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Libby's life in the fast lane

Photo: Read Libby's story

Libby (13) is a hugely talented swimmer with big ambitions to compete for Britain – but being deaf means she faces an uphill battle to overcome obstacles that are placed in her way.

The clamour of applause echoed around the swimming pool as Paul and Rebecca watched their daughter Libby receive her medal. It was an emotional moment for the couple and for Libby – she’d just achieved qualifying times for the European Deaf Swimming Championships to be held in Poland in July. But keen sportswoman Libby has her eye on other glittering prizes. She also competes in mainstream swimming – at county and regional level – and this is where her real ambition lies. “One day she could take part in the Olympics,” says Paul. “But first she has to get over the hurdles that disadvantage her.”

Libby was five when she was diagnosed as moderately deaf. Her parents hadn’t realised until her friend at school, about to move from the area, asked her mum, “What will Libby do without me, she follows everything I do?”

Libby got hearing aids but her hearing deteriorated until, by age 10, she was completely deaf. Three weeks before starting secondary school Libby had double cochlear implant surgery with great results. She’d been shy but her confidence grew and she was soon in top sets for maths and science.

"With buzzer starts it’s impossible for her to compete on a level playing field."

Libby chose to avoid sports like hockey because of the risk of damage to her processors and her hearing. Instead she joined the school’s cross-country running team, coming fourth in the schools’ county championships.

With a passion for swimming – like mum Rebecca who swam for Britain and Libby’s older sister Lucy (17) who swims at national level – Libby trained with a large mainstream club, six days a week. She made brilliant progress even though without her processors she couldn’t hear her coach. Then the family attended a Cochlear Day and found out about aqua kits which have a specialised processor magnet and cover for one processor, enabling it to be worn in water.

“We got a kit,” says Paul. “It helped greatly but acoustics in the pool are diabolical and when Libby moved away from her coach she couldn’t hear anything. Socially too, she was left out. It made me sad to see her standing alone poolside because she couldn’t join in with the other girls chatting. No one seemed to have time for her.”

Last spring Libby moved to a smaller club, which she’s found friendlier, with a sympathetic coach, and communication has improved hugely as she now has a mini mic – like a radio aid; the coach wears a microphone which connects wirelessly with Libby’s processor. “It has a range of 25 metres,” says Paul. “It’s brilliant; she can hear in and out of the water. It’s made a massive difference to her.”

But the biggest barrier is race starts. Race rules prevent Libby from wearing her processor so she can’t hear the buzzer that signals the start – losing vital moments as other competitors dive in first. “She’s always last in the water,” says Paul. “When times are measured in hundredths of a second it matters! It’s impossible for her to compete on a level playing field.

“The only allowed alternative is a touch start but there’s still a delay while the coach, or Rebecca, hears the buzzer, taps her and then she reacts. And she’s embarrassed; she doesn’t want to draw attention to herself. She’d rather enter the water slowly. She makes up the time in the water but it’s not fair; she’s not achieving what she would with an equal chance at the start.”

The best option would be a lights system on her start block, working in tandem with the buzzer, which most swim clubs and leisure centres don’t have. “Some clubs have them and it makes a huge difference to Libby,” says Paul.

“The GB Deaf Swimming Club is very important to Libby. She’ll do well – she’s already a multi-age group winner. And she loves the social side of it; she uses basic sign language to chat with the other girls but events take place only a few weekends a year.

"The aqua kit has made a big difference as now I can hear my coach’s corrections really clearly."

“Libby’s real ambition is to make national level in mainstream swimming and one day – if she can beat the disadvantage of the buzzer starts – maybe the Olympics. She’s a fit and competitive young lady and we’re behind her all the way.”

Libby adds, “I feel very happy when a light is available, especially in sprints because having a quicker start can make a big difference to my race. When clubs can’t provide a light it’s quite annoying. I’m trying to improve my underwater work to help reduce the delay I have on the start.

“The aqua kit has made a big difference as now I can hear my coach’s corrections really clearly. I find it tough to communicate with my friends when I’m on poolside though as the mini mic allows me to hear my coach but not the other swimmers as much.

“I find it hard at swim meets sometimes, when I can’t have my processors on all the time. Because I have thick hair, people can’t tell if my processors are on or not so they think I’m ignoring them!”

Libby has now been selected to compete at the European Deaf Swimming Championships in Poland. Good luck Libby!