The Big Interview: Stephanie Slater

Stephanie Slater is targeting a gold medal at the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016

Stephanie Slater is targeting a gold medal at the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016

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With that ever-present, beaming smile on her face, swimmer Stephanie Slater gave her shoulders a slight shrug before saying, ‘I just take everything in my stride’.

It is such a positive outlook on life from a young woman who has been forced to deal with so much adversity over the last few years.

The Preston swimmer was one of Team GB’s hottest prospects for the 2012 London Olympics when she was struck down by a mystery health condition to her left arm.

In the pool training one day, Slater suddenly found herself unable to push her arm through her strokes.

After several months of investigations and hospital appointments, she was eventually diagnosed with nerve damage.

The condition ruined any hope she had of appearing at the London Games – and more shockingly looked set to end her swimming career for good.

Undeterred, the effervescent 23-year-old – who also has to contend with a degenerative eye condition which means she can only see out of one eye – refused to give in.

She returned to the water determined to conquer her condition.

And out of the pool, she proceeded to re-evaluate her goals for the future.

Her dream now is to earn qualification for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“I have come to terms with my condition and I have physically adapted to my limitations,” Slater told the Evening Post.

“It can get tough sometimes with the pain down my left side but I have learned to just get on with it.

“I already have had to live with a degenerative eye condition called Keratoconus which means I can only see out of one eye and will need a cornea transplant soon.”

There appears to be little doubt that Slater will be on the plane to Brazil in 18 months’ time judging by the amazing year she has just enjoyed.

After gaining selection on to the England squad for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Slater won a fantastic silver medal in the 100m freestyle S8 classification.

Only a world-record performance from Australia star Maddison Elliott prevented Slater from taking gold.

It was the Longridge girl’s turn to be a record breaker when she switched her attentions to the IPC European Championships, which took place in Eindhoven, in Holland.

She won an amazing seven golds and smashed the world record in the 100m fly and also broke two European records in the 50m and 100m freestyle.

“My highlights of the year would have to be my world record in the 100m fly at the Euros,” she said.

“The European records were also a highlight, along with the Commonwealth Games silver medal.

“Winning seven European golds was also amazing.”

In preparation for what may lie ahead in 2016, Slater flew to Brazil a couple of months ago to check out the facilities and compete in races.

Her South American experience has made her even more determined to make up for the disappointment of missing out on London 2012.

“The Olympics is the final major competition I haven’t competed in, so to compete in Rio will be the icing on the cake, having missed out on London,” she said.

“I visited Brazil in November and it gave me goosebumps.

“It is an amazing country and I was lucky enough to take in the sights. including visiting the Olympic park.

“It has given me even more incentive to qualify for Rio, now that I have seen the country and facilities. As I left, I said to myself, ‘I will be back in 2016’.

“It has just made me more determined to get there.”

Slater admits she is still coming to terms with her success last year and the memory of competing at the Commonwealth Games on home soil will live long in the memory.

“I think it’s just about sunk in, what I have actually achieved now – but I still can’t quite believe it,” Slater said.

“The Commonwealth Games were a fantastic experience.

“The excitement started before the Games when we went to the holding camp in London to train at the Olympic pool.

“In Glasgow, the England team’s accommodation was called ‘The Lions Den’.

“All the England athletes would socialise during free time and get to know each other better.

“There was a medals board so you could see every day how many medals Team England had won.

“ That was really motivating for me.”

Slater went into her race confident she could take gold but she was denied the top prize by an inspired performances from Elliott.

“To be honest, I was totally ecstatic with my medal,” Slater said.

“I was not disappointed. I knocked another two seconds off my PB and also broke the European record whilst winning the silver medal.

“Of course, I would have loved gold but I gave it my all and performed my lifetime best.

“Maddie had to break the world record to beat me, so it just goes to show what a fantastic race it was.

“ I could not have been any happier with my swim.

“It all went to plan – better than I ever expected, as I never thought I could swim 65 seconds. It was just amazing.

“I was a little bit nervous before the heats as I didn’t really know what to expect with all the atmosphere and build-up.

“I swam a strong swim in the heat and still had plenty in the tank knowing I had a final to do too.

“I was just relaxed and fired going into the final.

“The atmosphere and the home support helped me a lot and it really did lift my performance.”

Slater’s performance in Glasgow also won over her peers in the England team, including Southport’s multiple gold medallist Fran Halsall, who was one of the first people to congratulate her.

“Fran came over to me and gave me big hug. She said she was blown away by my swim,” Slater said.

“That was really nice. The whole team got behind every single team member, which was amazing.

“When the medals were awarded, we were paraded round the pool and I was able to see my mum and dad in the crowd.

“They were stood with Beth Tweddle – the Olympic gymnast who happens to be one of my sporting heroes.

“That experience will live with me forever.

“Glasgow was my first big major competition on home soil.

“I had competed at the World Championships the previous year, but they were in Canada so there we only had our relatives supporting us.

“But the support in Glasgow totally blew me away.

“We definitely had an advantage, with it being staged in the UK. I definitely think all the support I received is what helped me get the silver medal.

“I hope we can get another great turn-out at the IPC World Championships, 
which are being held in Glasgow in July. That would be amazing.”

Slater and Elliott’s emerging rivalry will be one to watch over the next couple of years – hopefully reaching a crescendo in Rio.

“Maddie and I compete against each other in the 50m and 100m freestyle and also she is on my tail in the 100m backstroke.

“But it’s great having someone to race, as it pushes me to achieve my best.

“I’m friends with her and the Commonwealth Games was the first time we have really properly raced each other.

“I do think I can beat her but she is such an amazing swimmer.

“There’s not just her – my other main competitors are USA’s Jessica Long, Ukraine’s Kateryna Istomina and Olesya Vladykina, who is from Russia.

“I will be up against them all hopefully at the World Championships.”

While the Commonwealth Games were a great all-round experience for Slater, her performances at the European Championships have given her an enormous amount of self-belief and confidence.

She added: “I set myself a personal goal going into the Europeans that I kept to myself and to actually achieve it was amazing.

“I was speechless and really proud of myself of what I had achieved.

“The 100m backstroke was my first event in Eindhoven and this was a new event for me.

“It got me into the competition nicely too.

“I swam really strongly, got a PB and gold medal.

“I am currently ranked No.1 in the world in this event.

“My 100m fly was obviously my biggest highlight as it was my best swim.

“I broke the world record in April in the trials and then had it taken back off me five days later by Jessica Long, which was tough.

“So to get it back and smash my PB by more than a second – I was so happy.

“I was really happy with 50m freestyle too. I set a new PB in this and broke the European record at the same time.

“I also love taking part in the relays too. They are so fun and it is great to compete with my team-mates.”

During the off-season, Slater embarked on a altitude training camp with Team GB’s able bodied athletes in Font Romou, in France.

There was also the small matter of a Preston Council civic reception to attend, in her’s and fellow Prestonian and Commonwealth Games boxing gold medallist Scott Fitzgerald’s honour.

“The civic reception at the Harris Museum with Scott Fitzgerald was wonderful for us both,” said Slater.

“To be recognised by Preston Council and to have our family and friends with us was a great day.”

Slater’s performances over the summer have also caught the attention of the national media, with Sky Sports and the Sunday Times naming her as the disability sportswoman of the year.

“Whilst I was away in Brazil, I was awarded the Sunday Times and Sky Sports Disability sportswoman of the year award,” Slater said.

“I couldn’t attend the award ceremony due to being in Brazil but I was amazed at winning the award due to the high-profile athletes I was up against.”

Her name was also mentioned at the prestigious BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards, although illness prevented her from attending the star-studded event.

“I had to miss the BBC sports personality of the year awards which was very disappointing because I went the previous year,” she said.

“I watched on television and I did get a mention, which was nice to see.”

Now trained by Rob Greenwood at the National Performance Centre, Slater would like to pay special tribute to Steve Heaps, who helped her immensely in her formative years at Preston Swimming Club

“Steve is not as heavily involved with me as I have moved to train at the National Performance Centre in Manchester full time,” she said.

“But he always continues to support me and came to watch me at the Commonwealth Games, which I was so grateful for.

“I know If I ever need him for support he is there for me.

“Without his help and confidence in my ability, I would never have got to where I am today.”

“He is very proud of my achievements, as are Preston Swimming Club.”