BIG INTERVIEW: Craig Salmon talks to Longridge swimming star Stephanie Slater
She boasts one of the most endearing smiles you could ever wish to see, but Stephanie Slater’s natural bubbly persona hides deep personal – and professional – heartache.
As one of the hottest young swimming prospects in the country in 2010, the 22-year-old Longridge girl was on the brink of achieving her lifetime goal of competing at a major international competition.
With the Commonwealth Games, in Delhi, just a matter of months away – and the London Olympics on the horizon – Slater was in full training mode at Team GB’s Intensive Training Centre, in Swansea.
A 50m and 100m breaststroke specialist, Slater’s times in the pool were on a par with the best elite swimmers in the country.
However, her life, as she knew it, dramatically changed forever one Tuesday evening when she arrived at the Wales National Pool to carry out her normal training duties.
Diving into the water to complete a regular sprint session, Slater suddenly became aware of a problem in her left arm as she began to deliver her stroke.
Unable to force her arm through the water to complete the breaststroke pattern, Slater became alarmed, but nevertheless blamed the listlessness in her arm on tiredness.
However, when she attempted another sprint after taking a break, her arm betrayed her once more and it soon became apparent that there was something gravely wrong.
Although Slater wasn’t to know it at that particular moment, when she climbed out of the pool on that fateful evening – it would be for the final time as an Olympic prospect.
With her Commonwealth and Olympic dreams in tatters, Slater was subjected to a series of scans and hospital appointments over the next two years.
Her condition left the medical profession flummoxed until, eventually, she discovered that she was suffering from nerve damage to the lower part of the branchial plexus.
Her diagnosis signalled the end of her career as an able bodied athlete, as she no longer has use of her left arm with little hope of her condition being reversed.
It was a bitter blow for the happy-go-lucky Preston Swimming Club member, but courageously she has refused to allow her condition to ruin her life.
In November, she returned to the pool as an athlete with a disability and has refocused her career goals on winning a place on the GB squad for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.
And judging by her performance at the British International Disability Championships, in Sheffield, last month as a S8 classified swimmer, a seat on the plane to Brazil looks assured.
In winning the 100m butterfly, not only did she secure the qualification time for this year’s International Paralympic Committee World Championship, which are being staged in Montreal, Canada, but she also smashed the European record for her classification.
The joy the former St Cecilia’s RC High School pupil felt in becoming an European record holder went a little way towards erasing some of the painful memories over the previous few years.
Slater told the Evening Post: “I was just doing a sprint session one Tuesday evening.
“I was in the water and the only way I can describe it is my left arm just started to go dead.
“At first, I just thought it was a bit of a build up of lactic acid – so I just shook it off as nothing and thought I would be okay to go again in the next sprint.
“But when I dived into the water again, there was just nothing there in my arm.
“I just could not pull through the water.
“Then I started to get this intense pain down my arm.
“We always had a physio present at the ITC Centre, so when I got out of the water I went straight to him and told him what I felt.
“He advised me not to carry on swimming until they did some further investigations.
“Two years down the line, I finally found out that I had nerve damage in my arm.
“It was a really horrible time. Swimming is something I have done since I was three-years-old and then all of sudden to have this injury – I was in a low, low place.
“I had to move back home from Swansea because I needed the support of my mum Sheila and dad Steve and brother Scott.
“They were frustrated for me because they could see how much I wanted to swim and be the best that I could be.
“Just the not knowing what was wrong with me was the worst part – my injury was a mystery to all the doctors.
“It would have been easier if I had had an accident or fallen over or hurt myself in the gym.
“The medical people kept saying to me, ‘Have you been in a car accident?’
“I would say no.
“They would say, ‘Are you sure about that?’
“I would be like, ‘I think I would know if I had been in a car accident!’
“Apparently my injury was the kind you get when you have been in a car crash or you have had a trauma at birth.
“It was a mystery as to how the injury could have happened.
“I was out of the water for two years – I’d dip my toe in every so often.
“It was just a matter of waiting for scan results all the time.
“After two years, I found out I had suffered nerve damage to my branchial plexus which means I can’t use my left arm now.
“They did find a lump on my lung and they don’t know whether that, coupled with my training, had anything to do with it.
“It was all just one big mystery.”
Slater first began swimming when she attended lessons at Nick’s Swimming School, in Longridge.
Immediately, it became clear she had a real love for the sport and by the time she was four years old, she had joined Preston Swimming Club.
A budding gymnast as well, Slater’s talent in both sports meant she had to chose one over the other. After choosing swimming, Slater worked her way up to Preston SC’s top-ranked team and also represented Lancashire at all age ranges.
“It got to the stage that I was training towards the London Olympics,” Slater said.
“My times were improving and I was really swimming at my best up until I got injured – which makes it all the more heartbreaking really.
“I got injured right before the Commonwealth Games – that was one of my aims.
“At the time I did think, ‘Well I’ve missed out on that but I’ll try to get back in the water for the Olympic trials.’
“But obviously it didn’t happen.
“Up until the injury, I was doing 10 training sessions a week then all of a sudden I was doing nothing. It was really hard sitting on the balcony watching all my team-mates training.
“They were all as upset as me.
“I had a training partner called Sara Lougher and she lost out as well because she had to train on her own.
“She wanted me to come back as much as what I did.
“Sara went on to compete in the Commonwealth Games.”
Having finally received an medical explanation for her arm injury, Slater, who also has a degenerative eye condition and has problems with her balance due to one of her legs being slightly longer than the other, set about rebuilding her life.
She began to head down to Preston Swimming Club where she started offering a helping hand to coach Steve Heaps, who asked her to consider returning to the pool as a disabled competitor.
Slater also received support from the chief medical officer of the GB Swimming team Dr Ian Gordon, who put her in touch with Britain’s disabled swimming organisation.
Slater added: “I had kept in touch with Dr Gordon about my progress and he said that I should get in touch with the man in charge at disability swimming because I had far too much talent to just throw it all away.
“So I got classified in November and I was literally straight back in the pool.”
In the past six months, Slater has concentrated on improving her fitness levels as well as adapting to her new swimming strokes.
“I’ve had to get used to my new strokes using just one arm,” Slater said.
“That was quite hard, but I picked it up quicker than what I thought I would do to be honest.
“It is different, but being back in the water just feels like I’m back to being me again.
“I don’t look it as an hindrance.”
While last year’s London Games came too soon after her diagnosis for her to compete in, Slater did manage to sample the special atmosphere which only an Olympic or Paralympic Games has by being a Games Maker.
She was stationed at the Olympic Aquatics Centre for the Paralympics where she acted as a guide for both the athletes and the spectators.
She added: “I got to watch all the swimming and take in the atmosphere which was brilliant.
“Obviously I watched the Olympics on the television and that was a little heart-breaking.
“But being there at the Paralympics was great and it has given me the motivation to compete in Brazil.
“It’s what I want to do. I want to compete there and win a gold medal.”
While that may be her ultimate goal, Slater is determined to keep her feet on the ground and focused solely on improving her performance this year.
“The first step is the Worlds in August,” she said.
“I am really looking forward to that and the aim is to go quicker and break the world record.”
Slater also paid tribute to Preston Swimming Club, in particular her coach Steve Heaps for all his support.
She said: “I wouldn’t have got to where I am without them. I owe them a lot of thanks, especially my coach Steve Heaps.”