I spent a week in a stuffy swimming pool in Sheffield last month. Following years of poolside instruction, I had completed a tough training course, passed a written exam and practical assessment and can now call myself a British Swimming Referee. I’ve got a certificate to prove it. And a whistle!
So, I swanned off to Pond’s Forge national swimming pool to show off my new status and joined the team of officials at the World Para-swimming Championships. I soon realised that being a Referee, with a new British Swimming polo shirt straight out of the packet means very little when you’re faced with athletes who are kicking disability in the face by being some of the best swimmers in the world.
Years of judging able-bodied swimmers didn’t prepare me for the sheer determination with which these athletes charge into their sport. Yes, some of them may need help getting into and out of the pool; some may need a tap on the shoulder when it’s time to turn; some take longer to swim 100m than it would take me to walk it, but they were all magnificent.
I did have some favourite moments: new World Records being set, which were a joy to be part of, and Personal Bests, which were celebrated just as loud. The South American teams definitely took the prize for poolside partying, which they did whether one of their swimmers was racing or not. And I loved the way the Japanese swimmers respectfully bowed to the pool before getting onto the blocks at the start of each race.
I learned a lot that week. I learned that it didn’t matter who I was and how hard I had worked to get there. What mattered were all those swimmers who, despite their disabilities, were focusing on what they could do, and what they were determined to achieve. I was there simply to facilitate the process and to ensure a fair race.
Winning is not always about who gets there first, but who gets there best. And they were all best.