Zoe Cowan discusses her work and para-swimmer Joe Field's inspirational story

As part of the focus on ‘the importance of inclusive coaching’ during UK Coaching Week, Richmond Dales Amateur Swimming Club coach Zoe Cowan takes us through the inspiring story of para-swimmer Joe Field.

Developing confidence in every athlete

Every athlete, no matter their sport or ability, is unique.

A good coach has the ability and flexibility to positively and effectively coach different athletes with varying needs. It is vital that coach and club know the importance of being inclusive and delivering a high quality and standard of programme to as many athletes as possible.

The key components to a successful inclusive programme are a thorough knowledge of your athletes, pre-planning and good communication. This will give the athlete the best possible chance to reach their potential and most importantly, having fun!

Being a truly inclusive club is extremely important to us at Richmond Dales. Having a number of athletes within the club with physical, visual and intellectual impairments means that the level of care, we as coaches provide, has to be of the highest level.

Our primary aim, from the beginning, is to develop confidence into every athlete that walks through our doors. It doesn’t matter about their ability – we do our best to help each of them reach their goals.

The coaching team have worked extremely hard since the formation of our para-swimming squad in 2019 to deliver that fully inclusive and high-quality training to our athletes.

Joe’s journey

Since his arrival at the club in February 2020, para-swimmer Joe Field has been on a real rollercoaster of a ride with some amazing highs but also some devastating lows.

Joe was born with Dwarfism, affecting long bones, spine and hips, as well as a depleted immune system and small lung disease. He has endured a bi-lateral hip rebuild and open heart surgery.

From a very young age, Joe has had a passion for swimming and he has been defying his medical team with his ability within the sport. From the day I met Joe at the North East Regional Para Talent Camp at Catterick, he has gone from strength to strength.

The club’s commitment to delivering high-quality coaching, working with the ability of each individual swimmer and pushing them to their full potential had paid off for Joe.

He has been selected for the Foundation Level of the Swim England Para-Swimming Talent Pathway, he has won several medals at both regional and national level and, earlier this year, he qualified for the British International Para-Swimming Meet which he had been working so hard towards.

Things took a turn for the worse with Joe in March 2021 when an accident at school led to take a visit to A&E followed by just a precautionary brain scan. Unfortunately, the scan revealed that Joe had a large growth on his brain. A biopsy was taken and sent away for a diagnosis.

Whilst awaiting on results, surgeons decided that the mass had to be removed and Joe underwent a 10-hour operation. Within a few hours of the operation Joe’s first question to his consultants was “when can I get back in the pool?” – showing his true dedication to the sport.

Determination to give his all

Zoe Cowan coaching para-swimmer Joe Field

The operation left Joe with no short-term memory, having to learn how to walk again and with a large weakness to his right arm and hand due to all the neural pathways being cut.

During his 13 weeks in hospital, Joe had to endure five occupational therapy sessions a day, five days a week. These sessions included both physiotherapy and hydrotherapy.

Joe gave his everything in each session, determined to get himself well again which often left him extremely fatigued. With everything that Joe had already endured and still faced, it was having an impact on his mental health.

I knew how much Joe loved being in the water and the positive impact it had on his wellbeing and, as his coach, I wanted to help in anyway that I could. We had already been doing Zoom sessions from his hospital bed on stroke techniques and analysis ready for his eventual return to training.

This led me to speaking with his Occupational Therapists and working alongside them with his hydrotherapy sessions to give him exercises and activities to do which would then help him once he was allowed back into the pool.

Towards the end of his stay in hospital, Joe was given a weekly day release in between treatments. After consultation with all of his different care providers, it was agreed that we could get Joe back in the pool on a one-to-one basis, with the aim of continuing with his hydrotherapy but, equally as importantly, to help with his mental health and wellbeing.

Stronger by the day

To help Joe as much as possible, I spoke to various specialists as well as experienced swimming and strength and conditioning coaches so that I could come up with suitable programme without risk of further injury. Over the past few weeks we have gradually built up his sessions from 20 minutes to one hour, and up to three sessions a week.

We recently began running the Swim England Start Para-Swimming programme. Once again, a new cohort of swimmers with impairments have arrived, each one unique, each one with their own needs and their own dreams.

It has been said that an athlete will care how much you know when they know how much you care. Here at the club, we care passionately about our inclusive nature, our role within para-swimming and wider communities and the health and wellbeing of our athletes.

On a daily basis, para-swimmers like Joe and the rest of his teammates face the kind of hurdles that able-bodied swimmers do not.

Our coaching ethos is based on trust, mutual respect and a desire for the athlete to be their very best.

Joe has regained some use of his legs and gets stronger by the day.

However, he does have a long road ahead of him to reach his Paralympic dream – but with the support of friends, family, the coaching team and our wider community, Joe will be able to achieve that dream.