It’s been nearly eight months since treasured swimming hero Stephanie Slater decided to hang up her goggles and retire from the sport. A bubbly, down to earth and determined young athlete, Slater took to the pool from the very early age of three like a duck takes to water. Years later, she began entering British Championships – and it was just a matter of time before heads started turning.
After winning a British Championship silver medal in 2010, Slater was seen as a real Team GB prospect heading into the Commonwealth Games with the potential for glory at a real high.
But while training at their aquatic centre in Swansea, something terrible was on the horizon. She started to experience severe pain and weakness in her left arm, which left the medical staff puzzled – so there was no chance of healing it. After missing the games in Delhi, the 27-year-old was in utter devastation, and to make matters even worse, after two years of tests and scans, she was later told that she’d never swim again.
“It was the hardest and lowest time of my life,” said the Paralympian.
“Being told I would never swim again and having everything you have ever worked for taken away from you was absolutely heart breaking. It’s not something I had ever prepared myself for.
“You never expect it to happen to you. I can still hear the consultant’s words in my head to this day. It will never leave me.”
Inconsolable and feeling totally helpless, the Preston-born girl returned home to her friends and family before an opportunity arose – being a Games Maker (volunteer) at London 2012.
“I was very lucky to be chosen as a Games Maker. I applied to do this so I could still be part of the Olympics even though I couldn’t compete,” told Slater.
“I never went thinking I would be inspired to get back in the pool as a Paralympic Swimmer. I mentioned it to my old coach at Preston Swimming Club, Steve Heaps, and he agreed to retrain me to swim with one arm.
“Having never coached a swimmer with one arm before, he did a lot of research and decided butterfly would be the best stroke to concentrate on for the imbalance I experienced when swimming. He definitely wasn’t wrong.”
Almost a year after her decision to become a para-swimmer, Slater began smashing records – starting in Sheffield at the British International Disability Swimming Championships – where she set a European record of one minute and 11 seconds in the 100m Butterfly.
With that phenomenal time, Slater qualified for the 2013 World Championship in Montreal where she took home her first ever gold medal in the Medley relay and two other silver medals to go with it.
And the best was yet to come – in 2014, her self-proclaimed golden year – where she reigned victorious in race after race and won barrels of silverware.
“I went to my first Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and won silver in a new European Record.
“I then went to my first European Championships a week later and came away with seven gold medals, a World record and three European records.
“It really was a special few weeks which I will never forget. I was at my peak fitness and had adapted really well to swimming with one arm.”
Little did she know, after this glorious year, another few tribulations were yet to come and test her character once more.
“I only started showing signs of a serious hip problem after the summer break in 2014 and following hip surgery in early 2015 my health rapidly deteriorated and I was diagnosed with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS) amongst other conditions too,” said the swimmer.
“The whole of 2015 and the lead up to the Paralympic trials was definitely the most stressful time of my life.
“It felt like déjà vu all over again and I was going to miss out on competing at the Paralympics due to more injuries. No one knew the pain I was going through and the more I pushed myself to try and achieve my goal the more pain I was in.
“I lost count of the number of swimming pools I could have filled with my tears. I had to keep resting and having time out of the pool so I was nowhere near at my peak fitness at the trials.
“Thanks to my determination I got the qualifying time and just hoped I could keep healthy so I could go to Rio.
“I managed to do it but I had to pull out of quite a few swims as my body and lack of fitness would just not have coped with the schedule. Although I won a Silver medal in the Butterfly I had lots of mixed emotions.
“I was really happy but at the same time I was so disappointed as it was nowhere near my personal best time or what I was capable of.”
This is the attitude that personifies Slater as a champion, and after this setback she had to look within herself and find the strength to go for gold.
“I just had to keep reminding myself of the journey I had been on to get there and how just to be stood behind the block on two feet was an achievement in its self.
“Winning the gold in the relay was amazing but being part of a team is so special too. Looking back though it is frightening to think how close I was to not actually making it to Rio and experiencing that emotional roller coaster all over again.
“An inner strength I never thought I had within in me is what helped me to really fight for my place and I will never forget the experience.”
Two years on and back to present day, Slater was forced to retire with her conditions worsening, but that hasn’t stopped her from inspiring Britain’s future generation of Paralympic swimmers. On top of all that, she’s even studying to become a nurse.
“I now chair the Para Swimming Athlete Representative Group and I also help with coaching at the North West Disability Swimming Club once a month too. I’d just love to stay involved in sport and continue to inspire the next generation.
“I’ve also started my next career path as I want to be a Children’s Nurse. I attend Runshaw College 2 days a week studying an Access to Higher Education in Health and Social Care, Nursing and Midwifery so I can go to University next year and continue my training.”
An inspiration, Slater vows to use her story as an example – hopefully teaching future athletes to overcome adversity and achieve their dreams.
“The hardest thing about my condition is no one can begin to understand what it is like to be in constant pain all the time and deal with what I do on a daily basis.
“Nobody truly understands what its like to want to do something that others can easily do but your body stands in the way and stops you.
“I hope I can give hope to others with setbacks to never give up on achieving what they set out to do. No matter how long it takes to get there.”