SPLASHING about at the local lido was as close to swimming as a young Fabienne André thought she would ever get.
But a hydrotherapy session following a leg operation plunged the-then 13-year-old into new territory, in which she has gone on to gain international acclaim.
Now 22, Fabienne – who was born seven weeks premature with cerebral palsy – never considered sport early in life.
A lack of awareness in para sport opportunities was a partial cause but, when it came, it didn’t take long for her to get a taste of life in the pool.
Since then she has never looked back, a hobby quickly turning into a passion.
“My parents wanted me to be involved in sport growing up,” she said. “But I never thought there was one that I could do.
“I did actually try to learn to swim at the normal age of about three or four, but it wasn’t in the right environment and I didn’t enjoy it.
“I was into baking as a kid, but as soon as my physiotherapist directed me to the pool my life changed forever.
“It started out as a way of strengthening to help me walk again, but I loved the water and soon discovered the nearest Disability Swimming Hub Club – Mid Sussex Marlins in Burgess Hill.
“I started learning to swim in 2010 and four years later I was competing at national galas. From there I achieved qualifying times to go to my first international competition in Glasgow in 2015.”
Fabienne is well aware increased awareness of opportunities such as those available at Mid Sussex Marlins could have helped introduce her to sport at an earlier age.
Parasport powered by Toyota is a new online hub to empower disabled people to become more active. It is part of Toyota GB’s commitment to making movement better for people.
Fabienne believes Parasport can improve accessibility to inclusive activities at all levels, while explaining she has enjoyed participating in different sports herself.
“Parasport is a great hub for knowing what’s out there to try and get as many people involved in sport as possible,” she said.
“There’s still work to be done, but accessibility to disability sport is certainly improving and it’s important to make sure people know it’s there.
“You don’t have to be the next Paralympian – there are so many benefits to sport whether you do it for fun, fitness, competitively, or just as a social thing.
“I’d always encourage an open mind and to take advantage of each opportunity you’re presented with. If you don’t like something there’ll be another activity to try and I’m convinced there’s a sport out there for everyone.
“When I started swimming, I suddenly realised there was a lot more out there and I’ve had a go at wheelchair basketball, wheelchair rugby and sit-skiing.
“I’ve recently been doing a lot of wheelchair racing after being invited to the Weir Archer Academy in London and I’m currently pursuing that while I continue to swim as well.
“I’ve only been racing for a few months but I’ve really enjoyed it and I think that’s just another example of how getting involved in sport and taking these chances can be so beneficial.”
Fabienne was selected to represent Great Britain at last summer’s Cerebral Palsy World Games in Sant Cugat, where she won three silver medals and one bronze.
She says the positive impact of swimming on her life has stretched far further than the medals she has collected.
She said: “Standing on the podium was incredible – I just remember having goosebumps and this amazing feeling that I’d managed to do something for my country after working and training so hard.
“But swimming has helped me and my family in other ways too. It has made a big difference to my ability to do things in daily life – I’m much stronger now than I used to be.
“It’s given me a feeling of freedom and speed, and a sense of worth and belonging. The first time I saw someone who walked or moved like me was at swimming and I’ve built up a number of key friendships as well.
“Water is such a healer for people. They feel supported by it.”