Taking a Paralympian plunge to Tokyo
From dropping out of swimming altogether, to overcoming setbacks, finding the right coaches, following in the footsteps of successful siblings and dealing with an impairment that drove him on rather than held him back, Stephen Clegg’s route to the Tokyo Paralympics hasn’t been a regular one.
Stephen secured three medals at the Tokyo Paralympics. In the 100m fly, he won silver, while in the S12 100m backstroke and S12 100m freestyle Stephen won silver – a tremendous achievement.
Having set a new world record in the S12 men's 100m butterfly at the British Para-Swimming International Meet in Sheffield this year, Stephen Clegg will head to the Tokyo Paralympics on a high.
The Edinburgh swimmer secured a silver medal, three bronze medals and set a British record time in his World Para Swimming Championships bow in 2019, but despite coming from a family of successful athletes, the 25-year-old’s journey to Japan hasn’t always been a smooth one.
“I started swimming casually from the age of 11 through to 14 but when it started to get serious I didn’t want to engage with it. I wasn’t loving getting up at four in the morning, so I just dropped it.”
“When I left school I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my time. I didn’t want to go to University because I had a bad experience at secondary school. I needed a bit of a break away from education so I thought I’d give swimming another go. It was more of a hobby at first then it quickly snowballed into what has turned into a full time career.”
- Video: VIDEO - EI - Taking a paralympian plunge
Stephen – who is on the Individual Performance Programme with Edinburgh Sport and Exercise – didn’t take up competitive swimming until he was 18. Just two years later he was competing at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, across a trio of Freestyle events, as well as the S12 100m Backstroke, which brought him his best result of fifth.
“Edinburgh Sport and Exercise were kind enough to let me train with them going into Rio. I wasn’t part of their programme at the time. They gave me some pool time and long course exposure because at that point I didn’t have much experience.”
“I did a couple more years swimming with different clubs but I was starting to lose a bit of love for it. I was pretty close to exiting the sport, but due to my Edinburgh links I ended up joining the Performance Sport programme at Edinburgh in 2019 and its revitalised my love for the sport.”
Stephen cites his coach Chris Jones, Head of Performance Swimming, as a key driver in his career, along with the facilities, teammates and coaches at Edinburgh Sport and Exercise.
“My experience with Edinburgh has probably been the best in my entire swimming journey so far. I’ve never had a closer team bond as I have with the team at Edinburgh. My coach Chris cares about you in terms of your performance level but also in terms of your growth as a person, not just as an athlete. He’s very emotionally invested in his athletes, which is rare to see at this level.”
“I don’t think I would be in a position I’m in right now, where I’m currently world number one, breaking world records, without Chris. That’s down to his insight and mixing things up a bit for me. He took me far out of my comfort zone in terms of training. I was always a sprint swimmer so I would always have a really strong first 50 of my 100 and I would fade off quite a lot. When I got to the programme he pushed me aerobically, so I’m now as fit as I’ve ever been and in the best condition of my career.”
When Stephen competes in Tokyo he’ll be dipping into the waters of the purpose-built Tokyo Aquatics Centre. The venue includes a 10-lane main pool, training pool and diving pool, with a capacity of 15,000 spectators.
“The facilities in Tokyo look amazing. We train at Edinburgh’s Commonwealth Pool, which is an excellent facility and we’re very lucky to have that access, but I also really like the pool at St Leonards. It’s only a 25 metre pool but it’s got a nice cosy feel to it. It’s a very good training pool. And the performance gym at Sport and Exercise is world class. It’s an excellent facility. From the places I’ve trained there’s not many better than that.”
Stephen, who is visually impaired, became the third member of his family to compete at a Paralympic Games when he swam in Rio in 2016. Brother James won bronze in the S12 100m Butterfly in London 2012 and sister Libby took gold in Rio in the T11 100m (S11 and S12 indicates classes for visually impaired swimmers. The lower number indicates a greater degree of impairment).
Stephen cites his siblings and the motivation to succeed, in spite of the condition, as one of the main reasons for his achievements to date in sport.
“Both my brother and sister have the same condition as me. They were six-years-old when they got diagnosed. I thought it had skipped me but I got diagnosed at nine-years-old. I don’t think I really understood it at the time, but I’ve been very fortunate to have my brother and sister go through it first, if that makes sense. They’ve been great role models and really set the standard for me. I can’t sit back and use my disability as an excuse not to do things. That’s why we’re very competitive, we try to show to each other that we’re more independent than the other, which has probably translated a lot into our performances in sport.”
Stephen has a condition called Stargardt macular dystrophy, an inherited disorder of the retina, the tissue at the back of the eye that senses light. The condition causes vision loss during childhood and progressive damage to a small area in the centre of the retina.
“When the cells in my eyes die my body doesn’t reproduce the stem cells to replace them so they form a cluster in the centre of my vision which creates a blind spot in the centre. I can see round the peripheral much better but it’s still not perfect, but my central vision is very poor.”
“In terms of swimming, where it most affects me most is stroke mechanics. Everyone else can see a coach’s demonstration on poolside so they learn the stroke mechanics much better. Whereas even if I’m watching someone right beside me I’m not necessarily going to see the finer details of the stroke. So that’s probably where I struggle the most.”
Tokyo delay and dealing with lockdown
His training normally consists of 18 hours swimming a week, plus additional gym time, but in March 2020 all that stopped. Scotland’s swimming pools and gyms, along with everything else, closed. So what does a world-class professional swimmer do when there are no swimming pools in which to train?
“Everyone who swims is used to being full-on throughout the year, we don’t have much of a rest period like other sports. But from March last year through to July we had no pool access whatsoever. It would have been the longest stint of time most swimmers have gone without swimming in a pool.”
“Our lives are so structured, your entire year is planned out and it very rarely diverts from that plan so I struggled a lot with not having that stable structure week on week. It affected me quite a lot. I had a lot of insomnia where I couldn’t sleep, which is very challenging, it can be quite emotionally fatiguing. So I quickly got to the point where I was desperate to get back to training.”
After competing in his first Paralympics in 2016 then smashing British records and picking up medals at numerous meetings in the intervening years, Stephen could be forgiven for feeling frustrated at the Tokyo Games being moved from 2020 to 2021 due to the global pandemic, but he takes a positive perspective.
“I didn’t look on it as ‘I’ve got to wait.’ I looked on it as ‘I’ve got another year.’ Another year to build on this type of training that I’d started doing at Edinburgh that was clearly working for me. It meant I could get more time with Chris and more fitness under me to prepare myself for the Games.”
A two week training camp in Shinjuku, Japan will be followed up with three or four days acclimatisation in the Tokyo sports village. Athletes will follow covid-safe restrictions and will be kept within their ‘country bubbles’ when not competing. Another difference from Stephen’s experiences in Rio will be the lack of crowds.
“We’re not going to have a crowd this time round, which is going to be disappointing. A huge part of the Paralympic and Olympic experience is having that electrifying crowd. The fortunate thing with swimming in the UK is that you acclimatise to small crowds, so we’re suited to that atmosphere more than the athletes from the States or Australia. It’s a shame but it’s what needs to happen for the Games to go ahead and keep everyone safe.”
Having overcome many hurdles in his life to date some athletes might look upon representing their country on the world stage in Tokyo as an achievement in itself. Stephen isn’t such an athlete.
“The circumstances I’ve gone through in life have led me to be hypercritical of myself. My biggest flaw is probably my biggest strength: I’m never satisfied. When I broke the world record in Sheffield this year all I could think about was my next target, which isn’t always a good thing. But for now it’s working pretty well.”
“I’ve got European Championships in Hungary in May followed by the Paralympics in August. I’ve put myself in a really good position with my recent performances but the trick is not to be complacent. I’m very aware of the people around me with similar times and I know there’s a couple that are definitely capable of nipping the gold, but my target is to win.”
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