By Ikeni Mbako-Allison
I was caught in a house fire and suffered burns to my lower legs at 11 months old. I underwent double below-knee amputation at the age of 12 and have suffered recurrent problems with prosthetics. I have consistently found it more difficult than peers to engage with sport. I played a bit of basketball at school where they kindly adjusted the rules in gym class so that I could play in a wheelchair. This was a mildly amusing though ultimately ineffective enterprise: my classmates were understandably fearful of a huge metal object hurtling towards them at speed on the court… Basketball is ordinarily non-contact!
As a child I had been a keen swimmer but because of weight gained as a result of the amputation and self-consciousness this stopped. Although on mobilising with prosthetics and lost the weight, I didn’t really engage in sport. The fact that most sports are, by design, exclusionary was at once disheartening and profoundly unattractive. When people ask if I support a football team I still comment that “I don’t have any feet”. Being a spectator is clearly different from participating but I think it makes a neat point. I started swimming again during my masters at Oxford as a way of managing stress and increasing my sense of wellbeing. Being fit and feeling comfortable in my own skin has a significant impact on my confidence and self-esteem not least because of the stigma around disability.
I have never been physically competitive. However, at a certain age in your late twenties all of one’s friends start running marathons or walking extraordinary distances for charity. Eager not to be left out of this strange but laudable seeming social convention I resolved to find something similar that somebody without feet could do. Cue Arena Chillswim, a yearly event in which a bunch of otherwise sane people hurl themselves into lake Coniston on a summers morning (the saner, including me, in wetsuits) and attempt to swim the full length of the beast (5.25 miles). I decided I was daft enough to attempt this about a year before the next organised swim. Little changed in my swimming routine for the first six months. As before, I tended to get into the pool and swim as many lengths as I could before I got too bored or too tired to continue. When I eventually started to calculate the distances I was swimming, to my dismay, I found that I was absolutely exhausted and bored stupid doing only a quarter of the distance.
In May 2016 prior to the swim I decided that it was time I did half the distance. I was becoming increasingly concerned that I might fail – not a prospect I relished having proudly announced to everybody that I was going to be “swimming Coniston in September”! The pool I had been using was only 20m long and I needed to emulate a lake as best I could: there are no lengths to count in a lake and you don’t have the turnaround at either end which allows you to push off or to breathe more – depending on how you do it. I did a search and found Tooting Bec Lido, a 91.5m unheated outdoor pool in South London which I recommend to any disabled person thinking about taking up swimming. It is free on proof of disability and, I am told, is the second longest pool in Europe. One Saturday morning I put my swimming trunks on and got in. Having been preoccupied with the distance involved in my final swim I had neglected to consider the cold. It was freezing and on finishing I shivered for a good 45 minutes before having the good sense to go home and order a wetsuit.
I soon decided that a close-to full length swim was in order. This resulted in terror: my breathing turned into pained gasping and almost squealing during the last 20 or so lengths. With little time left I set up Just Giving page and resolved to go to Coniston to test the lake. The next weekend I put a tent in my car and off I went. This was a mistake! The lake was freezing, murky, and disorientating, and I had no idea what distances I was swimming. I spent most of my time doing breast stroke because I couldn’t see further than 10cm under the water. I would put my head down and attempt a few strokes only to find that when I re-surfaced I was swimming in the opposite direction. I returned to London less confident than ever and started swimming in excess of the full distance so as to accommodate zig-zagging and the other difficulties I now anticipated. I began to alter my stroke to include lifting my head at frequent intervals so that I wouldn’t find myself swimming backwards on the day. I have subsequently discovered that the professional term for this is “spotting”.
I suffered rotator cuff injuries to both shoulders a week before the event because, fueled by panic, I had swum three full length swims in 2 weeks and “spotting” was putting additional strain on my shoulders. The realisation that without feet and with arms that were now less than functional I may end up rolling around in the water like a sausage in front of hundreds of people suddenly dawned on me! Having taken money from friends, family and others I decided that there was little choice but to cover myself in deep heat regularly, turn up on the day, and try my best.
On the day, as if to taunt me, a Chillswim bus drove me down the length of the western side of the water to the start. To make matters worse it was full of athletic men and woman proudly proclaiming that this was their 100th open water swim and asking each other which of the “other swims” they had done (I exaggerate the number but you get the point). Most people changed before getting on the bus but on account of having to remove my prosthetics at the water’s edge I had requested permission to put my wet-suit on just before setting off. The organisers were very accommodating and arranged for my blades to be transported to the finish. Due to my ever increasing lack of confidence, I asked to be put in a slower batch of swimmers: swimmers leave in groups based on speed with slower groups leaving first so that the safety kayaks are not overstretched. I drastically underestimated my ability and had to be slowed down over the first three quarters of the swim. There were “feed stations” along the way: boats from which willing volunteers threw jelly babies every now and again, presumably to keep me going and not, as was the effect, to make me feel like a performing seal. These provided welcome interludes to what was an exhausting but thoroughly enjoyable challenge in beautiful surroundings. Finishing was both exhilarating and a profound relief.
Swimming is not for everyone, but I whole-heartedly recommend engaging with a physical personal challenge. Like so many, I have learnt that the best way to overcome the exclusion that society presents is to seek out the things that I can do. Through lack of foresight, historical accident, and a deficit of willing, the world is often not as accommodating as it could be and sport is no exception. However, with creative thinking there are ways for disabled people to overcome barriers to physical recreation. I was a confident swimmer anyway and was not even at much of a disadvantage owing to the fact that over long distances arms are apparently more energy efficient than legs. I didn’t know this when I decided to take part but it illustrates the circumstantial and social nature of the barriers that exclude disabled people. Usually these are intensely frustrating but rarely, by accident, there are less barriers than you think and you may not realise until you try.