Contents

Mike Kenny, MBE is a retired British swimmer. He won 16 gold medals and two silvers over four Paralympic Games making him the most successful British Paralympian of all time. He twice retained his gold medals in three swimming events, breaking numerous world records in the process.

Paralympic swimmer Mike Kenney with his medals.

Early life

Michael Joseph Kenny was born on the 30th of January 1945, an engineer in the nuclear power industry, in 1971, while working a shift as a favour for a friend, he fell from the ladder he was using to work on a metal rig. He landed on his heels and the force was sent straight up his spine to his neck causing permanent damage and paralysing him. He began swimming as part of the recovery process.

Life as a Paralympic athlete

In 1973, Mike started competing at national level, competing in his first Paralympics in 1976 in Toronto. At the Games Mike shared a room with future International Paralympic Committee (IPC) President Philip Craven, in Canada's York University, where the British athletes were housed. (He did not attend York University in the UK, as is often mistakenly asserted.) 

Mike is the most successful British Paralympian having won 16 individual gold medals and two team relay silver medals. His achievements were not fully recognised at the time because the IPC and the British Paralympic Association (BPA) were not established until 1989 and the results were not compiled until after he had retired. 

Wheelchair racer Tanni Grey-Thompson was given the title of Britain's most prolific Paralympian until the discovery of Mike's successes. Regarding Tanni, Mike has said:

It's been suggested I am annoyed because she has all the glory. But that's not true. She is a smashing ambassador for the Paralympic movement, and I have never had a cross word with her in my life.

Recollections

Mike recalls trying his hand at other sports:

A sport I moved across into was track and field, at the time I was down there I held the record for track and field events. I also did table tennis singles and also accompanied one of my teammates from Southport in doubles and things like that. I did rifle shooting, only did that a couple of times because it was difficult to try and fit things in that you wanted to do. I think I did some bowls and what have you, things like that, carpet bowls. 

When speaking about his first interaction with Sir Ludwig Guttmann, Mike claims:

Oh yeah, I knew who he was, because Lesley Goldburn, the man who took me down there, was the charge nurse in charge of the first aid place they had there. So, if I can call him Pappa, Pappa was always popping in, speaking to him, and if I was down there I’d probably talk to Les more than other people because obviously I knew him better. His little first aid room was right next door to the baths down there, I don’t know whether it’s like that these days, I’ve not been down there for a while. 
He seemed like a nice man to me, he seemed as though he was always in a hurry running here, there or everywhere, but he seemed a nice man and seemed to be able to get things moving when things weren’t moving properly or you were having a problem with something. I imagine he’d just come in and sort it out, if they were disagreeing with classifications or things like that at the end of the day they’d send for him, he’d sort it out. I found him fine. All the doctors and nurses down there were fine, they did what they had to do. In them days they did what they were told to do and that was the end of it, then you were put in a class.

Mike marvels at the how far Stoke Mandeville and the Paralympics have come since he was an athlete:

A lot of people have asked why I could not present a medal to someone. I was invited to light the flame at Stoke Mandeville but could not afford the round trip. I look today and I'm amazed at the facilities they've got - it's marvellous what has happened to the Paralympics over the years. They're the best thing since sliced bread. I think the funding makes it now. We did not have physios or trainers. My wife stood at the poolside and clicked the clock - that was my trainer.

Retirement as a Paralympic Athlete

Mike has been a local magistrate in Salford, Greater Manchester since 1993. He initially applied to become a magistrate on his retirement from sport in 1988 but had to wait four years for step-free access to be installed.

Achievements and awards

Paralympic Games

Entering his first Paralympics in 1976 in Toronto, Mike took part in three 25 m class 1A swimming events (backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle) winning gold in each of them and taking the world record in the freestyle and backstroke events.

He defended all three titles at the Arnhem 1980 Paralympic Games and once again broke the freestyle and backstroke world records.

At the Stoke Mandeville & New York 1984 Games he again won gold in those three events, breaking the world records in each one. He also won the 3 × 25 m individual medley and was part of the Great Britain relay team who won silver in the 3 × 25 m freestyle relay.

He repeated his successes at the Seoul 1988 Games, winning five individual golds and a relay silver but did not improve on his times and retired from competitive swimming after the Games.

Other awards and recognition

Mike received a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his services to paraplegic sport at Buckingham Palace on the 7th of November 1989.

An interview with Mike Kenny on how he got into swimming

Interviewer Jon Newman, August 2012

The National Games worked on a hospital club basis. I went with my club, Southport, then there’d be Stoke Mandeville (which was SPAC), Sheffield which was Lodgemor, there’d be Hexham, Pinderfields, a load of clubs from all over the country.

Extract of the interview......

Could we start by you telling me about your accident and how you ended up in a wheelchair?

Well it was unfortunate for me because I shouldn’t have been in work that day, I was actually covering for a colleague. This particular job we were doing was building some nuclear boilers and they’re all built on separate rigs, a bit like oil rigs but smaller versions, and so I was on his rig when I had my accident. My rig was OK and I would have been OK.

What happened?

When they build these things, they build them so that each new one has got a modification in it, so they were building this tank with tuning baffles fitted. Now that’s fine on a drawing but when you have to put them into practice, so they have to be designed, built, assembled and you have to make sure you have the clearance because once the nuclear evaporator starts up, if anything goes wrong you can’t fix it you bury it. So it’s important to try and get it correct.

So I was there checking this job and I climbed up one ladder fine and I went around the other side and stepped on another ladder. It was a metal ladder on about a 5ft rig which is solid steel and runs on tramlines.The second ladder I stood on, it had the rubber on the bottom worn through but when you’re up there you can’t see the bottom of the ladder, you don’t know. So I stood on it and down I came, and you know because it was solid steel, I hit that[the steel base] with my heel, apparently, so the consultant said, and the shock went right through to my neck, you know.

So I fell on the floor and got carted off to hospital and eventually I woke up only moving my eyelids at the time. Which was a little frightening, to say the least.

I think the first few months you don’t really realise what’s happening to you because there’s however many medics around you and people like OTs and what have you, and physios, you don’t realise what’s happened because you’re so damn busy trying to do all of the things they’re trying to tell you to do.

Anyway, eventually after a few months in the hospital there was a space found for me at Southport and that’s the regional spinal unit. I went there and I didn’t like it at all. I’d been pampered where I was, I’d had two nurses coming to look after me all the time, then I went to this strange place that was an add-on to the general hospital I think in eighteen-something, so you can imagine what it was like.

So you started off with just that eyelid movement, how long did it take for you to get more than that?

When I was in the neuro unit at one of the other hospitals they put me in this big metal thing and they used to hang things on it so they could hang my arms in these slings and springs, so I could be there all day.

They’d put my legs in it, then they’d put what we used to learn in school, metal Faraday, you know Faradism. That hurt, that.

A kind of electric shock?

Yeah but it used to go on the bones, and it’d make your fingers move and things like that. So it was weird, you don’t notice it because it’s so slight you are getting stronger to be able to move your shoulders. I was able to move shoulders but lots of friends in the unit, they couldn’t move anything you know.

One of the girls, the OTs, and the physio suggested did anyone want to try and go swimming? A couple of us says “yes, that’s great, let’s go” because I was afraid of the water but not as much as some of the lads were. But once I was in the water, I was fine. They’d take us once a week to the baths at Southport and once we were in the water I could float, especially if there were float aids around, and I found I was fine on them.

Obviously, I was lying on my back because I couldn’t go on my front, then I learnt to sort of paddle and keep myself in the water, and then I learnt to do a double arm backwards as though you’re swimming with two arms backwards. I did that for quite a while, then when I got stronger, I was able to actually alter the movement and then I was able to swim. What looks like normal backstroke, and that was really when I started to think I really enjoyed this and I’d like to continue.

Were you coached at all or helped, or was this something you taught yourself?

No,no, Marcy will tell you, I grew up near baths so I’d always go swimming. Marcy was a hairstylist so sometimes she’d work late so I’d be in before her and sometimes I’d leave a note on the fireplace saying “gone swimming, be back in an hour” you know. So I was never afraid of the water as such, I was concerned I might flip over and swallow a lot, but I was never afraid of the water. Then obviously after a while I got my old feeling back that the water wasn’t going to hurt me, I could just paddle about in it and I felt fine, and then it was just a matter of trying to swim and the only way I could swim at the time was using backstroke and so I learnt to swim again using backstroke.

It took me a long, long, long time to be able to do breaststroke and what you call front crawl. That took me an awful long time to do because you’ve got to go over with your arms but you’ve got to get your breathing right, if you don’t get that right you’re struggling. So that took me quite a long time to do, but as I say I was just getting to the end of this going to Southport  when the charge nurse, Les Goldburn, he said to me “we’re going down to the games at Stoke Mandeville, do you want to come?” and I was a bit worried about that because I’d never been anywhere like that before. I presumed it was going to be a bit like the hospital, lots of beds and people running around hither and thither.

But it turned out to be a good thing to do because when I went down there, it was just a bit of a joke on my part when they said “oh somebody’s not turned up, we need another swimmer can you fit in?” so I said, “oh I don’t know about that, I’ve only come to watch.”

This was for the Southport team?

Yes. Anyway, eventually I ended up swimming and I think I won the race but I can’t remember now. I thought “oh this is good” and I did a couple more swimming sessions and perhaps I did one more race there, and the people at Stoke Mandeville they take you in and they give you a medical assessment, and I went in and the medical assessor at the time just happened to be Poppa, or Guttmann and he did my medical classification so I was able to swim in that class. Then I won a few more races and I think that the powers that be, the international squad… I was just picked. 

What year was that?

I think that was 1973 or 1974 I can’t remember now. Anyway I was surprised that they picked me but obviously they pick you on times, so must have won the race but they must have picked me and thought “well he’s as good as or better than what we’ve got swimming at the moment” so I think there were a few long faces from the other teams when I got picked to swim, because they wanted to swim as well.

Download a pdf of Mike's interview here

References

  • https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/disability-sport/19466359
  • https://www.paralympicheritage.org.uk/swimming
  • https://www.telegraph.co.uk/paralympic-sport/2016/11/11/the-united-kingdoms-top-10-greatest-ever-paralympians-as-chosen/
  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LyrZ4WnqI34
  • https://spiritoflegends.wixsite.com/newton/michael-kenny-mbe
  • https://www.paralympicheritage.org.uk/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=8de26b24-ddcd-4fe7-9ef9-bb7e846d6edb