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Harriet Lee’s Paralympic experience

One of the highlights of the Paralympics earlier this year was swimmer Harriet Lee’s brilliant bronze medal in the SB9 100 metres breaststoke. Harriet has been supported throughout her preparations for the London Paralympics by Elms Cambridge. We’ve been catching up with Harriet to hear about her troubled build up to the Games, the thrill of competing in front of a home crowd and her determination to race at the Rio Games in 2016.

Elms Direct: “You were very unwell before the Paralympics, weren’t you? What happened?”

Harriet Lee: “I fell ill about four months before the Games. To this day I’m not exactly sure what was wrong, but I was in intensive care on a ventilator for 40 hours. I spent nearly three and half weeks in hospital while the doctors ran all sorts of tests. And my hand was broken while I was in hospital which wasn’t great!”

Elms Direct: “How did you cope with so much lost training and a broken hand?”

Harriet Lee: “There are no short cuts in swimming. I had to squeeze in as many sessions as my body could take to try to get my strength and fitness back. My hand was in a waterproof cast so I could swim, but because the cast was flexible it didn’t support the break properly, so I still need more treatment for my hand now.”

Elms Direct: “What was the atmosphere like when you first arrived at the athletes’ village?”

Harriet Lee: “It’s hard to explain. It was like living in a bubble, with a constant buzz, constant music, people laughing and joking – especially in Team GB. We were winning so many medals that it was exciting to get in the lift with someone and see what colour medal they had.You’d walk around the village and about 20 people would say hello to you. It didn’t matter where you were from or what your sport was, everyone just got on with everyone.”

Elms Direct: “So the British athletes didn’t just socialise with other Brits?”

Harriet Lee: “The British team were together in the same apartment blocks, but the food hall and other facilities were shared, so you would bump into athletes from different countries all the time. One night I sat opposite Oscar Pistorius at dinner!”

Elms Direct: “What did it feel like to walk out in front of your home crowd to compete?”

Harriet Lee: “It was a weird feeling. Most of us are used to competing in front of a crowd of one or two hundred. To walk out in front of so many people screaming and supporting you was an amazing moment and will live with all of the British swimmers for a very long time. It was out of this world!”

Elms Direct: “Did the support of the crowd make you more nervous or did it help?”

Harriet Lee: “You had to use the support from the crowd as a positive. They weren’t there to watch you fail. They really dragged some of the British swimmers through some tough races.”

Elms Direct: “Could you hear the supporters when you were racing?”

Harriet Lee: “Yes. It’s really unusual to be able to hear when you are underwater, but you could hear the crowd so much. I’ve never heard noise underwater like it. You almost knew on the turns if you were in with a chance of a medal from the noise of the crowd.”

Elms Direct: “Did your friends and family see you race?”

Harriet Lee: “My mum and my other half were there for my individual medley and freestyle events. For the breaststroke I had my whole family, so my dad and my brother as well. I had loads of support from friends and family for the breaststroke final. If we wanted to meet up with our families we had to go and see them in the stands. So I got to see my family after winning the bronze medal. It was surreal. I was sharing this moment with my family but also about 300 spectators who had twigged that I was behind the stands. It was surreal to get a hug from my mum at the same time as being asked for autographs and photos!”

Elms Direct: “Were you confident of winning a medal once you reached the final or in the back of your mind were you thinking about how difficult your preparation had been?”

Harriet Lee: “I had to leave what had happened to me at the door. It didn’t help that I’d been feeling unwell through the Games – at one point it looked as if I might go home and not swim at all. But I wasn’t going to give up on my opportunity. Three days before the final I swam a really quick time in training which would potentially have won the gold. So I was, if not confident, then hopeful.”

Elms Direct: “Can you remember much about the race?”

Harriet Lee: “I can remember the first 50 metres, feeling really good and thinking I can come back stronger after the turn, but then I felt unwell and the rest of the race was just a blur. It took about 20 minutes to really realise that I had won a bronze because my brain just wasn’t functioning. I was more worried that I had lost an earring!”

Elms Direct: “What was your best moment of the Games?”

Harriet Lee: “The whole thing! The moment I touched the wall and won the bronze, the medal ceremony was pretty special as well, and I’ll always remember the Olympic and Paralympic Athletes’ Parade, too.

Elms Direct: “What about the closing ceremony?”

Harriet Lee: “I love Rihanna and Coldplay so to see them perform was great for me. The fireworks were just phenomenal.”

Elms Direct: “Do you want to continue swimming and compete at Rio in 2016?”

Harriet Lee: “I think most athletes knew going into the Games whether they were going to retire or go on. I knew I wanted to try for the next Paralympics. So I’m back in the pool and inspired by thinking about Rio!”

Elms Direct: “Did you take a break?”

Harriet Lee: “I had about six weeks off but I’m back to swimming and competition now. I’m hungry to swim again. I’ve missed it.”

Elms Direct: “Do you feel that your life has changed or has everything gone back to normal since the Paralympics?”

Harriet Lee: “I try to have two lives. I have my ‘Paralympic-bubble’ life and then my normal life. I managed to grab a free taxi ride in London the other day because the cabbie knew who I was – things like that are really weird. But I try to keep things as normal as possible when I’m at home and with my family.”

Elms Direct: “You’ve just picked up a new car, haven’t you?”

Harriet Lee: “Yes, I’ve got a MINI Coupé. It’s been to Buckhingham Palace and I’m going to drive it to Sports Personality of the Year later this month. It’s really cute and great fun. All the boys on the swimming squad are jealous!”

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