WeSwim is all about helping people stay afloat—both in and out of the water.
Tash Fleming co-founded the East London-based organisation after observing a lack of welcoming, accessible and tailored swimming opportunities for people with disabilities.
So in 2020, just as the pandemic hit, she launched the community-focused, participant-led club, which pairs swimmers with friendly volunteers at Islington’s Ironmonger Row Baths.
“Swimming is obviously a really good sport for people with disabilities,” said Fleming. “Being in the water, having the weightlessness, enables people to do the exercises they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.
“But attending a public swimming session is a very daunting thing, especially if your body’s changed recently, what you’re able to do has changed, it can be very scary going into a public session.
“Some of our swimmers have turned up at [other] sessions and they felt that they’re not welcome, that even though there are accessible materials in place, they felt that the lifeguards don’t feel safe with them swimming so that can feel intimidating.”
It’s why, explained Fleming, the programme – named Parasport’s Club of the Month for May – aims for a one-to-one volunteer-to-participant ratio, so participants can have full say over what they want to do with their time in the pool.
In any given session you might find one pair playing a bit of volleyball, another attempting laps, while someone else might simply want support as they float the hour away.
“It’s very important for it to be participant-led because if something happened to me tomorrow I wouldn’t like to be shoved in a group where I’m told what to do,” she said.
“We all make our own choices every day, and I think that’s even more important for people with a disability, that they’re the ones making the choices. People know their own bodies, different people have different problems like fatigue, so it’s really important that we listen to people and do what they want.”
And on a recent special Saturday, participants were delighted when Paralympian Ellie Robinson paid a visit and immediately recognised just how special the community was.
“I think this whole programme is great for people with disabilities but also just for everybody,” she said.
“The lockdown, quarantine, it’s been really hard on everybody for the past two years and just to get that community feel back is priceless.
“I think it’s really nice that it’s a safe environment, it’s a nice, small group and you can come back and get that social aspect back that you’ve missed and that’s vital.
“It gives people something to enjoy in life, it gives them something to feel happy and motivated about, when that time of the week comes round, it’s like, ‘Oh, I get to go swimming! I get to see those people.’”
The club also take part in the annual Swimathon event, which raises money for Cancer Research UK. Swimathon is annually held across one weekend, this year on May 6-8, with different lengths of individual or team challenges, with participants able to compete as part of their usual training sessions or in a relay as well as the individual distances of 400m-5km.
WeSwim, which Fleming hopes will expand to other locations, specifically aims to focus on the mental, physical and social benefits of the sport—something that was critical for Lee Savery, who joined at the advice of health professionals.
“[The pandemic] was very isolating,” he said. “To have this while the pandemic was going on was very useful, because it at least helped me have at least part of a social system that probably otherwise wouldn’t have been in existence at all.
“I was very shy [coming] at first, I felt maybe a bit embarrassed, but as time’s gone on you really appreciate each other, I really appreciate them.
“It feels good to be around other people, and other people that are similar to you.
“For a lot of us, myself included, I don’t feel confident enough to use a pool on my own so this helps a lot.
“The minute you have a bad experience that can stay with you for a long time.”
When Savery started with WeSwim, he needed help putting on his shoes. His “proudest moment” was being able to do it by himself.
It’s no surprise, then, that Savery’s advice to anyone thinking of signing up begins with a resounding “definitely, yes!
“Because I think it’s beneficial to me and I’m sure other people would say the same.
“It’s a safe environment. And even though you’re doing it alone you’re not alone. The initiative might be on you, but once you get here there are other people to make you feel that you’re not by yourself.”
Parasport is developed by ParalympicsGB in partnership with Toyota as part of their commitment to making movement better for everyone. To discover inclusive local opportunities to become more active, visit parasport.org.uk