Monica Vaughan, Paralympic swimmer, competed at the Toronto 1976 and Arnhem 1980 Paralympic Games winning 9 gold and 1 silver medals.

Monica competing for Portsmouth Northsea Swimming Club at age 13.

Aged 13 competing for Portsmouth Northsea Swimming Club ©MonicaVaughan

Early life

Monica Vaughan was born on the 15th April 1952, the middle of five children, she grew up in Cosham, Hampshire. At the age of four she had a mid-thigh amputation after falling under a trolleybus.

At primary school Monica played netball and rounders. Although she had swimming lessons it was only when she went to secondary school that she actually learned to swim and joined Portsmouth Northsea Swimming Club.

In 1966, when competing for Northsea, Monica was disqualified from a butterfly race because her stroke did not meet the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) standard of moving her legs together and simultaneously. Her coach raised awareness of the issue and succeeded in getting it covered in the newspapers, Northsea challenged the disqualification which resulted in a special meeting of the ASA Committee changing the rules, something that was reported as far afield as California, British Columbia and Singapore.

Interested in all sports, at secondary school she also played volleyball and tried trampolining.

I realised quite quickly, that swimming would be the one where I would be least disadvantaged, and I could get maximum opportunities from.

Life as a Paralympic athlete

Having given up competitive swimming when she left school, it was her prosthesis fitter, Ted, who encouraged her to try out for the Toronto 1976 Paralympic Summer Games, the first to include amputees. Gaining a place in the Great Britain swimming team Monica competed at the Toronto 1976 and then Arnhem 1980 Games winning many gold medals.

Monica continued her interest in all sports, spending her spare time abseiling, rock climbing and water skiing.


Monica recalls learning to swim 

I had swimming lessons every summer till I was 11 and never learned to swim. And I think that was because he was trying to teach me breaststroke, which back in the day would have been the stroke …. they'd just start everybody off on breaststroke, which is actually quite a difficult stroke to swim as a leg amputee. …. And when I went to St. Edmund's, ….. there was a science teacher who was interested in swimming ….. And she said, Well, let's see if we can get you to swim. And she taught me front crawl and I learnt within, well it was the matter of weeks, I learned really quickly.

Monica with Portsmouth Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress, Jim Ferneyhough (coach) at a street party organised the day after she returned from the Toronto 1976 Games

Monica celebrating her return from the Toronto 1976 Games with
Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress of Portsmouth and Jim Ferneyhough (coach) ©MonicaVaughan

In the Spring 1977 edition of Cheshire Smile (The Quarterly Magazine of the Cheshire Homes), Ann Sparkes recalls the 1976 Sports Writers’ Association Dinner where Monica was awarded the Bill McGowran Trophy,

After the dinner we moved and found ourselves sitting at another table next to Monica Vaughan and her coach James Ferneyhough. From James I began to understand just what tremendous tenacity and guts Monica has – the hours she has put in to reach her incredible standard of swimming.

Retirement as a Paralympic athlete

Retiring after the Arnhem 1980 Summer Games, Monica became involved with the British Sports Association for the Disabled (BSAD), now known as Activity Alliance and was Chair of the Women's Sports Foundation (WSF) now known as Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation (WSFF).   

Having trained as a nurse, she also returned to work for the NHS.

Achievements and awards

Paralympic Games

Having won gold in all four of the recognised swimming strokes and one in the 4 x 50m individual medley at the Toronto 1976 Games, Monica went on to win four more gold and one silver at the 1980 Arnhem Games. 

Best known for her medal winning swimming, she also won silver as the only female competitor in the volleyball team in Toronto when the team were in need of an above knee amputee for one of their rounds.

Other awards and recognition

In 1976 Monica won the Sports Journalists’ Association, Bill McGowran Trophy, an award for an athlete with impairment.

Oral history interview with Monica Vaughan

Interview by Dr Rosemary Hall, 11th August 2020

Monica Vaughan is a retired British athlete. Having begun her training whilst working full-time as a nurse, she was Britain’s most successful Paralympian at the Toronto 1976 Paralympics, her very first Games, winning five gold medals for swimming, and a silver for volleyball. She first competed as a teenager against able-bodied swimmers for her native Portsmouth Northsea Swimming Club.

Monica at the medal ceremony for 100m backstroke at the Toronto 1976 Paralympics

At the medal ceremony for 100m backstroke at the Toronto 1976 Paralympics ©MonicaVaughan

In this interview Monica talks about her early love of sport, her athletic and nursing careers, her work for the BSAD, and changes to the Games in her lifetime. Below are some of our favourite excerpts; you can also listen to the full interview below or download the transcript

On qualifying for Toronto 1976

Interviewer: How did you go from Northsea to becoming a Paralympian?

Monica Vaughan: Well, that was that was a really, really opportunistic appointment down at the - what was then called the Limb Centre, it's now the Enablement Centre in Portsmouth. Because I knew nothing about sport for disabled, no idea at all, I'd given up competitive swimming when I left school at 18, because I couldn't carry on. And I went down, for some reason, to the Limb Centre, and my fitter, Ted, he said,

“Oh, have you thought of trying for this?” and I said, “Well, what is it?” And he said, “Well, they're sending a team to the 1976 Paraplegic Games that are going to include amputees”. And I said, “Oh, I don't see a lot of point really”. He said, “Well, you might as well”, I said “I haven't swum for years”, he said, I don't know you might [...] just contact them and see”.

So I contacted the guy who was organising the amputee bid. A chap called Len Softly. And he said, “Yeah, yeah. Can you come up for trials? Let's see what you can do!” And I think I'd worked the day before. I travelled up here to Stoke Mandeville early in the morning from Salisbury, cause that's where I was nursing at the time. And I went in the pool, they saw me swim and they said “Oh yeah, hmm, yes you're quite good aren't you!”

On training between nursing shifts, and raising the bar for amputee sport

Before I stopped nursing, there was a guy who managed to get me into a pool, an army pool at Bulford Camp. And I'd either go before I went on shift or I'd go after shift and he would be there with me and make me - basically pulling me to swim! Because as you can imagine, you know, I was either knackered because I'd been at work all day, or thinking I've got a shift to do, kind of thing. But I got the feeling when I came up […] that I was kind of looked on as a bit of a loony. But I came up and I wanted to really train you know, and I think it was, we weren't at that stage for sport for disabled. Certainly amputees I don't think were. They were training, but they weren't training to the degree – because I had trained as an able-bodied swimmer, and that's what I wanted to carry on doing. And essentially as a leg amputee and properly, any amputees, that that's what you need to do if you want to stay at the top, you need to do that. You need to put in that amount of work and that amount of commitment. 

On disappointing media coverage of the 1976 Paralympic Games

“And I think that kind of that's one of the things that I found very frustrating. When I came back from the Games. There wasn't that, I didn't think there was the recognition of the standard that I had achieved. It was “One-legged swimmer sweeps board”, which was, I found really strange as well. I'd gone - in my mind - I'd gone as a swimmer who happened to have one leg and I came back as a “one-legged swimmer”, a “one-legged woman”, or “one-legged girl”, and I, it was the first time in my life that I can remember thinking oh, I'm different.”

  Monica with her Paralympic medals and scroll from City of Portsmouth after competing at the Toronto 1976 Paralympics  Monica with her 4 gold and 1 silver medals from the Arnhem 1980 Paralympics

Medals from the Toronto 1976 and Arnhem 1980 Paralympic Games ©MonicaVaughan


  • Brittain, I.S. (2012) From Stoke Mandeville to Stratford: A History of the Summer Paralympic Games. Champaign, Illinois: Common Ground Publishing.