James Hamilton, Paralympic Swimmer

The country Antrim swimmer balances school and a love of horticulture with a dream of competing for gold

James Hamilton’s two major interests in life are horticulture and swimming. When he is not attending Greenmount College, working in a landscape centre or helping out at the family farm where he lives near the County Antrim village of Doagh, James is more than likely to be found at the pool or the gym.

The London 2012 Paralympic Games are only months away, and while James achieved the S14 qualification in 2011, he is required to achieve it again and hope that when the numbers are allocated for each category, it will be good enough to book him a place on the Ireland team.

It is only two years since the 19 year old made his debut at the IPC World Championships that were staged in the Pieter van den Hoogenband swimming stadium in Eindhoven. Hamilton had been making steady progress since being spotted by Swim Ulster, who brought him to the British Junior Disability Championships in Sheffield.

'We were shocked and surprised at James’ selection for the world championships because it seemed to happen so quickly and naturally we were proud to be there to witness it,' says Peter Hamilton, James’ father. 'He loved it and we were impressed with how he was looked after by the team.'

After Holland came the 2011 European Championships in Berlin’s Europasportpark, and Hamilton was on his international travels again. 'James likes being with the team and learning how these major swimming events are run,' explains Peter.

Each Paralympic sport has its own set of classification rules, including criteria for what constitutes a 'minimum disability'. Every athlete is assessed to check the effect of his/her impairment. This includes physical, medical, sensory or cognitive testing (it may extend to observation of actual competition).

Athletes compete in Paralympic sport under six different groups: Spinal Cord Injury, Cerebral Palsy, Amputees, Vision Impairment, Intellectual Disability and Les Autres (an additional 'cover-all' group). Hamilton is listed as having an S14 disability.

Hamilton swims the 200m freestyle, 100m backstroke and 100m breaststroke, which he says is his favourite event. 'It’s the one I most like to do. I think it is the best for me. The target time I have to reach is 1’ 16 seconds or below. I did that last year and it’s my personal best and I can do it again.'

That degree of confidence is backed up by the support of his parents, Paralympics Ireland and the invaluable help and advice from coaches including Raymond Skillen, Gary Williamson, Dave Strong and Jim Hurson from Larne Swimming Club, where Hamilton does much of his training.

'At the moment I’m doing seven sessions a week. Each is two hours long and I get one-to-one coaching for an hour in some of those sessions. It all helps me with swimming technique and all the other technical stuff. I also have to do lots of weight training for the upper body, the hips and legs as well as core work and squats as part of my strengthening and conditioning.'

Hamilton recently passed his driving test, which is proving to be more than useful to his father, who is busy on the farm and to James’ mother, Angela, who works as a nurse.

'James is happy to drive to college and to Larne and the more familiar places that he knows around home,' explains Angela. 'However I take him to the his sessions at Olympia, Andersontown, Belfast Royal Academy, Ballymena and the St May’s PEC on the Falls Road.'

You could say that water sports run in the Hamilton family. James brothers Steve and David, along with older sister Hannah, are all swimmers. 'I started taking them to the Alliance Swimming Club at the Grove Baths when they were small and it is really taken off from there,' says Angela, who also has her own sporting credentials.

She has represented Ireland in international rowing as well as Northern Ireland in the 1986 Commonwealth Games. Husband Peter has also rowed and competed in athletics. But for now the Hamilton family are sqaurely focussed on James.

'James was with the Northern Ireland Disability running team up until this early 2012,' adds Angela. 'But his athletics hasn’t gone as far forward as the swimming, and that is where he is focusing his efforts at the moment.'

The move away from athletics and on to swimming also reduces the possibility of injury. 'He has been lucky so far and swimming is a lot easier on the joints that the 800m and 1500m that he used to run. Maybe it has to do with the support that water gives him.'

And given Angel’s background of Commonwealth Games training, she also knows what food James needs to be eating ahead of competition. 'I have to make sure that James has the correct recovery food to take with him when he is training. He needs to have the right amount of protein and carbohydrates to take within 20 minutes of a session.

'That’s the commitment that we have made. We’re just happy if James is happy. Our role is to facilitate and make sure that he has what he requires and gets to where he needs to be. James is classed as having S14 disability. That classification has only recently returned to the Paralympics and we want him to have every opportunity to take part.'