Being a professional athlete is a job that requires a great team behind you.
Since I began swimming at the age of five, I’ve had a team of support who’ve helped me reach where I am today: four-time Paralympic champion, with 13 world titles and ten European crowns to my name. Along the way I’ve received amazing support from coaches, nutritionists, experts and officials, fellow athletes and fans alike. My family and friends have been, and continue to be, absolutely brilliant in following my career around the world, from pool to podium, in helping me to prepare for every race.
But there is one group of people without whom none of this would be possible. They have featured at every stage of my career, at every race, and seen all my triumphs first-hand.
They are the volunteers.
Volunteers are so important in sport because they sustain every aspect of it. The best thing for me is that volunteers provide support for anyone - of any ability. Right from the start, they have always encouraged me to join in, get active and to get interested in swimming.
For athletes like me who enter into competitive sport, we need coaches and officials to support and run events. Many of them give up their free time with no reward other than the satisfaction of seeing others succeed in sport.
This goes right to the top, as we so vividly saw during the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Everyone remembers London 2012 so well because of the enthusiasm and hard work of the Games Makers who created such a brilliant atmosphere; something I remember so vividly from inside the Aquatics Centre! They were paramount in providing a safe and enjoyable experience for the audience and the athletes alike.
It is because I believe that volunteering is such a vital part of sport that I’m supporting the Lead Your Generation: An Inclusive Future programme in making volunteering accessible for all young people. The programme offers volunteering placements to young people with or without disabilities, connecting them with a volunteer co-ordinator in one of eight regions in the UK.
These young people work together and help communities to provide fully inclusive physical activities and sport opportunities that benefit and engage all.
Today we stage a special Inclusive Futures event at the University of Bath to promote this leadership and volunteering initiative for young people.
Inclusive Futures is funded by Spirit of 2012 and run by the Youth Sport Trust, the national charity aiming to build a brighter future for young people through PE and sport. They bring real expertise and direction to the Inclusive Futures programme with 20 years experience of maximising the power of sport to grow young people, schools and communities through the development of qualities including creativity, aspiration, resilience and empathy.
Bath is one of the eight major UK cities involved, alongside Belfast, Birmingham, Gateshead, Glasgow, London, Manchester and Swansea. Next month all eight regions will come together for the national Inclusive Futures Camp on 27-29 March 2015 in Loughborough. This promises to celebrate and coach these volunteers into highly skilled young people who will have so much to offer sport.
I truly hope the volunteers that will greet me at Rio 2016 will have the same spirit that is reflected in the young people involved in Inclusive Futures, and all those other volunteers who have helped me along my career so far.
I would encourage everyone out there to volunteer because it benefits not only you, but every single person you meet in the role. A great way to start is through Inclusive Futures, so to find out more and get involved, visit the website.