High Peak Sharks - the swimming club where all children are welcome
PUBLISHED: 10:26 26 April 2016 | UPDATED: 10:26 26 April 2016
Andrew Griffiths gets into the swim with High Peak Sharks
It’s ten o’clock on a Monday morning and I am sitting in the kitchen of the Bamber household. There is a confectionary box in the middle of the table and we are having a late breakfast of cream cake and mugs of tea. The laughter is flowing freely and it all feels deliciously decadent.
I am with two generations of women: Vanesa Baggott, Nicola Bamber, and Nicola’s twenty-year-old daughter, Ellie. All are instructors with the High Peak Sharks, a swimming club which caters for both disabled and able bodied children. For a few minutes, they are all being wonderfully indiscreet.
‘People would be shocked by what we call our kids sometimes!’ says Vanesa, herself the mother of a child with epilepsy and learning difficulties. They all laugh again and Nicola, once coach of the year in the High Peak Community Sports Awards, tells her own favourite story about an announcer at a disabled swimming competition who asked if anybody had lost a leg: ‘And everybody with one leg put their hand up!’ says Nicola. ‘Then everybody would laugh, and then the spectators would laugh, but when I repeated that to somebody, they said: “Oh that’s terrible!”’
‘I once found two legs crossed over at a national competition, tripped over them and said sorry!’ Vanesa chips in, and this sets them all off again.
Now it was Ellie’s turn. However, what Ellie told me that Martha, who has learning difficulties, had said to Mickey, who is a dwarf, and what Mickey had replied to Martha had better go unmentioned here. Suffice it to say that it produced more peals of laughter around the table.
Ellie is a qualified coach and swims competitively too. She swims in disability class S10 because she has a hip which is turned in and dislocates easily. She also has an infectious laugh, as she demonstrates while telling me about the teacher on her Health and Social Care college course.
‘If you heard the way I talked to my friends with disabilities! My lecturer just looked shocked at me and said: “Oh you can’t say that!”’ More laughter. Her poor teacher. It is enough to have any self-respecting, politically correct college lecturer reaching for their smelling salts.
‘My teacher always jokes, every time she mentions a new disability – “let me guess – you’ve got a friend with that!”’ And the thing is, Ellie most likely has.
But all this laughter has of course been forged in a harder place.
The swimming club for disabled children has been going for around twelve years now. It is a part of Glossop Swimming Club, and began life with help from a council grant to create a facility which caters for disabled children. One of the club’s great strengths is that it is not exclusively for disabled swimmers, or swimmers with one type of disability. Able bodied, disabled, those with learning difficulties – it doesn’t matter, all are welcome here.
Nicola first became involved with the club about nine years ago because of her experience with her own autistic child, Jasmine, now 16. Jasmine always loved water, and a trip to the pool was the one thing that Nicola knew would entice her to leave the house. But once she was old enough to attend swimming lessons, things didn’t go so well.
‘She didn’t interact with the group,’ Nicola tells me. ‘I think part of it was she followed the instructions too literally. If the swimming teacher said: “Right, we are all going to go up to the deep end and jump in.” And he marched them up to the deep end, and Jasmine just jumped in! She didn’t wait for the instructions, she just jumped in!’
More laughter in the Bamber kitchen, particularly from Ellie, who is clearly used to this kind of behaviour from her younger sister. I ask the three how teaching swimming to someone with a condition such as autism is different. The answer seems to be, a readiness to accept the unexpected. Teachers supervising a disabled swimming class must expect the children to behave unpredictably, so their vigilance needs to be constant and intense.
‘The teachers didn’t shout at Jasmine to pull her back into line, they just let her drift off, then eased her back into the class,’ says Nicola.
Vanesa became involved too through her experiences with her own daughter, Martha, who is epileptic and has learning difficulties. Epileptic swimmers need ‘spotters’ poolside, to watch for any signs of impending seizures. At first Vanesa played the part of spotter, but then began to take on a more prominent role, ‘I was sitting poolside and watching her, so I thought I may as well be sitting poolside and teaching.’
Both Nicola and Vanesa stress the importance of the mix of children in the group. ‘It’s inclusion the other way,’ says Nicola. ‘I think it is fantastic that other children without disabilities choose to be in these sessions, and that other parents choose to send their children.’
Ellie has grown into a formidable swimmer in her own right, competing at both national and international levels. Ellie, now an Occupational Therapy student at Sheffield Hallam University, doesn’t think she would have kept up with her swimming if it hadn’t been for those Saturday sessions at Glossop swimming club. ‘If I wasn’t as fast as people in my age group, why would I?’ says Ellie. ‘But because I was fast in disability terms, I kept going.’
She now combines her swimming teaching and studies with an ambassadorial role for young disabled people, through the organisation Disabled People’s User-Led Organisations (DPULO) and she spent a year as a youth ambassador for her local NHS Trust. They do say that you should put something back into life as well as take. So far, Ellie must have built up quite a credit account.
IT IS HALF PAST FIVE on Saturday afternoon at New Mills Leisure Centre. The swimming club is in full swing. One of the instructors, Alan, points out Jasmine in the water, and takes me to meet her. Jasmine has autism. The last time I met her in the street, she would not make eye contact or speak to me. But now, she is bouncing in the water, a big grin on her face. Beside her is her friend, Sophie.
‘She is my best friend and she is a nut job!’ Jasmine shouts at me. Then heads are dipped under water in the time-old manner of youthful recrimination. When Jasmine surfaces, I ask her what she likes about the swimming club. She thinks for a moment then answers very seriously: ‘I like the exercise and it is sociable. I don’t really enjoy any other sports.’ It isn’t just the children with disabilities who have reason to be thankful for the swimming club, it is their parents too.
Behind the observation window the parents relax and stretch out their legs, and at the edge of the group Sarah Tweedie sits with her friend, Helen Sherwood. Sarah’s daughter, Rachel, is learning disabled, as is Helen’s son, Adam. Both are in the pool, only a glance away, but both mothers know that they are safe under the watchful eye of their instructors. This gives Sarah a rare hour of peace to breathe out, look at a magazine, and have a quiet chat with Helen. For them both, the swimming club is a huge support network in its own right.
‘If you have a child with a disability they don’t always go to the clubs that other children go to, so they are isolated themselves, but then you as a parent are isolated,’ says Sarah. ‘You come somewhere like this, and you’ve got a ready made peer-group for your children, but then you’ve got a peer-group yourself too, because the people you are speaking to have been through similar experiences.’
Helen tells me the difference the club has made to Adam. ‘Adam has grown in confidence with the social interaction that he wouldn’t normally get with other children. He is doing well at swimming and he is making good friends. With sports and things, he has always been the person who at mainstream school people don’t pick to have on their team.’
Sarah nods: ‘Rachel was always kept in a lower age group. Well, that was demoralising. But now she has got something straight away to talk about to other people. She has got an active interest. She is able to shine in her own right.’
Standing poolside at the 5 o’Clock Club, against a backdrop of the ringing shouts and laughter that is the soundtrack of public baths everywhere, I watched the children swimming, their bright caps bobbing under and over the water. Some of the stronger swimmers were making their way back from the deep end to the shallow to help out the weaker ones.
I wondered for a moment what it is that makes certain groups work, what it is about the dynamics that makes some a success while others fail. Then, as the children swam, I realised that I couldn’t tell the able-bodied from the disabled, those with learning difficulties from those without. They were all just children, splashing in the blue water, beneath the iron girders of the New Mills pool. And that is probably all there is to it.