Surrey paralympian Hannah Russell has certainly done her county proud. Here, she tells Jane McGowan about life in and out of the pool
For many people, 2016 will go down as one of the low points of recent history. It was a year dominated by humanitarian crises, political shocks and a string of celebrity deaths.
But it was also the year of the Rio Olympic and Paralympic Games. Two sporting spectacles that saw Great Britain’s athletes soar to never-before-seen heights, scooping more than 100 medals from both competitions.
And for Ottershaw’s Hannah Russell in particular, 2016 couldn’t have gone more swimmingly. Not only did the 20-year-old, visually impaired, backstroke specialist break a world record, win two Olympic golds and a bronze, she was also crowned British and European champion. She then rounded off the year by being awarded an MBE in the New Year’s Honours List.
“To go to Rio and win three medals and then come home and find out I had got an MBE, well nothing could really be better than that,” she says.
Hannah swims in the S12 class – defined as a person who has some degree of vision, although it varies from swimmer to swimmer. To combat her impairment, Hannah counts her strokes. “You could have a tapper [someone who lets you know where the end of the pool is] but I prefer to count,” she explains. “For a 50m freestyle, I’ll take 38 strokes to get from one side to the other, so I know on my 38th stroke I will hit the wall safely.”
Hannah with her family
She was introduced to the sport by her dad Carson, a former international rugby player, who thought the pool would offer Hannah the chance to enjoy sport safely. And although she was only five years old when she took the plunge at Woking Swimming Club, she knew instantly the pool was the place for her. “I used to scream when my mum tried to make me get out,” she laughs.
It was, however, the success of British swimmers Rebecca Adlington and Ellie Simmonds at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and Paralympics that turned Hannah’s love for the sport into a desire to compete. “They inspired me to step up my training and take my swimming much more seriously,” she says.
Growing up, Hannah had always competed against non-disabled athletes, but after a regional event in 2010, it was suggested she should be classified as a para swimmer. “I had never thought of paralympians in terms of visual impairment, I had just thought about the physical differences. When I was told I could be classified I was really excited as it meant I would be competing on a level playing field.”
Hannah was quickly identified as a potential star, with Rio being the main aim. But after taking two medals at the Europeans in 2011 (aged just 15), Hannah found herself on the team sheet for the London games of 2012.
“The team got announced in the April and I was just refreshing and refreshing the page on the computer until the names came up,” she says. “That moment realising I was going to represent my country at a home Olympics Games was something else.”
The lead up to the games however, had been pretty taxing, as apart from five hours of swimming each day, Hannah was preparing for her GCSEs. “It was a bit of a challenge,” she admits. Nevertheless, she came home with a silver and a bronze, “and an experience, I will never forget”.
Following London, Hannah and her family decided she should take up a place at Kelly College, a specialist swimming school in Devon. “Being there, I could get all my training done and my studying and be in bed by 9pm,” she adds.
Hannah is unswerving in her devotion to her sport and even though it meant more time away from home, swimming came first. “I got a scholarship and I was just so grateful for the opportunity.
“My family have made so many sacrifices, driving me to the pool at all hours and they are with me at every competition. I am very thankful for all the support I have received from everyone over the years.”
Hannah is currently studying for a Sports Science degree in Manchester, where her time is divided between swimming, training in the gym and studying.
“I have fallen in love with Manchester and it has given me so much more freedom,” she says. “I actually live in a swimmer’s flat which is only 10 minutes’ walk from the pool. I can get there without a lift from anyone which means I can be independent.”
Hannah acknowledges that her schedule is pretty punishing but she reminds me that to have the amount of success she has enjoyed, it’s more than worth it. “Rio was fantastic,” she enthuses. “Apart from winning it was great to be part of such a close-knit team.”
Since Rio, Hannah has been visiting schools to share her story in a bid to inspire pupils with her motto, “If you believe, you can achieve”.
“When I was seven, my schoolteacher asked me to draw what I wanted to be when I grew up and I drew a picture of myself as an international swimmer,” she says. “I have stuck by my sport and I didn’t give up even when it was hard. It just shows if people do have a dream and want to achieve something, there’s nothing stopping them.”
- Hannah Russell MBE takes part in the British Para-Swimming International Meet in Sheffield from April 23-27
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