BIG INTERVIEW: Craig Salmon talks to Paralympic gold medal winning swimmer Steph Slater
THERE were a few tears rolling down the cheeks of Stephanie Slater when she watched the raising of the Union Jack accompanied by the sound of her National Anthem being played.
The GB swimmer – who hails from Longridge, near Preston – linked arms with her team-mates on the podium as the quartet celebrated winning the gold in the 34 points 4x100m medley relay at the Paralympic Games, in Rio de Janeiro.
As Slater peered into the spectator gallery at the Olympic Aquatics Centre where her parents were situated, she could see that they too were also overcome with emotion.
Not only was their feelings of pure delight for mum Shirley and dad Steve at the way their daughter’s talent had taken her to a glorious gold medal, but there was also a great sense of pride at the way she has battled back from significant adversity in her life to achieve success.
Marked down as one of the country’s brightest able bodied talents in the pool as a teenager, Slater’s world was turned upside down while training towards the 2010 Commonwealth Games – and ultimately the London Olympics in 2012.
Struck down by a mysterious injury to her left arm in the pool, the former Preston Swimming Club member underwent numerous tests before eventually being diagnosed with nerve damage to her Brachial plexus.
The injury ended her Olympic dream and looked to have ended her career in the pool for good.
However, her love for the sport was re-ignited when she worked as a volunteer at the London Games to help make the event run smoothly.
That experience compelled her to jump back in the pool and become a para-athlete with this summer’s Paralympics the main target.
It has not been easy for the 25-year-old over the years – especially last year when hip surgery and chronic illness threatened her very participation in Rio.
But in her true gritty and determined way – coupled with her naturally sunny disposition in life – Slater recovered in time to fulfil her Paralympic ambition.
Overjoyed at winning a silver medal in the individual S8 100m butterfly race, Slater – and her parents – were lost for words when she scooped the gold, breaking the world record in the process.
“My mum and dad came out to watch me in Rio,” said Slater, who also suffers from a degenerative eye condition.
“They have never really travelled too far in the world before in their lives.
“I think Majorca was the furthest they travelled, but they have since been travelling the world watching me race.
“I have been so fortunate that they can do that.
“My brother and the rest of my family watched me back home.
“I think winning gold in Rio brought a few tears to everybody’s eye both happy and sad because they have seen how hard it has been for me. Seeing me stand on that podium with the Union Jack being raised and the National Anthem being played, it was so emotional for everybody.
“It’s been a long, emotional journey over the past four years or so. A lot of ups and downs.
“Even last year was a tough time for me.
“I had to have hip surgery and then I suffered from chronic illness on the back of that which caused me to miss out on the World Championships.
“It forced me to have a full year out of the water, which was so disappointing especially after I had such a great year in 2014 when I won seven golds at the European Championships and broke a world record.
“It was so hard to take knowing that Rio was just around the corner and there was a chance I might miss it.
“But the support I have had from family and friends has been amazing.
“They are the ones, who have helped me get to Rio and achieve what I have.”
Slater won many plaudits for her performance in the relay with many skilled judges picking out her leg as the one which ultimately gave GB the gold.
“I did the third leg, which was the butterfly leg,” Slater said.
“We were in third position after the breaststroke leg before I dived in.
“At the time I knew there was a lot of pressure on me to try to pull it back and managed to do that by two seconds.
“I pulled it back for the girls and Steph Millward went in on the last leg and managed to bring home the gold medal.
“A lot of people have come up to me and said what an amazing leg I did.
“Watching it back, I was amazed at how well I did and I was really chuffed with the time because it was quicker than the one I posted in my individual event.”
Slater admits she is slightly disappointed that she was not able to earn gold in any of her individual events.
The reigning world record holder in the 100m butterfly, the former St Cecilia’s RC High School pupil had to settle for second place behind Ukraine’s Kateryna Istomina.
She also missed out on a medal by the narrowest of margins in the 50m freestyle and came fifth in the 100 backstroke.
The Team GB star believes that without her injury and illness interrupted 2015 and full year of training behind her, she could have come away with more medals.
“When I first touched and saw the two lights on the block to say I finished second in the butterfly, I was disappointed at first,” she said.
“I am the world record holder and obviously going in to that, I wanted to win gold.
“But after everything that has gone on over the past year – just to achieve that I was absolutely over the moon with it.
“I could not have done any more – I left everything out there in the pool.
“I swam the race exactly how I planned it and could not have done any more.
“So to come away with a silver medal, I couldn’t really complain.
“I have raced the girl who won it many times since 2013 and I’ve beaten her every time I’ve raced her.
“Obviously this time, she just pipped me to the post.
“My world record is still intact though and nobody has been near to the sort of times which I’m capable of doing.
“That is good to know because I know that I am capable of recording those sort of times when I’m fully fit.
“I can get back to that level – and it’s good to know that there is that gap between myself and my competitors.
“I missed out on a medal in the 50m freestyle by 0.01 of a second which was tough to take.
“On paper there were about five of us who were all pretty much equal.
“There was not much separating us really, but on a 50m, it’s literally who can stretch and get their hand on the wall the quickest.
“I knew that if I could swim near my best, I would have been in with a chance of a medal so to just miss it was tough.
“Watching it back, I was leading most of the way so I was a little bit frustrated.
“But I literally had no more strength in my arm to reach out and get that medal.
“I think that just shows that because of the lack of training this year, I have lost a lot of strength and power.
“In the backstroke event, I was leading at the turn and that just shows I’m lacking that little bit of strength.
“I was actually pleased with how I did in the backstroke because that is my hardest event .
“I did a season’s best in the final and when I swim the backstroke, all the lights really affect me.
“So to come away with that time and to finish fifth, I was really happy with.
“I was right up there after 50m, it was just literally the last 25metres where my lack of fitness stopped me from getting a medal.”
Having had such a great experience in Rio, Slater – who won a silver at the Commonwealth Games in 2014 – is eager to build on her performances.
She has the Commonwealth Games in Australia to look forward in two years’ time and, of course, has target more golds at the next 2020 Paralympics, in Tokyo.
She believes her best is still ahead of her and is excited about what lies in store in the future.
“In a way it is kind of exciting in a way that I can produce these kind performances in Rio when I’m not fully fit and not in the best shape that I could be,” she said.
“If I can get to stage where I can have a proper cycle of training and I’m not interrupted with injuries and surgeries, then I think I can win more golds.
“In 2014 I won seven gold at the Euros and I was in great condition there Hopefully I can get back to that where I’m in tip-top shape.
“I still feel my prime is ahead of me and hopefully I can back to a stage where I can break some more world records.”
Having worked so hard to achieve her goal of being selected for Rio, did the event live up to her expectations?
“It did live up to my expectations,” said Slater.
“With it being my first Paralympic Games, I didn’t quite know what to expect.
“But I had a little bit of an idea about what it would be like after going to the Commonwealth Games, in Glasgow, in 2014.
“I had a taste of it then being in a village environment, but obviously Rio was on a much bigger scale.
“It was really nice being in an apartment with Paralympics GB so I got to meet a lot of the athletes from the other sports.
“We also had an amazing performance centre in Rio, which had physios and doctors to help us perform our best.
“We literally had everything we needed on site.
“The food hall was like a maze – it was as big as Asda!
“We also had free McDonalds, but the queue was crazy on the last few days because the vast majority of people had finished their events.”
Slater also paid tribute to Preston Swimming Club and her former coach Steve Heaps.
“I first started at the club at the age of four and I’d like to thank them for all the support that they have given me, especially Steve,” she said. “They have been an absolute rock for me.