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Rio golden girl Bethany Firth reveals how swimming transformed her life

Firth on the the big occasion nerves she had to overcome in Rio and her disappointment at the BBC Sports Personality snub to Northern Ireland athletes.

As her family release a statement expressing her disappointment that no one from Northern Ireland has made it on to the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year shortlist, swimmer Bethany Firth, a star of the Rio Paralympics, tells Steven Beacom about overcoming nerves to compete, and how the support of her parents and siblings were vital to her amazing success.

Bethany Firth is reflecting on a spectacular year of success. She smiles her way through the interview with proud mum Lindsay sitting close by. We are in a small room inside the pavilion beside the Mary Peters Track in Belfast. Northern Ireland's original Golden Girl, Dame Mary, is full of the joys too. Moments before the pair of them had been outside on a bright and brisk day posing for pictures beside the statue of the iconic 1972 Olympic pentathlon champion.

They are here as part of a campaign across the UK to mark the passing of the 500,000th National Lottery grant since 1994 - the venue was one of the first to benefit when Belfast City Council received £195,000 for the provision of an athletics pavilion in 1995.

Bethany is genuinely pleased to be in the company of Dame Mary, now 77, and as busy and as engaging as ever.

For her part Mary is delighted for the young swimmer, still on a high after her stunning performances at the Paralympics where she won three gold medals and one silver, breaking world records in the process.

Competing for Team GB, Firth came home first in Rio in the S14 backstroke, 200m freestyle and 200m individual medley and was runner-up in the 100m breaststroke. You would have thought that Bethany would have made it on to a shortlist for BBC Sports Personality of the Year with that impressive haul, especially with the shortlist more of a long list with 16 candidates and Paralympians who didn't bring as much treasure home.

There has been much debate and frustration in Northern Ireland that Bethany, world boxing champion Carl Frampton and World Superbike champion Jonathan Rea weren't included by the judging panel.

A statement released yesterday from the Firth family read: "Bethany is disappointed that nobody from Northern Ireland has been included on the list of athletes nominated for BBC Sports Personality of the Year as she believes the achievements of Carl Frampton and Jonathan Rea would be worthy of recognition.

"She is, however, delighted to see three of her Paralympics GB team-mates get nominated and wishes them every success, as well as the athlete from her own sport of swimming, Olympic champion Adam Peaty." Prior to the joy of Rio, there was glory in London 2012 when she claimed the S14 100m backstroke, aged just 16, when she raced for Ireland.

"Rio was amazing for me," says the 20-year-old with learning difficulties, who has a winning smile to match her winning strokes.

"Before my first final I was really, really nervous and standing there it was really tough with so many other fast girls around. You have so many people who want you to win and it was really hard.

"Then to touch the wall and see the time I posted and see my family and to know that I had just won the gold was an incredible feeling.

"I'm so thankful to Team GB and my coach Nelson Lindsay for getting me ready for the races.

"It was an amazing experience. I learnt so much out in Rio and to come back home with the medals was fantastic. All of them meant so much to me."

On top of the world now, there have been many sacrifices from Bethany and her family to reach these heights. Life has not always been as wonderful as it is now for the Ards Swimming Club member, who only took up the sport when she was 13.

Prior to starting lessons as a pupil at Longstone Special School, the multiple Paralympic champion had a fear of water, having fallen into an adult pool as a four-year-old on holiday in Australia.

Today she openly admits learning how to swim transformed her life.

"I found school really hard and this was something I was good at and people recognised that," said Bethany.

"If anyone wants to get into sport, no matter at what level, they can meet lots of friends and get active. It has been great for me in so many ways.

"It gave me confidence, it gave me new friends, it allowed me to travel and it changed who I was. I just hope that I can inspire people to get into sport because it was somewhere I could shine and it was great for me in and out of the pool.

"I think that everyone should be encouraged to get involved in sport. You can meet people, socialise, get fit and it opens up so many doors."

There is a generous nature to this talented young lady. Every few minutes she will thank somebody or an organisation for the help they have given her.

Top of the list are her parents Peter and Lindsey, who moved house so that Bethany could follow her dreams, and brothers Ben (25) and Joshua (24), and younger sister Evie (13).

"My family have been such a great support to me. My parents bought a house closer to the pool so I didn't have to get up as early. They have sacrificed so much and have always been there for me.

"I train at Ards and Bangor and used to live over an hour away from the pool. I had to get up at silly o'clock just to get there because our session started at 5am, so they decided to buy a house closer in Comber so I wouldn't have to travel as far. It meant my training improved because I wasn't as tired. They did all this for my swimming."

Another important family member is Bethany's dog Russell (inset above), who along with her owner upstaged Sex And The City actress Kim Cattrall at Belfast City Airport when Firth returned home to the warmest of receptions from Rio.

"She (Kim) came over and said how well I had done and I just thought she was another member of the public, but it was very nice of her to do that," says Bethany.

"When I was in Rio I didn't go on social media because I was preparing for my races, but when I came back I saw all the support, and to see everyone at the airport was amazing. It really touched me that people were so behind what I was doing out in Rio.

"It meant so much to me having Russell there at the airport. Not seeing him for over a month was tough, so having him there was wonderful. I think he became more famous than I did!"

Mum Lindsey adds: "We are very proud of Bethany. She trains hard and works hard. We have three other children who have made sacrifices for Bethany to get to this point. We are very proud of all of them. They are very good kids.

"In Rio we were in a bubble but it hits you when you are back home because people recognise her and they suddenly start talking to her. Now I realise she is not just our daughter, but is someone that people want to talk to and meet."

The Firth family are planning on having a fabulous Christmas with much to celebrate.

Next year Bethany will turn her attention to the World Championships in October in Mexico and those rigorous early morning training sessions.

She says: "I get up at 4.15am to get to the pool, I train for two-and-a-half hours, do half-an-hour pre-pool and half-an-hour post pool. I do that twice a day and have gym, physio and nutrition in the middle of the day. It's quite full-on, but I love it.

"There is a lot of hard training with my coach Nelson to get where I need to be. He has put a lot of time and effort into me and I have a lot of support from SINI (Sports Institute Northern Ireland), the National Lottery, my family, my friends and others. All those people together won the medals in Rio, not just me."

  • The National Lottery is carrying out a series of activities across the UK to mark the passing of the 500,000th grant awarded since 1994. The Mary Peters Track benefited from the very first National Lottery grant in Northern Ireland when Belfast City Council received £195,000 for the provision of an athletics pavilion in April 1995. Bethany Firth is one of 1,300 elite athletes funded by the National Lottery

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