St Mary’s Junior School, Cambridge pupils recently welcomed Paralympian silver and two-time bronze medallist, Liz Wright, into school to speak about her courage, and resilience, in the pursuit of her goals.
Already inspired by this month’s coverage of the Rio Paralympic Games, girls from Reception (aged four and five) to year six (aged 10 and 11) gathered together in the morning to hear Liz describe the decision she made aged 13 (in 1993) to swim at her home Paralympic Games in Sydney in 2000. Born with congenital limb deficiencies whereby her right arm is missing below the elbow, and her right leg is severely shortened, Liz explained to the girls that she “didn’t ever know what it was like to have two arms or two legs” and so doesn’t see living with her disability as requiring courage or resilience – simply ‘creative problem solving’.
Liz advised the girls to: “Be courageous and set big goals when you’re young – not only might you achieve your goals but you might even surpass them! I dreamed of swimming at the Paralympics and I did that – but I also did more! When I was 13 I hadn’t even dreamed of winning medals at the games.”
During 2016/2017, the St Mary’s School, Cambridge community is focusing on two of the 12 Mary Ward Characteristics of a Mary Ward School, of which the school is one of almost 200, including ‘Coping effectively with failure’. Head of Juniors, Matthew O’Reilly, also invited Liz to share her experiences of failure and resilience. Liz spoke about her first competition, aged 13, at which she was overcome by nerves and ended up swimming the wrong stroke for 10 metres, resulting in disqualification. Liz described her enormous sense of embarrassment and wanting to give up and go home: “For just 30 seconds of making a mistake, I could have given up my dream. What I realised though, after my disqualification, was that my dream was bigger than any obstacle I would ever face – I could not give up in the face of failure, I had to gather my courage and forge ahead.”
Liz emphasised that “failure is an opportunity to learn from what went wrong – and to get better.” She sought help to better deal with nerves, but also decided to give up on breast stroke in order to focus on the strokes she was better at. She went on to explain: “Your goals might change, or be re-defined, but that’s OK. You will have bad days too, but if you give 100% every day, you’ll have more of the good days!”
Aged 16, Liz was invited to swim for Australia at the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta to gain competition experience and, exceeding all expectations she earned her first Paralympic Games medal – bronze in the Women’s 50 metre Butterfly S6 event. Four years later Liz achieved the goal she set herself at 13 and swam at the Sydney Paralympic Games – where she won bronze as part of the Australian Women’s Team in the 4 x 50 metre Freestyle Relay, and silver in the Women’s 400 metre Freestyle S6 event, beaten by USA’s Stephanie Brooks.
Speaking about the bronze medal she won as part of the relay team, Liz said: “To me this bronze is like a gold medal. Each of the four of us swam a personal best in our own laps; we could not have tried any harder for each other – we gave our all.”
Explaining to the girls that their support teams might include their parents and family members, their teachers, and their friends, Liz emphasised how vital it is to have a supportive team to help you achieve your goals: “Imagine learning to read without a grown up to help. It’s the same with sport – we need a coach to show us how to improve our technique. But we also need encouragement and kind words. You are all on other people’s support teams, so carry on giving your friends and your brothers and sisters encouragement.”