Sport

Commonwealth champion Bethany Firth a shining light for disability sports

Champions swimmer Bethany Firth at Lidl Northern Ireland Sport for Good Schools Programme in Colin Glen Dome yesterday
Champions swimmer Bethany Firth at Lidl Northern Ireland Sport for Good Schools Programme in Colin Glen Dome yesterday Champions swimmer Bethany Firth at Lidl Northern Ireland Sport for Good Schools Programme in Colin Glen Dome yesterday

BEFORE attending Lidl’s Sport for Good event at Colin Glen Dome yesterday morning, Commonwealth Games Gold medallist and six-times Paralympian swimmer Bethany Firth had a chat with her mother.

Over the years Bethany has become used to these mother and daughter chats. But they’re not exactly chats; rather, little reminders for the day ahead.

The 26-year-old serial Gold medallist and multiple record-breaker has a learning disability which causes short-term memory loss.

She breezes effortlessly from one media interview to another and greets each journalist she meets with an impossibly wide smile.

“Before coming up to this event,” she says, “my mum’s been talking to me and giving me wee cues: ‘Remember you did this. This is what happened at the Commonwealths...’

“But, say, tomorrow I won’t know this again. It’s wee things that people don’t see daily. For instance, my husband will leave me little messages around the house just to remind me of certain things, leaving notes, and things I need to do today. People don’t see this because you can come to an event and you chat away, and they don’t see what you’ve been through that morning or all those other things.”

The Co Down woman talks in matter-of-fact terms about her disability.

“Basically, I have a long-term memory 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 and you're not there, you don’t know you’ve done that.”

Bethany Firth chats and smiles in the vast expanse of the indoor dome like she has the world at her feet.

And, of course, she absolutely does. Google her achievements and you will quickly lose yourself in her insatiable pursuit of sporting excellence, which includes five world championship titles.

And yet, you’d never imagine that a champion swimmer had to overcome a childhood fear of water before she started ‘touching the wall’ ahead of all those who raced against her.

Bethany carries a JAM [Just A Minute] card, which is an app on her phone that allows those with a learning difficulty or autism to communicate with members of the public, that they may need some help or a little extra time in situations.

“Growing up with a disability, everything in my head is heightened,” she explains.

“When someone has a physical disability - a person might have one leg and they might not be able to walk - but people sometimes don’t understand a mental disability.

“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 any label. I wanted to do what everyone else was doing.

“Yes, it took me a wee bit longer and I needed extra help to do certain things, but it should never be a label."

She adds: “Getting into sport and doing well and people asking me more about it has made me feel actually proud that maybe I am a little bit different. Maybe I need an extra bit of help, but there’s nothing wrong with that, we’re all different, no two people are exactly the same.

“Everyone has their struggles and their strengths. That’s just them as a person and they should shine with it instead of when I was young, hiding and not letting people see. Now I tell people that I need a little bit more help or if I’m struggling in a shop, I would say: ‘I’ve actually a disability – can you give me an extra minute?’

“So, instead of people getting annoyed at the till: ‘This person is taking forever. What’s going on?’ they understand a bit more about the situation. And I don’t use cash at all because I can’t work it out for myself.”

Bethany captured the imagination of British and Irish audiences alike in last summer’s Commonwealth Games where she blitzed the field in the 200m freestyle final to strike Gold.

It’ll be difficult to top 2022 as she also got married and has just recently returned from her delayed honeymoon.

“Over the years I’ve actually got more and more nervous because people expect you to win gold all the time,” Bethany says.

“I’ve not yet not won gold, so there is always time for the knock to come and there is always someone else on the day that could be calmer and handle things a wee bit better.

“But I really try and focus on myself and I think this is important in life too: you can always compare yourself to what everyone else is doing, you can’t change what everyone else is doing. All you can do is change what you’re doing and how you’re going to perform on that day in that race.

“For the Commonwealths, I knew I had done the training, I knew I had the determination and my mind was set on what I wanted to achieve. I just had to go out there and do it. When you touch that wall first and seeing that you’ve finally achieved it over 10 years it’s something I can’t put into words.

“So, for me, sport changed my life at 13 – it allowed me to shine, it allowed me to talk to people and grow as a person and it so important to allow disability sport to shine just as much as the Olympics. The Paralympics is sometimes even greater because the competitors have a lot more things to overcome. People don’t realise what things they have to overcome in their daily lives.”

***The Lidl Northern Ireland Sport for Good Schools Programme is a mental health athlete mentorship programme with a dedicated focus on boosting young people’s social skills, self-esteem and body confidence through sports participation. The programme aims to address the needs of some 45 per cent of young people here who said their mental health had deteriorated since the pandemic began.

More than 5,200 secondary school pupils from across 25 schools located in every county participated in the 2021/22 programme with feedback survey results revealing that 83 per cent of participants felt Lidl Northern Ireland’s programme boosted their overall confidence. For more information log on to www.lidl-ni.co.uk/lidl-community-works.