Bethany Firth has been the golden girl of Paralympic swimming since 2012 but insists that it is the love of the sport more than medal glory that is driving her on as she prepares to start her campaign in Tokyo.
Five years ago in Rio, Firth was the most successful British athlete across all sports having bagged three S14 golds and a silver — including a successful defence of the 100m backstroke title she had won at London 2012. The 25-year-old will seek to make it a hat-trick of backstroke golds, but kicks off with the 200m freestyle tomorrow morning.
It hasn’t been the ideal build-up to the Games for Firth, who has admitted to struggling with the impact of the coronavirus restrictions, while over the past 12 months she has had to dig deep in training due to issues with her shoulder — on the back of not being able to train with her club Ards during periods of lockdown.
“It was very tough during the pandemic. Swimming has always been my happy place, it has always been the place where I go and I don’t have to over-think or overly stress. During the pandemic when that was taken away, I really struggled,” said Firth from her base in Tokyo.
“It was tough with training as well. At one point I got a paddling pool in the back garden with a bungee cord with a wet suit on so I could practice.
“At one point it was so cold and the rain was coming down that the water was turning green. My mum turned into my coach and my dad was blowing the whistle. It was hard because I could only do 45 minutes. After a while I would get headaches from the cold water.
“It really made me appreciate chlorinated water and training inside more than ever!”
Coach Nelson Lindsay has been guiding Firth every step of the way since she arrived at Ards as a 13-year-old and while the 76-year-old cannot be in Tokyo — having been at poolside in Rio — the Seaforde woman is all too aware of his influence.
Together they plotted a path to Tokyo and while repeating the feats of five years ago would seem to be asking too much after a difficult period of preparation, Firth is determined to sparkle in the pool.
“Nelson is like part of my family… he took me from being scared of the water and not having a clue to where I am now,” Firth acknowledged.
“Nelson took me under his wing and taught me so much and I owe him so much. But it’s not just in swimming, it’s out of swimming as well. I know when I got engaged he was one of the first people I called to let him know.
“We get on so well together and I think that’s why we have done so well… any problems he can deal with but he’s also a man not to annoy!
“After the year we’ve all had, I’m so excited to be competing. It feels like it has been shoulder after shoulder problem as well as the pandemic, there have been a lot of obstacles and they challenge you.
“My ultimate goal is to make everyone at home proud of me. It would be easy to focus on getting gold, gold, gold but I’ve refocused and had to remember why I swim and it’s because I love it. That’s the most important thing and if you love something then you will shine through it.
“It was great watching the Team GB athletes in the swimming at the Olympics. It made it even more exciting leading up to the Games, it made it more real because there was a time when we didn’t know if they were going to happen. Hopefully the Paralympic team can follow on from what they achieved. I know everyone is excited at home and I do miss my family not being able to be out here — as well as my dog Russell. I always love looking up at them cheering me on but I know they’ll be doing that at home.”
Meanwhile, Ards clubmate Barry McClements, representing Ireland, missed out on a place in the S9 men’s 400m freestyle final by less than a second.
The 19-year-old, competing in his first Paralympics, came within 0.98 seconds of making it through the heats but will have another opportunity to reach a final when he returns to the water for the S9 men’s 100m backstroke on Monday. He is also competing in the 200m medley and 100m butterfly.