Mike Kenny MBE started swimming at the Stoke Mandeville National Games in 1973 before going on to be the UK’s most successful Paralympic athlete to date with a total of 16 gold and 2 silver medals. He describes how he first got into swimming.

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