Paralympians Under Pressure
With only five months to go until the London 2012 Paralympic Games, the ParalympicsGB swimming team is now facing up to the very real possibility that three of its biggest stars might not even qualify.
The pressure is on like never before after 26-year-old Liz Johnson (gold medal winner in the S6 100m breaststroke at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics) who has cerebral palsy – and 25-year-old Charlotte Henshaw (2009 European gold and 2010 World silver S6 100m breaststroke winner) who had both of her legs amputated above the knee after being born with a congenital birth defect – failed to hit their qualifying times at the British Gas Swimming Championships in the Olympic Aquatic Centre last month.
Dave Roberts, aged 32, who also has cerebral palsy didn’t even get the chance to set a qualifying time, having been taken ill with pneumonia. The 11-times S7 Paralympic gold medal winner is currently the second most highly decorated British Paralympian of all time, and was widely expected to overtake GB record holder Dame Tanni-Grey Thompson at London 2012. Should he fail to qualify, he will miss his chance to make history.
In a recent interview Henshaw spoke of her result being ‘difficult to stomach’. There have been reports that Johnson’s slow time was due to a shoulder injury. Roberts has remained quiet, but earlier this week British Swimming’s Performance Director Jon Atkinson told Channel 4 Paralympics that the Welshman was “a little bit behind the eight ball because of the issues he has had to contend with.”
So what went wrong? Two former ParalympicsGB swimmers turned Channel 4 Paralympics reporters – Giles Long and Rachael Latham – offered up their take on how Johnson, Henshaw and Roberts can best deal with the weight of expectation ahead of the final opportunity to qualify for London 2012 at the British International Disability Swimming Championships in Sheffield this weekend.
“I think athletes put a lot of pressure on themselves,” mulls Rachael Latham, who retired from the British Swimming team shortly after Beijing after sustaining an arm injury.
“The team is full of people who expect the best from themselves constantly. You can’t afford to go in to anything thinking you’ll fail because the standard is so high. But at the same time if your name is expected to be on the team list, and it’s not, it can become much more than just internal pressure.
“Great Britain wants a team that’s jam packed with medal contenders, and we have the talent in this country to be able to do that. They want you to be on the team because they know you can get those medals for them. Everyone will be wondering ‘Why haven’t you raced your qualifying time? What are you going to do about it?’
“And while you might not be directly pressured by your coach – you know he’s put so much hard work in, and you know your parents have gotten up early every morning to take you to training – even if they don’t directly come out and say ‘We expect this, we expect that,’ you know they have expectations of you. It’s added pressure on top of your own feelings.”
As to why Rachael’s former team mates are yet to make the grade, she can only speculate.
“The fact that none of them have made it yet is very unusual. I’ve spoken to both Liz and Charlotte since the first trials, although I haven’t heard from Dave. Liz and Charlotte have been training hard. It’s very frustrating for them that they didn’t qualify in the first trials. There were no indications in training that they wouldn’t be able to perform. I know the two of them well enough to know that they would have put absolutely everything in to training.
“One theory is that Liz and Charlotte were in the very last race of the competition and they were sat poolside throughout the whole week. They may have been tired by the time their race came around. Should they have been poolside for that length of time, given that they weren’t needed until the final day? Shouldn’t they have sat back and rested in the hotel? But then it’s highly likely that their race at London 2012 will be held at the end too, so they’ll have the same problem there.
“Perhaps they thought they’d use the event as a dry run for the Games. They deliberately subjected themselves to the same conditions as those they will be facing at Gamestime to
get the most comparable experience – and their qualifying times have suffered as a result.
“This is the best time to learn from your mistakes. They need to turn that pressure in to something positive. That’s all they can do.
“Both Liz and Charlotte race in the same category, S6. They are rivals, which will push them even more. They’ve both worked incredibly hard. They’ve been picking up medals and doing Personal Bests for the last four years, and now they’re on the final straight.”
Three times Paralympic gold medal winning S8 swimmer Giles Long retired in 2007 having competed at the Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 Paralympics. He takes a pragmatic view on why Johnson and Henshaw have so far fallen short of expectations, and their chances of reaching those expectations at this weekend’s trials in Sheffield.
“For some reason their ‘taper’ hasn’t worked quite right,” he says. “That’s the period of training two to three weeks before a race when the athlete conditions his or her body to operate as efficiently as possible. Athletes keep upping the speed and distance they swim each day until their lungs are absorbing the maximum volume of oxygen possible in to their blood, at which point their body is at its peak performance. As general rule, the longer your taper, the longer your window of peak performance will be.
“Both Liz and Charlotte had planned to qualify at trials in March and then just train through the second stage in Sheffield in April. But now they will have to re-taper to peak again in Sheffield, and each time you re-taper, your window of peak performance gets shorter.
“So they will have less time at peak performance in Sheffield, but unlike at the Aquatic Centre in March, these trials take place over a weekend not an entire week, so hopefully the girls won’t be too adversely affected. On the up side, the hotel they are staying at in Sheffield is much closer to the pool, which means lots less walking, which both Liz Johnson and Charlotte Henshaw find incredibly tiring due to the nature of their disabilities.”
“Dave Roberts on the other hand will do it the same way he’s always done it, which is his way. He can soak up pressure like a sponge. I hope that he makes it because he’s a great swimmer and a team fighter.”
“I always found that, particularly as I got past my first Games, I couldn’t perform well without pressure,” he muses. “You become, not addicted to pressure, but it’s a crucial part of that jigsaw in putting together a good performance.
“It’s a bell curve. When you first start, no one knows who you are. You haven’t got any world ranking places to lose so you just turn up and do your best. And then you find yourself in those early stages of having become established – you’ve won a few races and the international scene is alerted to your presence. The pressure goes up – but as the success continues you get better and better at dealing with it.
“And it can go too far the other way. I remember being at the World Championships in ’98, sitting in the changing rooms waiting to go in to the 100m butterfly and I didn’t have a flicker of adrenaline in my body. I got to the point where I thought ‘This isn’t the Paralympics.’ Although it was the World Champs, it wasn’t what I was training for. It’s a really dangerous mindset to be in. Consequently I was beaten and it was all a bit of a disaster.
“It was a kick up the arse. To feel the pressure you have to acknowledge that there is pressure. You can stick your head in the sand and ignore the pressure but the downside of that is, whilst you might not feel any of the negatives, you also miss out on all the benefits. If you shut out the demons then you shut out the angels as well.”
“It depends entirely on the individual. What’s pressure to one person is not to another. And to some swimmers that pressure is the bottom line. They pay their rent on the back of their swimming performances. That is quite a sobering thought. If you are two seconds behind with 100 metres to go then it feels like an absolutely lifetime, and you start to think ‘How am I going to find this time? What if UK Sport will cut off my funding? How will I eat?”
“A lot of people think that to make it to the Paralympics all you have to do is fill out an application form and away you go – that it’s not ruthless enough to turf out its own superstars if they don’t perform,” adds Giles.
“But if you don’t make the qualifying time, tough luck, you’re out of the team.”