Paralympic Champion Liz Johnson Talks Winning Gold, Perceptions of Disability and Overcoming Adversity

1 March 2017

Before our first Knowledge Guild of 2017 – The Path to Achievement: Extraordinary Lives, we caught up with Liz Johnson . Liz is a Paralympic Champion, she won her Gold medal for 100m breaststroke in the Beijing 2008 Paralympics. She chatted to Speakers Corner about the struggles an elite athlete faces, how the Paralympics  can have both a positive and negative effect on the term ‘disability’ and how she remains fit and engaged with the sporting world since retiring as a professional athlete.

Training to be an elite athlete must be an incredibly difficult process, we know that you had to travel for many hours to even get to a swimming pool in the early days, how did you stay motivated during this process?

I think my biggest motivation  when I was training was the fact that I loved the win. I wasn’t someone that was talented enough to just turn up and win, I needed to train.

My career spanned quite a long time and there was a lot of highs and lows in that. It was always the disappointments, the close shaves and the times I just missed out that spurred me on. Those times were always my motivation to swim faster, and what encouraged me to go on to win next time.

When did you realise that you were good enough for the Paralympic Games and how did you go about making sure you could achieve your dream of becoming a Paralympic champion?

The thing that I loved about swimming was that it is measured in time, so I didn’t have to rely on anyone else’s subjectivity or thinking that I wasn’t good enough, if you swam in a time that qualified for a squad, you made it into that team.

Even as a youngster, when I was 10, I went to my first national championships and I got selected for a smaller regional national squad, which was for cerebral palsy sport specifically, but I knew I had been recognised. So, that motivated me to go further and further, I just constantly kept an eye on the world rankings.

What are the biggest challenges you have faced with both your disability and your swimming and how have you overcome them?

Throughout my career, there have been a range of different challenges at different points in my life. At first, it was getting people to understand that even though I had a disability I wanted to be an elite athlete, and I could train like everyone else. I was as smart as everyone else so I understood the process like everyone else did, so that was the first biggest challenge I faced.

As I got older and my academics took over and there were more things to consider. My parents had less involvement in my decisions because I was supposed to be becoming mature and independent. I guess it came down to logistical challenges, like where I was going to go to school and university and travel arrangements.

Liz drove herself to her training pool, racking up 1000 miles a week

For me, the biggest challenges came when I was doing my A Levels, I was travelling 1000-miles a week and I was driving myself. So, that time management  and motivation  needed to come solely from me, because as soon as I didn’t want to do it the whole process would fall apart.

How did you feel when you won your Gold medal?

In Beijing in 2008 when I finally won the Gold medal , I touched the wall and I turned to see the board, the biggest feeling was relief. My whole life, from the moment I started swimming was geared towards achieving that. I was very aware that as much as I wanted it and whatever I did, there were 7 other girls in the pool who were just as good as me. It comes down to that one race, that one moment in time. That 1 minutes 41 seconds defined the rest of my life. Even though it is not that Gold medal that defines your career and everything that comes out of it, once you have it, no one can take it away from you. Initially, the feeling was relief, and now that I look back on it, it is pride and a lot of other feelings that go into it, but I can’t explain how relieved I was at the time!

What more do you think can be done to help change people’s perception of the label ‘disabled’?

I think the Paralympics really helps put disability  at the forefront of people’s minds and that opens a lot of doors to allow people to explain the specifics of impairments. It provides a platform for the understanding of disabilities to increase.

I think the Paralympics is brilliant for increasing people’s awareness of what disabled people can achieve, but I would also say, it can sometimes pigeon-hole disabled people into sport. There is more to life than sport , and not all disabled people want to be Paralympians.

There is always more to be done, I think the best way to do this is to keep disabled people with a range of impairments in the limelight, because there are already a lot of disabilities that are recognised, and ones that we see every day like people with a wheelchair, who have a limb missing or a guide dog.

We are used to seeing people with guide dogs, Liz wants invisible disabilities to also become better understood

These are the disabilities that people expect to see, it is the hidden ones and the more challenging ones that need more explaining. It is always a lack of understanding that leads to negative press when you are a disabled person, so it is all about keeping people out there and having positive role models.

Now you are retired from being an elite athlete, how do you keep fit? Also, how to you remain engaged within the sporting world?

Now that I have retired my biggest struggle is wanting to eat all of the food I could eat when I was training, but not naturally being able to remain in the same shape. So, I do go to the gym and set myself challenges, I cycled  from London to Paris and climbed Mount Fuji, so that meant I had to keep fit.

Sport  will always have a place in my heart and it has given me so much. I am very fortunate I am in a position to help other people. I am still involved in sports, largely as an athlete mentor to younger pupils in schools, not necessarily elite athletes but people that love sport and want to get engaged in it. Also, now, in a more mainstream sense in the broadcast media, to help keep raising the profile of Paralympic sport and other disabled sports.

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