs. He has had to have his spine fused with metal rods to prevent worse injuries. “At least it’s not as bad now as it used to be,” she says. “When we were little, we broke more. The doctor advised us to take up swimming because strengthening the muscles would help to hold the bones together. We started lessons and really enjoyed it so moved on to a club.” Emma has won a medal in every European Championship event she has entered; James won silver at the 2012 British Gas Swimming Championships after becoming the first British swimmer in his disability class to break the minute mark in the 100m Butterfly, at the 2012 British International Championships. So does victory await in London? “I hope so, for both of us,” says Emma. “But people come from nowhere in disability swimming. Someone has had an accident or the definition of categories change and they are suddenly in your race. You can never sit back. You have to keep training hard.”

Brothers Ollie and Sam Hynd sit on the edge of the pool, still wet from the morning swim. They agree that it’s great to have your own brother in the team – but they give each other no quarter. “Once we get into the water, we really want to beat one another,” says 17-year-old Ollie. “We are very competitive. When I finish a race, the first question on my mind is – where did Sam finish?” Sam, 21, smiles and shakes his head. He already has a Paralympics gold medal after smashing the world record in the 400m freestyle in Beijing, but in London he’ll be competing against his younger brother. “The whole family will be involved,” he says. “Mum has been selected to carry the Paralympic torch. She and Dad have had 5am starts every day of the week for years, it’s about time they were recognised, and Ollie will be racing against me so I have to win.”

Sam and Ollie Hynd

Both young men have neuromuscular myopathy, a condition that weakens their legs, so they rely on upper body strength in the water. “We’ve been competitive with one another right from the start, which is hard for Mum. She always comes to watch and wishes every race could be a dead heat,” says Sam. “I always say to her – at the end of the day, he’s my brother and I’d like him to finish right behind me … just not in front of me.”

The GB Paralympics team is one of the best in the world. In Beijing, the team won 102 medals, placing second in the medals table after China. Forty-one of those medals were won in the pool. The 2012 swimming squad is full of medal hopes: they include Sascha Kindred, 34, who won the first of his six Paralympic gold medals back in Sydney and is expected to take gold in London. He is married to Nyree Kindred, 31, and the couple have a one-year-old daughter, Ella. Nyree has won nine Paralympic medals.

Then there’s Susie Rodgers, 28, who was the outstanding performer at last year’s European Championships, winning five gold medals and one silver. “I just can’t wait for the Games to come,” she says. “I want to be in that pool and competing for my country.”

British Gas supports the British swimming teams; for free swims, visit www.britishgas.co.uk/freeswimming.

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