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Nicola Hughes hopes her Manchester 2023 experience encourages more to volunteer

Swim England Ripple Effect Project Officer, Nicola Hughes, recently volunteered at the Allianz World Para Swimming Championships in Manchester in what was her first ever world level event.

Nicola heads up Swim England’s Ripple Effect Project, which aims to break down the barriers that prevent disabled people from volunteering and encourage them to get involved in aquatic sports.

Here she shares her experiences in the hope of encouraging more people to give up their spare time to help others.

This was my first venture into volunteering at a world-swimming event and it happened to be at the World Para-Swimming Championships.

I wanted to write about my experience of being not only a volunteer but, an amputee and wheelchair user at an event where the vast majority of people were disabled.

And as someone who has only ever seen these events on TV, the excitement, the noise and heightened emotions made me feel immensely proud to be part of making this event happen.

There was such a diverse range of volunteers with disabilities and I did not feel left out at any point. I did not feel excluded at any point. I did not feel diverse at any point during the week.

The event also gave me the opportunity to gain a greater appreciation into the world of para-swimming and understand the different elements and incredible people behind the scenes that help with the running of such an event.

A great experience

I arrived at the Manchester Aquatics Centre the day before the competition for a training session. I went through the main doors, collected my accreditation and workforce uniform before heading to where my role would be located.

I was assigned the role of medal chaperone so would be based around the back of the main pool in the Victory Ceremony Room. This would be where all the athletes would go before their medal ceremony to make sure they were all present, correctly dressed and had shoes on.

There were a few of us with obvious disabilities and others that were able bodied.  Although I know from experience that it is not what you necessarily see on the outside as some disabilities are not visible.

Our Victory Ceremonies Manager, Lily Bond, and Assistant Victory Ceremonies Manager, Holly Martindale, were always there to support and there was enough people to run through a complete walk through of a ceremony to show us all what we would be doing.

Our Event Leader Julian Taylor was very good at settling everyone’s nerves and making everyone feel part of a team, which I found very reassuring with it being my first go at anything like this.

Competition day then arrived and there was an air of excitement about the place. It was much busier and I didn’t feel in the minority being in my chair which was a very strange feeling for such a big event.

A lot of my shifts were during the finals sessions where there was an extra role that I took on.

When the athletes get out of the pool, they needed to know when to go for their medal ceremony. So it was down to Jen Noble, Josie Wright and myself to provide the top three swimmers in each race with this information.

At times it was a scramble to get the athletes and countries that come first, second and third and then put the slips of paper in their accreditations but we worked well together to ensure they knew what time to go to their ceremony.

It was incredible to have the athletes so close to me after the event. They were completely out of breath after putting every ounce of energy into their race. The emotions were evident to tell too, some were elated, some in tears; some did not know how to react as they were in shock.

It just proved how much they put into it – they were swimming like their lives depended on it! It was a great experience to be around them.

Part of a team

There were heats and finals every day for a week, with 538 athletes, 67 nations, 22 World Records, 172 medal ceremonies and more than 300 volunteers.

Countless staff, events teams, technical teams, TV crews, press and photographers, security, life guards, pool staff, Aquatic centre staff, hospitality staff – I have no doubt missed a few but events wouldn’t happen without these incredible people and I am so happy to have been part of it.

Throughout the last eight years of having a disability, I have felt excluded, humiliated and judged for being in a chair and being different. It felt good to be part of a team for what I could do and not what others think I can do because I am in a chair or have a disability.

When talking about this to others I often felt myself get emotional at times because I felt part of a team for being me and I didn’t realise how much this would mean until after the event, but it was a realisation that I felt like I did pre-disability.

I would encourage anyone with a disability or not to be brave and volunteer at a swimming or any sporting event, you might just fall in love with everything about it.

You can find out more about Swim England’s Ripple Effect Project here and if you would like to get involved in volunteering please contact [email protected].