Three-time Paralympic champion Hannah Russell and S9 competitive swimmer Ethan Naisbitt meet for the first time as part of National Inclusion Week; they speak about their lives and journeys as para-swimmers and the importance of mental health in sport
At only three days old, Ethan Naisbitt was at risk of losing both legs and his right arm due to blood clots. His right leg and arm were saved, but not his left leg, which was amputated when he was three days old.
Ethan’s lungs were not fully developed, and he was on a ventilator for three months. He told three-time Paralympic champion Hannah Russell: “My parents were told most ventilated for longer than a month will not survive. But I went against all odds and survived.”
With a 10% chance of survival rate, continuous leg surgeries, and heart surgery in 2017, Ethan, who is part of Dan’s Trust Charity, discovered swimming at seven years old and has not looked back since.
Hannah, an S12 swimmer, who was born with a visual impairment, fell in love with the water from a young age, leading her to be referred to as “the water baby”.
Russell said: “In many sports, I have to catch a ball which was difficult growing up, but swimming made me feel safe.
“I remember in 2008 I was watching the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Beijing with my family. I watched Rebecca Adlington and Ellie Simmonds achieve their gold medals. It inspired me, and I turned to my parents and said, that is what I want to do, that is what I want to achieve, that is what I want to become”.
Russell was awarded an OBE for services to swimming and retaining her Paralympic title in Tokyo 2020.
Swimming has become a massive part of Hannah and Ethan’s lives. “It has taught me to be resilient and how to bounce back from failure. Throughout my career, there have been ups and downs. It is learning how to have that positive growth mindset and apply that to swimming. Swimming counterbalances the good and the bad,” Russell tells Talia Lazarus who started a series called ‘I got back up’ highlighting those with stories of recovery.
In conversation with Russell, Naisbitt admits his “life revolves around swimming.” He adds: “But as much as I love it, education is crucial and still has a primary role. Therefore, with resilience, there is also time management which I take from swimming into everyday life.
“Being in the pool and training gets me away from life. Three hours away from any problems on the outside. That has been a great help for my entire life, as there have been a lot of bad days. However, swimming keeps you moving forward. It can be the thing that you need to boost your mood or confidence that day.”
Mental health within sport is not always spoken about out loud. However, wellbeing is paramount and a priority.
“When I was at my lowest, I was scared to talk to people. When I opened up and said one statement, ‘I am not okay’, then the support I received was immense,” Russell says.
“If you need that support, it is crucial to speak out. Your happiness is your priority, and I hope I have inspired visually impaired athletes to participate in any sport.”
In 2019 she was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. “I was always known as Happy Hannah. That is what swimming brings out in me.
“However, I had to step away from the pool and focus on my mental health. It was the best thing that happened to me as my priorities changed. I put myself, my wellbeing and my happiness first. British Swimming and my network were immensely supportive, and I focused on my education and achieved a First Class Honours degree.”
With the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games in sight, she had a target to aim for. “I knew deep down that is what I wanted. I slowly built myself back up. Everyone will have setbacks, but how you bounce back and learn from that gives that resilience and that great mindset,” she said.
She got to Tokyo and successfully defended her Paralympic title. “That was the message I wanted to give to up-and-coming athletes. Never give up.”
“If you are interested in something, no matter what people think or say, shoot your shot and go for it. Take a chance and see where it leads you,” says Naisbitt.
“You will lose nothing for trying, and you will feel so much better as you do not want to get to a point where you look back and regret not taking that opportunity. What would my life have been if I got involved in that sport?”
“You could progress and reach heights you never thought you would and end up on a podium with a medal and look back and realise it was the right decision.
Manchester Aquatics Centre and North West Disability are two organisations based in Northern England who have experience in para-swimming facilities. Manchester Aquatics Centre look for para-athletes for trials, and both are knowledgable about the sport and classifications.
Russell came through a scheme called Playground Podium and they introduced her to national classifications.
“The number of resources now has massively progressed. On the British Swimming website, there is an identification tool kit where you can see which direction or pathway to go down, apply and see what route is best, and how to best understand classifications and talent schemes,” Russell adds.
“If you believe you can achieve. It is an ability, not a disability.”
“If you never dive into the opportunity, you never know what might happen. I took that opportunity and progressed to become a Paralympic champion. It proves regardless of impairment or ability, try anything that comes your way.
“Never give up on the dream. It will be hard, and you will have ups and downs. It is going to be a rollercoaster. But believe in your ability. Some days, I did not want to get out of bed, but I had those goals, small focuses, to strive towards, and I managed to achieve my dream.”
Naisbitt will be involved in swimming for the rest of his life. His dream is to make a Commonwealth or Paralympic Games. He said: “That is something that I thrive on every single day. I am always putting in 100 per cent to ensure I am training to the best level to give myself the best possible chance to make it.”
Growing up, in the back of Russell’s mind, she admits she felt different.
“I was the only one with an impairment and adaptions at school. However, knowing there were visually impaired classifications gave me that buzz. I was not alone, knowing all these athletes with different impairments.
“Everyone has their own story and background, and regardless of this, or if you have an impairment or not, you can achieve your dreams.”