Paralympic swimmer and gold medallist Bethany Firth, 25, from Newtownards, originally Seaforde, in Co Down, is calling on people across Northern Ireland to take the plunge and sign up for the Swimathon Festival 2021, as she prepares for her first event in Japan this week.
“It is such a fun and simple way to encourage people to dip their toe in the water and get swimming - all while supporting two incredible charities,” said Bethany. “It really doesn’t matter if you’re not the fittest or the fastest. So, I hope swimmers young and old, new and experienced, will dive in and help thousands of families right across Northern Ireland.”
Bethany and her family understand all too clearly why events such as Swimathon are so vital to support the work of charities like Cancer Research UK and Marie Curie.
“My mum was diagnosed with cancer in 2018 and this was a terrible shock,” she said. “Mum has been such a source of strength and support for me throughout my life and career. It was a very difficult time but thankfully her treatment was successful, and I’m so grateful that she’s getting back to full health. After what we’ve been through, this Paralympics will be extra special, whatever happens.”
Bethany and the team flew out to Tokyo, Japan on August 11 for the Paralympic Games which begin on August 24. She is taking part in four events, the first of which is on the third day.
Firth has intellectual impairments and learning difficulties that cause short term memory loss and therefore competes in the S14 classification of the games.
It has been a very difficult year for Bethany due to lockdown, but she found her enforced stay at home gave her a chance to spend more time with her family, which she has immensely appreciated.
“But not being able to be at the pool has made me fall in love with the sport all over again and realise just how much I love it,” she added.
Bethany was eventually able to get back into the pool towards the end of last year, but nothing was going to deter this fiercely determined young lady from continuing to train – so she inventively and imaginatively decided to practice while using a paddling pool and a bungee rope in her back garden.
“I continued training with a gym in the house,” she explained, “but I missed the water so much we used a 10ft paddling pool with a bungee rope tied to the fence. Everyone was hoping I wouldn’t pull the fence down. It was very cold. Northern Ireland is definitely not the place for an outdoor pool.”
The passionate swimmer had mixed emotions as she anticipated her journey to Tokyo, as restrictions have prevented her family accompanying her to the much-vaunted spectacle set to be beamed across the world to millions of sports fans.
“I’m really excited to compete again as it’s been so long and I love to race,” she said. “I love the culture of Japan so I’m really looking forward to being out there. Although these games are going to be very different, as I will miss having my family there to support me and looking up to see them when I finish my race. But on the plus side, I feel like sport brings so many people together and that is something we need after the year we have all had.”
To compensate, mum Lindsey has assured Bethany that everyone at home will set their phones to Tokyo time, so she will know they are contactable when she needs them.
Bethany’s success in swimming is well known. Her first Paralympic gold was back in 2012 at the age of 16. Since then she has gone on to break the world record in backstroke, while at the 2016 games in Rio she broke the world record in 100m backstroke in the heats, then again in the finals and also in the 200m freestyle. She brought home three gold medals and one silver and was Great Britain’s most decorated Paralympian athlete that year.
However, when asked what her goals were for this year, the ever modest Bethany said: “I think my goals have really changed with the year we have had. It definitely hasn’t been ideal for training, so I have decided that I’m more just going out there to enjoy the experience of racing again, and if that gets me a medal that’s a big bonus.”
But there was one highlight during all the misery of lockdown when Bethany said ‘yes’ to her now fiancé Andrew, whom she has known for three and a half years. That certainly was cause for celebration.
After a challenging year for many swimmers who’ve missed out during the pandemic, Bethany is now urging others to make a splash too by taking part in the world’s largest annual swimming fundraiser for these two much-loved causes - Cancer Research UK and Marie Curie.
Organisers are set to celebrate a festival of swimming from September 10-12 with the Swimathon and Open Water Swimathon events taking place on the same weekend, for the first time, at pools and venues across Northern Ireland, including the Joey Dunlop Leisure Centre in Ballymoney and Lagan Valley Leisureplex in Lisburn.
People can participate individually or as part of a team. If swimmers can’t make one of the organised sessions, they can sign up to MySwimathon, which takes place from September 3-19, and choose a time and venue that suits.
Bethany is keen to emphasise that you don’t need to be a super swimmer to take part - no matter how much of a crude beginner or amateur you are, participation is the key because the Swimathon Festival offers a variety of distances for all ages and abilities – from 400m, up to a triple 5k, and a new 30.9k option for those with considerably more stamina and skill.
Swimathon has in the past raised more than £55m for charities since it began in 1986 - a vastly impressive amount of funds for truly worthwhile causes.
This year will also see the Swimathon Foundation donate £2.50 from every entry fee to help protect Swimathon pools and venues for the future, following the impact of the pandemic, which imperilled the future of leisure facilities across the province.
Not only will taking part help to raise money, it has a huge number of mental and physical health benefits. Moderate exercise such as swimming can help build stamina, burn calories and help individuals maintain a healthy body weight, which reduces the risk of a range of diseases, including cancer. Swimming regularly is also gentle on the joints, can lower stress levels, reduce anxiety and depression, and improve sleep patterns. Like other forms of exercise it releases serotonin, the feel-good chemical in the brain.
Jean Walsh, Cancer Research UK, said: “The Swimathon Festival offers a challenge for all open water or pool swimmers whether they’re early divers or evening dippers, fast lane speedsters or leisurely lappers. There are lots of great benefits to taking part, not least the chance to enjoy the water while raising money for causes which are close to the hearts of so many.
“So, we hope everyone will grab their caps and costumes and sign up now to help us keep making transformative steps in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer. One in two of us will get cancer in our lifetime. All of us can support the research that will beat it.”
Mark Winton, head of community fundraising at Marie Curie, said: “We’re so excited that pools have re-opened and people can once again take the plunge and make a splash while helping raise vital donations for Marie Curie. We rely on the support of the amazing public to ensure our nurses can keep caring for people at the end of their lives and that grieving people in the UK can get the care and support they need. Every penny raised helps us make a difference to the end of life care people in the UK receive.”
Sign up to participate now at swimathon.org.