It was a Lancastrian one-two in the Panathlon Northern Swimming Final at Ponds Forge in Sheffield on Tuesday as Park Community Academy struck gold.
Pupils from the Blackpool school (pictured left) amassed 89 points to pip near-neighbours Great Arley School from Thornton-Cleveleys by just two points. Their tremendous performances eclipsed seven opponents from east of the Pennines by some distance.
The Forest School from Knaresborough finished third with 65 points, while Doncaster School for the Deaf were fourth and therefore won the South Yorkshire Swimming title, which was being run concurrently between themselves, Heritage Park and Rowan Schools from Sheffield, and Greenacre School from Barnsley.
Champions Park Community Academy stayed overnight in a Sheffield hotel before the event and had spent many weeks training for the final, having qualified by winning the North-West final. Their preparation paid off handsomely.
“I have got to say what a fabulous day it has been. Everyone who competed did so well and the spirit of the sport won over the winning of trophies and medals,” reflected Stuart Johnson, the school’s PE co-ordinator.
“This type of event at a marvellous facility like this is about raising the aspirations of the kids. We stopped overnight at a hotel last night and really made an adventure of it for the youngsters. We’re very lucky that the school’s senior management, and our head teacher in particular, really value the benefits that sport brings.
“Competition at Key Stage 2 is an area that needs developing, so it’s been great to see our Key Stage 2 pupils really having a go and getting stuck into the competition. It’s really given them a platform to perform and compete, which they love.”
Park pupil Lewis Blackwell, 12, said: “It was a lot of fun. This medal means a lot. I’m going to put my gold medal up in my room when I get home. This has made me really happy.”
His team-mate, Jack Mills, 10, added: “I’m going to show off my medal so everyone can see it. This really means a lot. I’m not usually good at sport, but I love swimming and I can’t believe we’ve won gold! I’m really proud.”
Second-placed Great Arley, a school for students with learning and behavioural difficulties, were delighted with their silver medals.
Joel McKintosh, 12, said: “This is pretty fun. Competing against other schools is the best bit about it. I usually play football, but I’ve loved swimming today. It makes you feel really good swimming at a place like this.”
Their teacher, Mike Spence, added: “It’s a very special day. They’ve absolutely loved it, even though it took us three hours to get here on the mini bus and we had to get up at 6am! They’ll probably be asleep all the way back! It’s a really nice atmosphere. They take away not only a medal, but a fantastic experience.”
Mike’s comments were echosed by Paul James, teacher at third-placed The Forest School for children with learning difficulties, autism and communication difficulties.
He said: “Competing against other schools from all over the North definitely adds that excitement factor and competing at this huge venue is also a thrill for them. This gives them a chance to use their language and develop their communication skills by working with different adults and in different environments.
“They are happy in familiar environments and working with people that they know, but when we bring them somewhere like this that’s completely new, different, bigger and noisier, it’s a challenge for them.”
Forest pupil Chantelle Shoesmith, 10, said: “Today was awesome. When I go back to school tomorrow, I won’t stop smiling! Looking at my medal makes me feel strong and proud.”
Joe Shaw, 11, added: “Today was so good. I would like to say a great big thank-you to Panathlon. I’m going to hang my medal up in my bedroom.”
Doncaster School for the Deaf, who finished fourth overall, also celebrated winning the South Yorkshire swimming title.
Teacher Rebecca Taylor reflected: “Today gives children confidence and it’s wonderful for their self-esteem. This is their first time in a swimming gala and it gives them a brand new experience in an amazing place like this. We’ve done multisports and boccia Panathlons before, but this is their first time swimming and they have enjoyed it immensely.”
Megan Garwell, teacher at sixth-placed Heritage Park School in Sheffield, said the event was hugely beneficial to their pupils, who have challenging behaviour, autism and ODD.
“When they walked in and saw a table full of trophies and medals, none of them had ever done anything like this,” she said. “In mainstream schools they wouldn’t have been taken to anything else like this because their behaviour wasn’t safe. The achievement of winning a medal is really good for their self-esteem. They really have loved it.”
Helping out on the day were Young Leaders from Northfields School in Stockton-on-Tees. Their students are highly valued regulars on the Panathlon circuit and were part of the support team at last year’s showpiece London Multisport Finals at the Copper Box Arena.
One Young Leader, 14-year-old Charlotte Leaming, said: “This is my third Panathlon as a Young Leader and it’s really rewarding. It’s amazing to spend time with the kids here, adapting and challenging them. They really appreciate it. The different skills you learn and being a leader for them is an amazing experience. I give them loads of encouragement and urge them on, as that’s the way to get them to do their best.”
Panathlon funders St. James’s Place Foundation also provided leaders who helped to officiate and organise on the day. One of them Lee Shearwood said, “It is great to see the Swim Panathlon in action. The range of activity engages all abilities of children, and I couldn’t wait to see the team challenges and the excitement of these didn’t disappoint.” The St. James’s Place Foundation has supported Panathlon since 2011 as part of their “Sport for Good ” programme.
Also on hand to organise, officiate and encourage the students was Paralympic swimming gold medallist and Panathlon Ambassador Liz Johnson. She enjoyed returning to her favourite venue.
“Ponds Forge is a special place for me,” she said. “I first swam here when I was 12 years old, so it was really nice to see kids of the age I was then enjoying the venue.
“For me, this is the best pool in the country. I have a lot of fond memories of competing here. It was here that I became the first person in my classification to break the 100-second barrier for 100m breaststroke.
“To see the variety of children from all over the North of England embracing and enjoying today’s competition is a joy to behold and be a part of. It reminds me of why I love to swim.”
For a full gallery of pictures from the Panathlon Northern Swimming Final at Ponds Forge, click here.