One time Olympic hopeful Stephanie Slater has returned from injury to seek Paralympic glory
She boasts one of the most endearing smiles you could ever see, but Stephanie Slater’s natural bubbly persona hides deep personal – and professional – heartache.
One of the best swimming prospects in the country in 2010, the 22-year-old Longridge girl was on the brink of achieving a lifetime goal of contesting a major international competition.
With the Commonwealth Games in Delhi just months away – and London 2012 on the horizon – Stephanie was training hard at Team GB’s Intensive Training Centre, in Swansea. A 50m and 100m breaststroke specialist, her times were on a par with the UK’s best.
However, life as she knew it changed forever one Tuesday evening when she arrived at the Wales National Pool to carry out her normal training duties.
Diving into the water for a sprint session Stephanie 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, she became alarmed, but nevertheless blamed the listlessness in her arm on tiredness.
But it soon became apparent something was badly wrong.
Although she wasn’t to know it, when she climbed out of the pool that fateful day it would be for the last time as an Olympic prospect.
Her Commonwealth and Olympic dreams in tatters, Stephanie was subjected to a series of scans and tests over the next two years.
Her condition baffled the medical profession until, finally, she discovered she was suffering nerve damage to her branchial plexus, a diagnosis which ended her career as an able bodied athlete.
She no longer has use of her left arm and little hope of her condition being reversed.
A bitter blow for the happy-go-lucky Preston Swimming Club member, but bravely 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 the aim of winning a place on the GB squad for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Judging by her performance at the British International Disability Championships in Sheffield last month – as a S8 classified swimmer – a seat on the plane looks assured.
In winning the 100m butterfly, not only did she secure the qualification time for this year’s International Paralympic Committee World Championship, in Montreal, Canada, she smashed the European record for her classification. The joy the former St Cecilia’s RC High pupil felt in becoming an European record holder went a little towards erasing the painful memories of her injury.
Stephanie recalls: “I was doing a sprint session one Tuesday evening. 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 nothing there in my arm. I could not pull through the water.
“Then I started to get this intense pain down my arm.
“We had a physio 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.
“Not knowing what was wrong was worst. My injury was a mystery to the doctors.
“It would have been easier if I’d had an accident, fallen 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 had a trauma at birth.
“It was a mystery how the injury could have happened.
“It was 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 don’t know whether that, coupled with my training, had anything to do with it.”
Stephanie began swimming with lessons at Nick’s Swimming School, in Longridge.
At once, it became clear she had a love for the sport and she joined Preston Swimming Club aged just four.
She worked her way up to Preston SC’s top-ranked team and 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 hard sitting on the balcony watching team-mates train.
“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.”
Having finally received an explanation for her injury, Stephanie, who also has a degenerative eye condition and problems with balance due to one leg being slightly longer than the other, set about rebuilding her life.
She returned to Preston Swimming Club and offered a helping hand to coach Steve Heaps, who asked her to consider returning to the pool as a disabled competitor.
She also received support from Dr Ian Gordon, chief medical officer of the GB swimming team, who put her in touch with Britain’s disabled swimming organisation.
She said: “I had kept in touch with Dr Gordon about my progress and he said I should get in touch with the man in charge at disability swimming because I had too much talent to throw it all away.
“I got classified in November and was straight in the pool.”
Since then Stephanie has concentrated on improving her fitness and adapting to 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 I thought I would.
“It is different, but being back in the water feels like I’m back to being me again.”
While last year’s London Games came too soon after her diagnosis for her to compete, Stephanie did manage to sample the atmosphere 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 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 TV and that was a little heart-breaking.
But being at the Paralympics was great. It has given me the motivation to compete in Rio.
“I want to compete there and win a gold medal.
“The first step is the Worlds in August. I am looking forward to that and the aim is to break the world record.”
She paid tribute to Preston Swimming Club and her coach Steve Heaps.
She said: “I wouldn’t have got where I am without them. I owe them a lot, especially Steve.”