Our Discovery swimming gala format has given pupils in Essex the perfect platform to go the next stage and enter a special Olympic celebration event this summer.

On 23, 24, and 25 January, Panathlon ran three Discovery galas for 136 primary school pupils with disabilities and special needs across Essex at the London Aquatic Centre (just three of an incredible 15 events we held at the prestigious Olympic and Paralympic venue in January and February!).

Our Discovery format features skills challenges (rather than races) which suits pupils with disabilities and special needs who lack skills and confidence in the water, either because they have never experienced swimming or their skills have lapsed over the pandemic.

The Discovery format was introduced to address the decline in swimming participation since Covid, with the draining of school pools, time, expense and the inability to secure lesson time in the dwindling number of local authority facilities all causing participation to nosedive. Swim England have warned that most primary school children will be unable to swim a 25m length by 2025. 

The format was certainly a hit with pupils from 21 schools who took part over the three days at the Aquatic Centre – and schools will now be offered the opportunity to go a Higher Ability Olympic celebration day organised by Panathlon and Active Essex at Basildon Sporting Village on 17 July – just nine days before Paris 2024 gets under way.

Pupils from Alleyn Court School after one of our Essex Discovery galas in January

The event will also feature the Panathlon Essex secondary multi-skills final at the same venue, as well as mainstream county athletics and netball finals and a carousel of sports for younger pupils to try.

Gill Newlyn, Youth Sport Trust’s Inclusion Lead for Essex, said: “Many children who competed in these Discovery galas at the Aquatic Centre had never been in the water before or just weren’t confident at all. But afterwards it was clear that their skills had developed and their water confidence had increased. 

“Many were ready for the next level of Panathlon gala, and it will be brilliant to see them progressing in Basildon where they can try out some more advanced skills.” 

Often the best barometer of the Discovery galas’ success is the reaction of teaching staff. Gill explains: “When a school does its first Discovery gala, there tends to be a moment of staff realisation that, ‘Oh, they can cope with this!’ 

“They may arrive not quite being able to visualise what the event entails. There can be a fear of the unknown and worry about how the kids will react to something new. But as soon as they see what’s involved, they can see it’s safe and appropriate for their pupils’ level and is a platform for them to develop.

“The event in Basildon is about us saying, ‘We’ve all realised they can do this; now let’s push it a bit further!”

Panathlon’s Chief Operating Officer, Tony Waymouth, said: “This step from our Discovery galas to the Olympic celebration day will ultimately help to increase the number of schools who can then progress to taking part in our traditional gala involving 25m activity in November.”

A huge thank you as always to Pentland Brands for their support of our swimming programme.