Bethany Firth Goes Forth
The 16-year old Seaforde-born swimmer has taken the sport by storm. Up next, the London 2012 Paralympics
7am, Friday morning and the group of swimmers cutting through the water at Newtownards swimming pool have already completed an hour and a half training under the watchful eye of Ards ASC head coach, Nelson Lindsay.
Among the elite band of young swimming talent is 16-year old Bethy Firth, for whom it is a 4am start each weekday morning except Thursday. She travels to Newtownards from her home near Seaforde in County Down before the rest of us put the kettle on.
'Bethy is unusual in that she has only been swimming for four or five years and is a relatively late starter in the sport,' Nelson remarks in a moment of quiet by the pool. 'What is remarkable is that she has made such progress and continues to record faster times.'
And what is also remarkable is that since Firth took up swimming seriously in 2008, she has risen up through the world rankings to proudly sit at number one in the 100 metres backstroke for S14 class women. Not that Firth likes to shine too much light on her achievements.
'She doesn’t like a fuss being made,' says her mother, Lindsey. 'Bethy never liked going in water, but then Jerome Starrs, who teaches at Longstone Special School, spotted her potential and asked our permission to enter her for the Northern Ireland Disability swimming competition at Lisburn. You can only imagine our surprise when she came home with four gold medals. She hides all her medals under her bed.'
And that pile of gold, silver and bronze has been steadily increasing ever since. When she competes at the London 2012 Paralympic Games in August, very few would consider betting against her, despite her disability, which is classed as an 'intellectual disability', according to Paralympic classification.
'She has problems with memory,' Lindsey explains. 'It’s a bit like Alzheimer’s in a child. She might remember what she did three weeks ago, but not yesterday. She might recall something from yesterday, but not last week. We went to Disneyland when she was nine but when she looked at the photographs she said, "I know we were there, but I have no recollection." You just never know.
'A specialist came across from England to see her. They discovered that if she did movement, through dance or skating, she would remember things. They believe it’s like a filing cabinet with two drawers. One where the information goes in and she can get it out, but with the other, she can’t retrieve any of it.'
Bethy Firth can also have difficulty remembering names and faces. 'One of her coaches was off work for several weeks because of an accident. When he came back Bethy didn’t know who he was. It was quite upsetting for a time,' says Lindsey.
In the three years since Firth joined the Ards Swimming Club, she has worked her way into the elite category that comes under the supervision of Nelson Lindsay, who also coaches the Northern Ireland Commonwealth Games team.
'She is a naturally talented athlete who would be good at any sport she turned her hand to. I’m just glad that she chose swimming,' he admits. 'In the two years I’ve worked with her, she has come on in leaps and bounds when you consider that most of the other swimmers of her age have been in the sport since they were six.
'Normally late starters have difficulty learning all the skills, but Bethy’s managed them really well. We don’t know how much more she will improve. She’s still getting better and we will have to see where that levels out.'
In May 2011, Firth gave an indication of her real potential when she easily reached the qualifying standard for Paralympic selection at the Irish National Championships. She was eleven seconds faster than the required time in the backstroke, ten seconds faster in the breast stroke and a massive 24 seconds faster in the freestyle.
Nelson Lindsay believes that Firth could have an outstanding career ahead of her. 'She’s already on the mainstream Ulster Swim squad and I think she is the first Paralympian to be brought on to the Ireland national youth development squad. If Bethy hadn’t her disability, I’ve no doubt at all that she would be a front line swimmer in Ireland.'
The coach is also full of praise for how the teenager from gets on with the hard graft of training. 'Bethy is one of the easiest of the squad to coach. She works very hard and pays attention to what she is told. That’s all I ask and she gives everything she can.'
As for Firth – who prefers to let her performances do the talking – she does admit to being excited at the prospect of swimming in London at the end of the summer. 'When I’m in the pool,' she comments, 'I just love the feeling of going through the water as fast as I can.'