Bethany Firth: Our golden girl

Bethany Firth, from Seaforde, Co. Down, celebrates with her gold medal after winning the women's 100m backstroke - S14. London 2012 Paralympic Games
Bethany Firth receiving her Woman  of the Year in Sport award
Bethany Firth receiving her Woman of the Year in Sport award

Co Down teenager, Bethany Firth, last year's winner of the Belfast Telegraph's Woman of the Year in Sport is now hoping to compete against able-bodied swimmers in the Commonwealth Games.

Just a few years ago Bethany Firth suffered such a terror of water that she would go to any lengths to avoid it. It was only thanks to gentle encouragement from her school teachers that the Seaforde teenager was finally able to conquer her childhood fear and go on to become a world-class swimmer.

In what was an extraordinarily short time, it took just five years for Bethany (17) to go from being too frightened to dip her toe in the water to the euphoria of standing on the champions' podium in London wearing a gold medal at the 2012 Paralympics.

The memory of her teachers' patience and understanding in helping her to overcome her phobia continues to drive her today in both her sport and her private life.

Despite a relentless training schedule Bethany still finds time to visit schools and youth groups to encourage other young people and has become a role model for her peers.

This admirable quality combined with her incredible sporting prowess saw Bethany last year pick up the Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year in Sport Award, which is sponsored this year by the RAF Reserves. Up against an impressive line-up of other admirable young sporting stars Bethany was overwhelmed to be chosen for our award and at just 16 was one of the youngest ever Woman the Year recipients.

Since then she has continued to wow the world with her achievements. She first shot to national prominence in August 2012 when -- despite an agonising shoulder injury -- she triumphed in the 100m backstroke to give Ireland its first gold medal of the Paralympic Games.

Last summer, she confirmed her undoubted class when she picked up three silver medals from the Paralympics World Championships in Montreal, finishing runner-up in the 200m freestyle and 100m breaststroke before completing her haul with a personal best in the final of the 100 metres backstroke.

Bethany traces her fear of water back to an incident when she was just a child.

She says: "I was about four years old and we were on holiday in Australia when I wandered from the children's pool over to the adult pool and fell in. I had to be taken out and I never got over that.

"If we were going to the pool I would hide my swimsuit when it was time to go. Four years ago when it was compulsory at school to take swimming lessons I had teachers at Longstone Special School who encouraged me and allowed me to take it very slowly.

"Something just clicked and I loved it, which was quite amazing.

"I think everyone needs a chance. If it hadn't been for my teachers I would never have achieved what I have and I think everyone needs someone to encourage them, and hopefully I can encourage someone."

Bethany grew up in a Christian family and is a member of Comber Baptist Church. Her dad Peter is a former church minister and now works as a lecturer in RE. Her mum Lindsey is a nurse practitioner and she has two older brothers Benjamin (23) and Joshua (21) plus a younger sister Evie, aged 10.

Her parents have been her greatest supporters and Bethany also expresses her gratitude to them: "They do everything for me. They sort out my bags and make sure I get to training. They are always there for me and so supportive."

Bethany has a learning difficulty which causes her to have short term memory loss. While she might remember what she did three weeks ago, she can forget what happened just the day before. It also causes her to forget names and faces which can be very frustrating for her.

Because of her memory loss it is believed that she endured the pain of a serious shoulder injury for a year before it became so excruciating that she finally remembered to tell her mum.

It was this injury which it was feared would ruin her chances of a medal at the Paralympics.

Her mum Lindsay recalls: "We think she had been swimming in pain for months but by the time she got out of the pool she had forgotten to tell anyone. When we got to London it was very bad and just before the race she told me she was in a lot of pain and I told her just to go in and enjoy it.

"That she went into the lead and won gold while suffering so much pain was just amazing. She is such a wee trooper."

No one was more surprised than Bethany who got into the water convinced she didn't stand a chance of finishing in the top three never mind winning the race.

She recalls: "I had lost some of my fitness because of the injury and being so young I just thought I would go in there and it would be a great experience and that I could do better at the next games. Everyone was just so shocked, no one was expecting it, least of all me."

Bethany's dedication to her sport was also tested last year when -- in the run up to the Paralympics world championships -- she completed a training session despite the agony of an ovarian cyst bursting while she was in the water.

Her coach could see the pain she was in but she refused to get out of the water and swam another 400 metres to finish the session.

She had to be lifted out of the pool and brought to hospital by ambulance and for the next two weeks couldn't walk.

She recalls: "The pain was dreadful and it just got worse and worse but I had to finish the set. I was in the middle of it and I can't explain it but I just needed to finish, it was something I just had to do.

"Then the ambulance came and it was quite an experience. The training session was in Dublin and I spent a day and a bit in hospital there and then came back home and saw my GP.

"I had to spend the next two weeks in bed. I wasn't allowed to move and I couldn't walk. I don't know why I put myself through it and I know it sounds strange but if it happened again I think I would do the same thing."

Now fighting fit with her shoulder injury fully healed Bethany has her sights set on competing in the mainstream Commonwealth Games this year.

She is looking forward to the qualifying rounds in Edinburgh at the end of this month which will see some of the best swimmers in the world compete in the Tollcross International Aquatic Centre's 50-metre pool.

She says: "I can't wait and especially as it is the chance to compete in the Commonwealth mainstream competition. It's so exciting and that's my dream at the minute and what I am focused on.

"I just want to take it one step at a time and hopefully keep getting better and better."

Bethany started a sports course in Bangor College of Further Education in September where she studies everyday from 9am until 5pm.

While the rest of us are asleep, she rises every morning at 4am to go to the pool and gym for a two and a half hour training session.

After college her evening is taken up with another swim and work out in the gym.

Sunday is her lie-in day when she allows herself to sleep until 9am but fits in another session at the gym and the pool as well as church.

Bethany says: "I'm enjoying college, although there are some big assignments and a lot of work involved, but everyone is very supportive.

"Swimming is my main priority and everything else comes second to that. Church is also such a big part of my life and I believe all the prayers from everyone really got me through the Paralympics."

Since she took up swimming seriously in 2008, Bethany's rapid rise through the rankings saw her proudly sit at number one in the 100 metres backstroke for S14 class women last year.

Her first competition while still at school was the Northern Ireland Disability swimming competition where she came home with four gold medals.

Since then her pile of gold, silver and bronze has been steadily increasing.

In May 2011 she showed her potential when she reached the qualifying standard for Paralympics selection at the Irish National Championships. She was 11 seconds faster than the required time in the backstroke, 10 seconds faster in the breast stroke and a massive 24 seconds faster in the freestyle.

She is a member of Ards Swimming Club and is trained by the club's head coach, Nelson Lindsay who also coaches the Northern Ireland Commonwealth Games team.

He has said of Bethany: "She is a naturally talented athlete who would be good at any sport she turned her hand to. I'm just glad that she chose swimming.

"Normally late starters have difficulty learning all the skills, but Bethy's managed them really well."

In December Bethany made the surprise announcement that she was moving from Team Ireland to compete for Great Britain.

Paralympics Ireland expressed their gratitude to the teenager for all she has achieved in her time competing with them.

A spokesperson described her as "a shining example of the potential within us all to achieve greatness" as well as "an exemplary role model".

Commenting on her decision for the first time Bethany praises Team Ireland for their support and says the move was purely because she needed the more specialised support for her disability which Team GB could offer.

She adds: "Team GB have been so supportive throughout my career even though I wasn't swimming with them.

"They came over and talked to me and made me feel like I had been with them for years and they also have people who are more geared to understanding my category which is what I need."

REACH FOR THE SKIES

THE RAF Reserves which is currently inviting new recruits to "live a more challenging life" is the sponsor of this year's Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year in Sport Award.

A new recruitment drive in Northern Ireland with 502 (Ulster) Squadron at Aldergrove Flying Station is creating 130 part-time career opportunities.

Squadron Leader Jacs Rankin, executive officer of 502 says: "We are confident that a significant proportion of our new recruits here in Northern Ireland will be women; emphasisng that all the roles on the Squadron are open to women.

"They will find that sport will form an important and hugely enjoyable element of their training as they develop the skills and team ethos which are needed to support RAF operations around the world. Given that background, our association with the Belfast Telegraph Woman of The Year Sports category is an extremely appropriate one -- and we are delighted to join with all those who will gather to celebrate the achievements and successes of so many highly focused and capable women across a vast range of endeavours."

Jacs has spent the past 22 years with the RAF and has enjoyed an exciting and varied career and has served in the Falkland Islands, Iraq, the Middle East, Afghanistan, India, Kenya and America.

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