Sporting Stories writes... So the Olympics have ended in glory for TeamGB, but if you thought that was inspirational, then next up is the Paralympics - featuring elite athletes who have overcome enormous challenges to be able to represent their country at the highest level. This is the story of local parathlete swimmer Jenny Booth, and her 1996 journey.
It's finally here the letter I've been waiting for!!! Dare I open it, will it have the news I want I’m so excited, let me explain a little...
Many years ago after a big operation on my spine I joined a swimming class - it was actually with some pensioners, but it was perfect as I just wanted a gentle swim to get back some mobility. I'd started to get a little stronger and my swimming stroke was improving so it was suggested I join a swimming club as I was not a bad swimmer. So many many years ago I joined COSACSS Swimming Club, I still train with them today now with Senior Coach Greg Clarke at Fenton Manor we are ready for training at 5:30am, but little did I know how things would turn out... There were some great swimmers in the club if only I could swim as well as them in the future! I always remember the day I moved from the middle lane up to the top lane the fast lane wow I thought I'd made it then, but there was more to come.
I did my first competitions, they were very basic to begin with but I progressed and I moved on to Regional competitions and then the National Championships held in Darlington at the time, that was a big occasion, I felt really excited. From there I got picked to join the Great British Team, we used to go away on training weekends to Stoke Mandeville and Sutton Coldfield. They were really tough, we were up early and trained three swim sessions with lectures on nutrition etc and land training all fitted into busy weekends but they all stood me in good stead.
So back to the letter!
I was waiting to hear if I had been selected for the Paralympic Team to fly out to Atlanta to compete for GB again. I had competed at the Barcelona Paralympic Games which was a great honour for me, I swam personal best times in my races and made the finals. So the last 4 years of hard training and competing around the world at European and World Championships had all come down to the unopened letter I held in my hand !!!!!!!!
YES...... I had been selected, the many hours of training and miles and miles I had swam had paid off, my name was on the list, I had earned a place on the GB Team. As time got closer my training sessions had been fine tuned for me to be at my peak for the games the kit had arrived and everything was coming together.
The team flew out to a holding camp in Pensacola Florida before the games so we could all acclimatise and put final preparations into place, from there we flew onto Atlanta (what a massive airport) and then to the Paralympic Village. The village is an amazing place there’s nothing quite like it with almost 6,000 living there competitors, team staff and coaches, plus officials covering 19 different sports from 104 competing countries. It’s a very colourful busy bustling environment to be in there are flags everywhere with all the different cultures and nationalities connected by sport coming together in one place.
The Opening Ceremony
There was a lot of waiting around as all the teams gathered GB looked smart all dressed in our walking out uniform. It was time for our country to march into the Athletics Stadium the roar of the 66,000 strong crowd was so loud and when the Mexican Wave started going around it got even louder if that was at all possible. The talks and speeches were taking place with a very touching one from Christopher Reeves (yes Superman was right up there in front of me). The whole ceremony is a very loud, action packed exciting experience. The lighting of the Paralympic Flame is a poignant moment and always a little sad when it’s extinguished 9 days later.
Time to race
I had competed my individual races and made the finals, I had given it my all and recorded personal best times. The 4 x 50m Freestyle Relay team had been decided and announced and I had been chosen, amazing, but I was chosen to swim the last leg the anchor leg, so much pressure... it felt like the whole result of the race was down to me. Over the last few years as part of the GB relay team we had had some tough battles against the strong French team and it had all been a matter of which team swam best on the day.
The day of the relay, all competitors have to report to the call room to have final accreditation checks a little before the race, for those of you that have ever been in such a room you will know what I mean by it’s a very strange place. Swimmers are trying to psych themselves up, others are trying to psych their competitors out, some listen to music and others are stretching/warming up and there’s always that familiar smell of muscle rub... Pressure builds to boiling point then we get the go ahead to parade out to the pool. I was extremely nervous but at the same time ready to race so nerves had to be set to one side we had a job to do. If ever I wanted to swim well it was today. I had to have confidence that all the training I had done all the miles swum and the gym work, would all pay off. The French team had saved their fastest swimmer for the last leg, she had a lesser disability which meant she could dive and also had a leg kick, which I have neither. So the girls in our team knew they had to give me a lead or we didn't stand a chance, they did, we all swam our hearts out when I took over we were leading, could I hold on to the lead? I heard the cheer of the almost 15,000 capacity crowd get louder which could only mean one thing she was chasing me down...
I hit the time pad right on the end of a stroke perfect, we had all done it and finished in first place yes GOLD MEDAL position was ours, not only that we had set a NEW WORLD RECORD. Wow we had now just become the 4 fastest swimmers with our disability classification in the world ever for this event!!!
A little while later after many photos and autograph signings and a few verses of "We are the Champions" and "Simply the Best" it was time for the Medal Presentation. With the National Anthem playing and the Union Jack on the flagpole we were there on the top of the Medal Podium and I think you could say on top of the world right then.
I felt like a hero everyone wanted to hear about the trip and what it was like out there, Newspapers and Radio wanted interviews. I was invited to all kinds of events... I remember the first standing ovation I got, felt very special.
I won Stoke on Trent’s overall Female Sports Personality of the year what a privilege to be awarded such a great title and to be presented with the trophy by Lou Macari and John Rudge, what a moment, very proud. I even got an invite to a Reception at Buckingham Palace I was to meet the Queen!!!
Still to this day I get invited to events, earlier this year I was a Heart Bearer at the Opening Ceremony for Stoke on Trent’s European City of Sport celebration. There were many local sports stars there when you look around what great talent has come out of Stoke on Trent. I got chatting with many guests including Colin Jackson, Amy Williams and Jonathan Edwards, a great privilege for me and for Stoke on Trent.
It just goes to show we are never quite sure where the journey of life will take us, I never thought my swimming would have taken me all over the world from Stoke on Trent to America, Australia, New Zealand and many countries in between.
If sport is included in our journey, it can only be a good thing.
Oh, and I won a BRONZE MEDAL too in the Medley Relay...