Deaf children seized the “incredibly rare opportunity” to compete against peers from other schools at Panathlon’s Secondary Deaf Gala at the London 2012 Aquatics Centre on February 28. 

Pupils from Mary Hare School for the Deaf in Newbury, Berkshire, went home with gold medals as eight teams contested the gala at the home of the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.

There was delight from staff at the ‘level playing field’ the event offered to pupils who otherwise only get to compete in mainstream settings, and may suffer from a lack of opportunities to meet (yet alone compete with) deaf pupils from beyond their own school gates.

Cheryl Colby, Mary Hare School’s Head of PE, said: “We have quite a few swimming opportunities as part of our curriculum, but we have very few opportunities for them to race competitively. There’s no other deaf sports competitions for us to access. 

“For some, this is their only opportunity to race in the school year – and they don’t tend to be members of clubs because they have difficulties accessing mainstream coaching.” 

To select their team of 12, Mary Hare conducted time trials in school swimming lessons. “They’re here to compete and do the best they can for their family, the school and themselves,” said Cheryl. 

“They’ve got all the things here to enable them to succeed. People come and get them ready for each race, someone is interpreting so they fully understand what’s expected of them and the race starter is fully aware of their needs. At a mainstream gala they wouldn’t get that, unfortunately. 

“I get quite emotional. To come here is very inspiring for the pupils. They’re taking part alongside deaf peers and that is a unique opportunity for them.” 

Sam Wheeler, Communications Support Worker at Great Baddow High School in Essex, said: “As a school, we offer students every opportunity we possibly can to take part in sports activities and clubs, but as a deaf community this is their one opportunity to experience that common ground of all being deaf and not competing against hearing peers. 

“Here, they can give it their absolute best and be at the starting line knowing they’re not at an immediate disadvantage. Putting themselves out there like this and seeing that all the other competitors are on the same page is a big thing.” 

Twelve-year-old Great Baddow pupil Tyler Wilkins (below) said: “I’ve been to many Panathlons and they always make me feel happy. When I bring a medal home my mum and dad take me to the Leisure Zone in Harlow as a special treat!” 

Danny Bidwell, Deputy Head at Knightsfield School for the Deaf in Welwyn Garden City, said: “Our children get opportunities through Panathlon that they don’t even get in mainstream schools!” 

Danny explained that lots of children at the school are picked up by taxi because they come to the school from long distances. This means they can’t access after-school sports clubs or inter-school matches and competitions. 

“That’s why Panathlon is so great,” said Danny. “Arranging fixtures is extremely difficult during the school day, so when your events are on the calendar, everything else is pushed to one side. 

“We have a trophy cabinet in reception which we show off when we give visitors a tour of the school. It shows that just because we’re a special school it doesn’t mean our children don’t get the chance to compete in things. In fact, they get more because of the fantastic opportunities Panathlon provide.” 

Read our interview with Knightsfield pupil Freya Mae Wilkins here.

Mel Harrington, Teacher of the Deaf at Philip Southcote School in Weybridge said the event was “important for our pupils’ deaf identity.” 

She added: “Although it’s a two-hour drive to get here, it is so worth it. 

“We saw tears before the first race from one young man and he is now desperate to get back into the water. Watching other people try and fail built his persistence and resilience. These are really important skills to build outside the classroom. 

“We came here with six nervous young swimmers and we’re going to go away with six tired young people with medals round their necks.” 

The competition was officiated by Panathlon Young Leaders from Debden Park High School in Loughton, Essex, who included 14-year-old twins Fifi and Lottie Stephenson (pictured below). 

“It was different to anything else we’ve done,” said Lottie. “We’ve learned new skills. It was really fun, a great experience and we’d both love to do it again.” 

Thank you to our funders Pentland Brands who support our swimming programmes and to our partners GLL for providing the spectacular venue for so many of our competitions.