Brendan Crossan: Bethany Firth - touching the wall first and changing attitudes

Bethany Firth spoke openly about her learning disability
Bethany Firth spoke openly about her learning disability Bethany Firth spoke openly about her learning disability

IN the vast expanse of the Colin Glen indoor dome on Wednesday morning, I stood transfixed listening to Bethany Firth’s story. I had never interviewed her before.

Like everyone else, I watched and celebrated her win the 200m freestyle final at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham last month.

Pursuing and achieving excellence for over 10 years, and that beaming white smile when she touched the wall first. If a journalist has been to one sponsored event, they’ve been to them all.

But Lidl’s Sport for Good programme, backed by ambassadors Ciara Mageean, Rhys McClenaghan and Bethany Firth, was different.

It was different because Bethany went into detail about her learning disability. She suffers from short-term memory loss. I didn’t know such a thing existed among younger people.

“Basically, I have a long-term memory,” Bethany explained, “and things go into my long-term memory. If it doesn’t I’ll forget it. I can’t choose what goes in.

“Some races I’ve been in; people talk about them but I would literally not remember them. They’d show me pictures, you see it, but it’s like seeing yourself – you're not there, you don’t know that you’ve done that.”

Before attending the Lidl event, she revealed that her mum sat her down and gave her some cues to help her with getting through some media interviews.

‘Remember you did this,’ her mum said. ‘This is what happened at the Commonwealths...’

Bethany got married in May and had only recently returned from her honeymoon. At home, Bethany says her husband leaves notes around the house to remind her of things she has to do that day.

“My family and my husband know me really well. My family has taken so much time over the years to get me into scenarios where I have to talk to a lot more people and being in situations that have made me thrive, whereas people don’t get those opportunities.

“Sometimes you go into a room and the people know you but you don’t know them and maybe they think you’re a wee bit rude, or when you go to an event and you’re asked a question and halfway through the answer you’re not sure of the question and you just keep talking...”

When she was explaining all of this, I didn’t know how she was actually feeling during our interview that lasted around 10 minutes. I suppose the fact that she was talking about her learning difficulty was probably Bethany at her most honest and open.

“You go to these events; you put up a front but people don’t actually see the struggles that you’ve had in your day.”

And here she was, flashing her best smile for photographers and chatting amiably on and off camera. Undoubtedly, she’s at her most comfortable in the pool, blitzing her competitors and always getting to touch the wall first.

Talk to any speech therapist and they will stress the importance of acknowledging a learning difficulty, even if a person doesn’t exactly reach the threshold of needing professional intervention.

But you can also understand why some people with a learning difficulty – mild or otherwise, if there is such a spectrum - don’t want to announce it because they don’t want to be labelled in a world that is generally ignorant to or don’t understand that person's needs.

At 13-years-of-age, swimming changed Bethany Firth’s life. In her teenage years, she didn’t want to be treated differently than the next kid. So you can totally understand the esteem issues this raises.

“From a young age, I wouldn’t say to anyone that I had a disability, I would never say anything, I’d shy away, I just didn’t want people to know.

“Even when I first got into swimming I didn’t want people to think I was getting extra help from the coach. I didn’t want that label. I wanted to do what everyone else was doing.”

While a school environment is rightly classed differently in order to maximise a child’s ability and skill set, that same kid that plays soccer or Gaelic football, or indeed any other team sport, might just want to be treated like everyone else on the team.

Even if that amounts to just two or three hours per week.

And if they’re physically capable why shouldn’t that be the case given the potential trauma some kids might suffer from living with labels in other aspects of their young lives.

A sports pitch can be their happy place.

Indeed, the great thing about sport is that it has the ability to empower children and young people as they make their way through life. Sport can transform them. It has certainly transformed Bethany Firth.

The trajectory of her young life is inspiring and I was humbled that she was so open on Wednesday morning about her learning difficulty because it really does help others in a tangible, empathetic way.

When someone is struggling with an invisible condition, and a champion swimmer and role model tells her story, it widens the road ever so slightly and makes the journey a little easier.

Crucially, Bethany Firth has reached the point in her life where swimming has allowed her to celebrate “being a little different”. She is more confident in her own skin.

In the Colin Glen dome on Wednesday, I was suitably inspired by this 26-year-old Co Down woman.

Whether she realises it or not, she is using her gold medal haul at the Commonwealths, Worlds and Paralympics as a force to challenge and change attitudes towards those in our daily midst who might just need more of our understanding.

“Getting into sport,” she said, “and doing well and people asking more about it has made me feel actually proud that maybe I am a little bit different.

“There’s nothing wrong with that, we’re all different, no two people are the same. Everyone has their struggles and their strengths. That’s just them as a person and they should shine.”

Amen to that, Bethany Firth…