Paralympian Hannah Russell on her return - 'It made me realise how much I missed it'

By Elizabeth Hudson and Kate GreyBBC Sport
Para-swimmer Hannah Russell
Russell made her Paralympic debut at London 2012

Paralympic swimming champion Hannah Russell says that her time away from the pool has helped to refresh her.

The 24-year-old, who won double gold and a bronze at Rio 2016, took a break in 2019 because of anxiety and depression.

But she now wants to secure her place at a third Paralympics at the British Para-Swimming International Meet which starts in Sheffield on Thursday.

"Coming back was just a breath of fresh air," she told BBC Sport.

"I think I needed that break to be able to realise how much I missed swimming, how much I loved it and how much I wanted to get back into the pool."

Russell, who has a visual impairment, made her Great Britain debut as a 14-year-old at the 2011 European Para-swimming Championships, winning a silver and bronze, and has been a mainstay of the GB team since.

But after claiming European, world and Paralympic medals, she found herself struggling to enjoy her sport and opted to take a step back and seek help and focus on her mental health.

"I was a little bit anxious of speaking out. But when I did speak to my coaches and family, they were really supportive," she said.

"British Swimming were absolutely brilliant with me and I can't fault them for all the support they have given me over the last few years. Without them I wouldn't be where I am now."

'Increased resilience'

The time away from the sport allowed Russell to complete her sports ;science degree from the University of Salford, where she achieved first-class honours, and watching the 2019 Para-swimming World Championships in London helped give her the impetus to return to the pool.

"It was strange watching all of my team-mates compete and I was sitting at home in front of a television screen instead of being there with them," she said.

"Deep down, I knew I wanted to return to elite competition but the break also helped me realise what a privileged position I was in as an elite athlete.

"I don't think I had had a chance to reflect on what I'd achieved throughout my career, and knowing that I could possibly go to my third Paralympic Games and achieve my goals gave me the strength and courage in wanting to return."

Mental health has been an issue for many elite sports in recent times, including Para-swimming.

In 2017, British Swimming apologised after complaints of bullying were made by a number of athletes and it was found that a former head coach "created a climate of fear".

Para-swimming performance director Chris Furber later said he had learned lessons from the scandal.

Russell says her own experience has given her increased resilience, which helped in dealing with the changes to her routine during the coronavirus pandemic. She moved back to live with her family in Surrey, before relocating to the National Performance Centre in Manchester last year to train under the elite athlete dispensation.

Hannah Russell
Russell's last international appearance was at the 2018 Europeans, where she won three golds

She is also passionate about encouraging others to speak out when they are struggling and is shortly to train to become a mental health champion to help others on her team.

However, coping with the pandemic with a visual impairment has presented her with some new challenges for training and competition.

"I can only see up to 0.5m in my central vision so with a two-metre radius where we have to stay apart, I can't see that far," she said.

"I've really struggled to know where people are and knowing how far I have to stay away from them.

"I'm looking forward to being able to get a bit closer to people. I've had to message team-mates and coaches to make them aware that if they are around and I don't notice them, I'm not ignoring them. They may just be too far away and we can't get closer.

"We did two competitions in Manchester before the trials and it was quite daunting with all of the restrictions and protocols in place.

"But our head coach Rob Aubry did a run through with me of the whole event so I knew exactly where I needed to go and what to do. It gave me more confidence which has helped ahead of trials."

Tokyo targets

Russell plans to compete in three events in Tokyo - the S12 100m backstroke, where she is defending champion and world record holder, the S12 100m freestyle and also the S13 50m freestyle, where she will race against competitors with more vision - and good performances in Sheffield will set her up for the Games.

"I feel really prepared going into this week," she said. "I've been posting some really good times and I'm confident I will be able to deliver a strong performance and get under the qualifying standard.

"Even thought it's a little bit different this year, I want to retain my Paralympic titles and lower my world record and my personal bests.

"But I'm just focusing on myself and delivering the best performances I can."

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