Extracts from Doug's account of a Midlands sports club for the disabled 

Author: Doug Williamson, Swimming Coach for 'The Panthers' Nottingham & District Sports & Recreation Club for the Disabled.
24th September 2022

The lure of the annual Stoke Mandeville trip

From the early 70s our club would organise two trips to Stoke Mandeville (SM) every year. One for the athletics and other sports and the other for swimming. Swimming would be at the end of winter and the athletics during summer. The word ‘trip’ is used here as it helps to emphasise the importance/value placed upon this annual venture to the Mecca of the evolving Sport for the Disabled movement – Stoke Mandeville Sports Stadium, situated next to the Spinal Cord hospital, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire.

During the early 70s many people with disabilities did not have opportunities to travel. To leave Nottingham was an important experience for many of our club members. It was only during these years that the early development of more convenient and reliable mini, bus transport was evolving. Previously it was only possible by using some slow-moving antiquated NHS service vehicles.

During the late 70s and early 80s mini-bus designs were improved. Thus, for the Nottingham Club our committee did great work in negotiating the free usage of a modern minibus from the Players cigarette firm in Nottingham. The one drawback (excuse the pun) was that at a time when many folks smoked (as well as the employees of Players as you would expect) the bus stank of cigarette smoke!

Before the event date there would be the usual pre-event build up with confirmation of numbers, classification details and entries. The early rather generic crude classification approach consisted of a two-sided piece of card with a body outline on it for notes. This was later replaced by the more appropriate Chris Meaden ‘profile system’.

The reader will note a ‘health & safety check’ is not mentioned! Another good effort by the committee members was that as Speedo swimwear was based in Nottingham as well, we would be given new bathers and track suit tops (note ‘given’, not ‘sponsored’ as that term was hardly invented then). So all of this contributed towards the great anticipation of ‘going down to Stoke Manderville’!

It was really like football fans going to Wembley.

Despite this ‘sporting excitement’, our training then still only consisted of a weekly session on x lengths, pacing, sprints and technique training on our club night. Real training had not been adopted with the main barrier being that we were only allocated one pool session per week. Then, of course, there was the old attitude of perhaps we were taking it a bit too seriously if we did do more than one session per week! All, part of the thinking at the time. I did, however, do some handouts on flexibility exercises that swimmers could try at home. An illustration of the limited horizon then, can be viewed through a young swimmer with CP, (CP class 7), - a hemiplegic. Chris had definite potential because of his long lightly built body and his involved arm spasticity being moderate - re classification. Yet to get him some more water time during the early 80s he had to negotiate with some effort to swim with a nearby mainstream swimming club. Folks were unsure about letting a young disabled lad joining their club sessions. And the personal challenge for him, however, was that he was only as fast as the 12-year-old girls in the squad. I therefore had to counsel him about this as he did not feel comfortable from his point of view i.e. ego. In contrast to the probable contemporary concern relating to ‘safeguarding’ – a different ‘time & place’! I had to ‘talk him around’ to the situation and he acquiesced and did train with them - which made a big difference to his fitness.

Our trip                          

It would all begin on a Friday afternoon or Saturday morning, with me being driven to the Players factory and collecting the van. I would then drive to the club rendezvous, and we would all slowly load up – no tail gate lifts then. I would often have the assistance of one or two university students for support – social as much as physical. Sometimes wheelchairs had to be tied to the top – I think I only lost one footplate over all the years, somewhere on the M1! Everyone would complain about the tobacco stink to start off with, then get used to it over the 101 miles to SM. I would then introduce the first of our journey quizzes. Each person put a mark on the front right wheel so when we arrived at the SM the mark closet to the ground was a winner of that 10p challenge. Then the quiz sheet would be passed around as everyone had to enter the other challenges and put in 10p for each one. These other challenges included estimations for the time of arrival at SM, number of miles taken to get there in our van, the vehicle we would park next to in the car park at the motorway stop, the number of radio masts at one venue enroute (now covered by huge storage warehouses), what the breakfast menu would be next morning and captions on a cartoon sheet.

So, whilst we were off to the National Disabled Swimming competition the reader will gain the impression that this was to be fun as well. For everyone the travel down was a chance to bond with stories from the past and ‘things’ we would observe on the way and compare to the scenes of the same time the previous year on route. The club tradition established by the Athletics coach Michael Pattison years before was to go onto the M1 via A453 (Later Mike was to do a tremendous feat of swimming a million yards to raise funds for the club, pgs 92-96), and after taking a stop, branch off at junction 13 to Husband Crawley and Woburn. Nearby would be the places of Cottesloe and Swanbourne (associated with the suburbs in my home of Perth WA) and the hotel used to film Faulty Towers. The cross country route was via Woburn, Leighton Buzzard and past the HMI Prison towards the suburb of Stoke Mandeville east of Aylesbury. Then this would also involve going past Nancy’s important Aylesbury Duckpond! And, just to generate some hilarity, I would always go around the roundabout in Aylesbury twice to add on miles to the estimations! Then on parking we would pay-out to all the winners of the different challenges.

Settling in

A great advantage at SM was that we could unload very close to where we slept in the initial years of the 70s. This was unique accommodation of genuine WW2 Military Nissen huts. There were male and female ones. The floor was cold concrete and the metal beds also from WW2. Little insulation meant all noises could be heard and little heat retained for the nippy mornings. The evening meal would be devoured with relish despite a basic menu although in those days few were fussy eaters – and there was little choice! Of course, bedtime was at a reasonable hour but the lights out conversations were often hilarious, with early snorers being easily identified.

Nissen huts from WWII

As several the team were young at heart the next morning might see a traditional trick being played on the new heaviest ‘sleeper-inners’. With the beds having convenient caster wheels the oblivious heavy sleeper would be quietly wheeled outside the hut into the morning sun and left to awake in a strange place. Breakfast would have to be consumed early as there was a whole day of swimming to go through.

In the very early days, we would often be served at mealtimes from the counter by local guests of HM prisons fraternity who would be released to gain some ‘society time’ before their official release – I always remember the range of tattoos on their muscular arms as in those days only sailors and prisoners seemed to have them.

The swimming

This was conducted in a modest 25 yard pool with limited space around the edge for manoeuvring wheelchairs – hardly ideal. It took a lot of effort and organising to get folks to the start for a race and then assist them back to our pool base perched on seats or up on the window edges. In these days there were no starting blocks although some used a towel placed on the edge to not slip when diving – and we used the precarious shallow end as well for the start.

During these times the student helpers that accompanied me were very efficient and great company for everyone. Interestingly, despite these being the pre-Health & Safety days of concern, I cannot recall any accidents or incidents occurring. Many of the events were just the 25- and 50-yards distances as few really trained seriously enough to have the stamina for sustained distance swimming at a top pace – the VI’s being the exception to this.

The BSAD organisation had their own system of classification carried out in the main by qualified physiotherapists. It was mainly orientated towards the use of specific medical profiles with a two-sided form being filled in prior to competition. It was reasonable to understand and apply by most coaches. In the mid 70s there were still two of Sir Ludwig Guttmann’s stalwarts present from the formative days of the spinal cord movement , who aided with the classification – Ted Papps and Charlie Atkinson.

The rules of swimming were enforced with some variation according to the developments of the time on the international scene. Thus, crawl kick was always being disqualified in the breaststroke events. The only prizes awarded were medals for the first 3 places in each disability category for each race, so some would return with quite few.

Post swimming            

After the evening meal the team members in the initial years would dress-up to go to the bar as a group with all the other teams – yes this included ties for men, dresses for ladies and no jeans in sight. For many this was the highlight of the visit, an evening out with ‘like’ friends and good chat.

Well-dressed Panthers in the bar – note ties!

Drinking to excess did not happen during the swimming weekend so few were ‘slower’ the next day! The next morning there could be more competition after probably boiled eggs again for breakfast. Competition would be finished by lunch time.

As well as the benefits of the overall experiences mentioned above there were others. For some young swimmers it could be the first time away from home on such an event. It could also be the opportunity to mix and observe older team members so that they learnt subtle insights into independence, determination, and good-humoured sportsmanship from them -  as Ivor Mitchell mentioned in a BSAD 1981 - year booklet. Another process I would endeavour to subtly engage in was to have opportune conversations with selected team members with less than severe impairments and say,

maybe it could occur to you, that disability is all relevant when you look around at the others?

Often, sometimes afterwards, they would come up and say, “yes Doug I see your point, I think I am fortunate”. This ‘relative aspect’ would definitely help some individuals.

Once the competition was over, we would then pack up, load-up and head north up the M! Often I could find myself as being the only one awake by the time we got onto the M1 - although I would always try to get one ‘talker ‘to keep me awake. Once unloaded back in Nottingham Sunday evening we would disembark, and I would take the van back to the Player’s factory. And that was another year of Stoke Mandeville tradition established on the shelf until next year.

Read the full version of Doug's account here