THE BIG INTERVIEW
Craig Salmon talks to Paralympic swimming contender Stephanie Slater
It’s been quite a rollercoaster of emotions for Preston paralympian swimmer Stephanie Slater over the years.
Marked out as one of Great Britain’s brightest young able bodied prospects in the pool from an early age, her life was turned upside down around four years ago when she was informed that her career as an elite performer was over.
Struck down by a mystery arm injury while training towards the 2010 Commonwealth Games, in Delhi, it took two years of test and scans before she was finally diagnosed with nerve damage to her brachial plexus.
The condition – which means she has limited use in her left arm – cruelly wrecked her long-held dream of competing at a home Olympics in 2012.
But instead of feeling sorry for herself, Slater decided to channel her disappointment and opted to become a gamesmaker at London 2012.
She was one of thousands of volunteers who worked behind the scenes, helping the last Olympics to become known as arguably the greatest Games ever.
It also inspired her to dive back in the pool and become a para-swimmer.
The decision to rekindle her love affair with the water was an inspired one as she quickly established herself as one of the world’s best over the S8 50m and 100m sprints.
She has gone on to win multiple World and European medals and smashed the S8 100m butterfly world record in Eindhoven, in 2014, courtesy of a time of 1.08.20.
A silver medal was secured at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, in Glasgow, and now the Longridge athlete has the chance to win a medal at this summer’s Paralympics, in Rio de Janeiro.
Slater – who achieved the Olympic qualifying time last month – was handed the news she had been waiting for on Monday when she was officially named in the Team GB squad on the plane to Brazil.
“I was so excited and over the moon when I heard I had been selected,” said Slater, who also suffers from a degenerative eye condition and also has one leg longer than the other.
“I’m am so proud and honoured to be to be attending my first Paralympic Games.
“It really is a dream come true.
“When I was told I would not be able to swim again – it was really hard to take, especially after all the hard work and sacrifice I had made to try and achieve a life long dream. Being given that opportunity to get back in the pool in a slightly different way reignited my love and dreams of representing my country again which I thought had been taken away forever.
“It really is amazing how far I’ve come.
“Being a gamesmaker in London inspired me to get back in the pool as a para swimmer.
“Volunteering at London changed my life.
“When I did my first National competition back in 2013 as a para-swimmer that really reignited my fire and I knew Rio was in sight.”
Despite her reinvention as a para-swimmer, the last year has not all been plain-sailing for the Preston Swimming Club star.
Last year, her Paralympic dream was under threat when she was forced to go undergo hip surgery.
The unexpected operation ruined much of her plans for that season, including competing at the IPC World Championships and then a further illness also scuppered her progress.
“You could say the road to get to Rio has been quite a long rollercoaster of a ride.
“After a really successful 2014 winning Commonwealth sliver and seven European golds, where I also broke my first world record in the 100m fly, things where looking really positive looking ahead to Rio.
“But then in February 2015 I had to undergo hip surgery which was to see me out of the pool for the best part of the 2015 season.
“Happily, things all went to plan and I exceeded all expectations – I made a really good recovery, which meant I was able to get back in the pool.
“Unfortunately, this was short lived due to ill health which ended my year in the pool.
“With all that, qualifying for Rio seemed to be getting further and further away from me.
“This year has been a little bit rocky but I am really happy with my performances over the last month.
“To be able to stand behind those blocks last month and then hit the selection criteria, it was the best feeling in the world. Hopefully, I can carry that forward into the rest of the season.”
Having competed and won a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games two years ago, Slater believes that experience will help her when goes gunning for glory in Rio.
“I was totally blown away by my performance at the Commonwealth Games,” said Slater, who was coached by respected Preston trainer Steve Heaps.
“Achieving silver in a lifetime best time whilst also breaking the European record was fantastic. “I remember the noise from the crowd just carried me the whole way. I will defiantly be using that experience of a multi-sport competition to help me in Rio.
“It going to be on an even bigger scale but I’m just going to soak it all up and channel it into my races.
“I’m going to be concentrating on the sprint events – so the 50m and 100m race.
“The goal is always to win gold but as long as I can perform a lifetime best and give it everything I’ve got, I can’t really ask for much more
At this month’s IPC European Championships in Portugal, Slater deliberately reduced her workload with Rio in mind.
She still managed to come away from Madeira with two golds and her confidence boosted.
“I cut down my programme at the Euros,” she said.
“I was just concentrating on the two events this time and I managed to achieve two golds – defending both of my titles.
“I was really happy with my performances considering how we had come straight off the back of the GB paralympic trials the week before.
After a short break, Slater has returned to full training as the clock ticks down to the opening ceremony in Rio just over a couple of months away.
“I’m just back into hard training now and we have a few competitions coming up,” she said.
“We also have a warm weather training camp coming up too before heading off to the holding camp ahead of Rio.”