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Aspire, swimming and me: Sue’s story May 17, 2022

Posted by Phil Groom in Appeals, Fundraising.
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SIX YEARS AGO, in 2016, Sue started a series of sponsored swims for Aspire, the spinal injuries charity. Lots of people have asked why — what’s the connection with Aspire? In this post, Sue explains how she got involved with the charity, what she’s hoping to achieve this year, and invites you to become part of it with her. Read on to find out how…

I first came across Aspire back in 2016. My attention was caught by a poster in the changing rooms at my local swimming pool in Devizes. It was advertising the Aspire Channel Swim Challenge – swim 22 miles over twelve weeks in your local pool – to raise funds for Aspire and support people with spinal cord injury.

I have swum regularly since I was advised to do so by an orthopaedic surgeon when I was twenty, although as the years have gone by I seem to have become more and more addicted to it!

Aspire is a national charity based at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore. It provides practical help – supporting people with spinal cord injury to live as full and independent lives as possible. My own history of chronic pain and multiple hip operations has given me a particular affinity for anyone struggling with pain and disability so Aspire seemed an obvious charity for me to raise money for by swimming.

But there are even more connections: when I was a young child, being treated for complications around congenital dislocation of the hip, my parents were given the choice between me being referred for specialist treatment to the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore or to the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre in Oxford. In the end they chose Oxford because they thought it would be easier to get to from our home in Bracknell. Furthermore, when I was a parish priest in London I knew the chaplain at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital and I covered for her when she went on holiday so I had actually been there.

Aspire do amazing work at the hospital but the charity has developed nationwide. Aspire staff and volunteers work in spinal injuries centres across the UK. The charity provides accessible houses for people to live in whilst their own accommodation is being adapted, or until they find a suitable alternative home. Aspire has Independent Living Advisors who support those who have suffered spinal cord injuries. Aspire provides Assistive Technology, a Welfare Benefits Advice Service, a Money Matters Service, and grants to people. Aspire uses swimming and other sports to rehabilitate those who have suffered spinal cord injuries. They provide practical help and emotional support.

I was shocked to discover that every four hours someone is paralysed by a spinal cord injury. Aspire exists because there is currently no cure. It can happen to anyone at any time and the effects are life changing. Disability is expensive: voice recognition software costs £150; a light wheelchair costs upwards of £3,000 and to adapt and furnish an Aspire house costs £30,000. Life is more expensive for those with spinal cord injuries – they may need a carer to accompany them when they go out, or to travel by taxi because public transport is not accessible.

Once I learnt more about Aspire, I was determined to use my regular swim to raise funds for this amazing charity. I swam the Aspire Channel Challenge (22 miles over twelve weeks) in 2016 and 2017. Then, in the summer of 2018, I began swimming in Lake 86 in the Cotswold Water Park near Cirencester. The fresh air made a pleasant change from always smelling of chlorine! In February 2019 I had a hip replacement and that autumn I swam not just 22 miles but 100 miles over the twelve weeks, in pools and the lake.

In 2020, after the first lockdown, I wanted to try something different so I swam along the River Arun in Sussex – that was nearly four times my longest swim the previous year.

Last year I swam across the Solent from Stokes Bay to Ryde Sands. I had hardly ever swum in the sea, apart from paddling as a child on holiday! There were large boats and small boats, fast boats and slow boats, kayaks, paddle boards, canoes, you name it but I managed to swim safely across.

This year I am doing two swims to raise funds for Aspire: the first is across Lake Bala in the Snowdonia National Park in North Wales. Llyn Tegid, to give the lake its proper name, is a beautiful deep dark lake which tends to be quite cool, around 16°C, and subject to windy, choppy conditions!

With that in mind I kept my open water swimming going through last winter for the first time, twice a week at Lake 32 (also in the Cotswold Water Park) – the temperature got down to 2.5°C, so 16°C in June seems like a luxury! The swim across Lake Bala should be about three miles.

The swim across Lake Bala has been arranged by my swimming coach, Jason Tait of South West Swim, and I am very grateful to Jason for all his encouragement and support as well as for his expertise, which has helped me tremendously with my development as a swimmer.

My second swim this year will be in July at the Outdoor Swimmer Henley Swim Festival where I aim to swim four miles, my longest swim yet, one mile at a time, the full length of the course. I suspect that I may find the clambering out and walking back to the start after each mile more tiring than the actual swimming. We will see!

My experience of swimming for Aspire has certainly kept me fit and healthy, given me a new challenge to rise to each year, and made me appreciate more than ever my own ability to feel the tips of my fingers and the tingle in my toes, something that can be forever lost to people with spinal cord injuries.

That’s my story and I would be absolutely delighted if you would like to make it part of your story too by sponsoring me for this year’s swims: you can do that through my latest JustGiving page.

I know that many of you have already sponsored me over the last few years and I am very grateful for your generosity. On behalf of Aspire, a big, big thank you for that, but there’s always more work for Aspire to do so if you can, please do sponsor me again this year. Even if you can’t, you can still help by sharing this story with other people, with your family and friends and anyone else in your social media networks.

Many of you will probably know that I’m a Church of England Archdeacon in the Diocese of Salisbury, affectionately known there as the Aquadeacon because of my swimming.

My hope and prayer is that in raising funds for Aspire to support people with spinal injuries in some small way I am helping to bring good news to those who are suffering and to bind up their broken hearts, to show them that people do care. I feel very strongly that it is important that those of us within the church who are commissioned and licensed to a particular ministry do not restrict our ministry to those we know within the church or within our local communities but that we reach out in love and service to people we may never even meet.

That’s what my sponsored swims are about and that’s why I’m appealing to you, please, to sponsor me if you can. Thank you very much.

This post is adapted from a talk given at St Mary’s Church, Calne, on Saturday 14 May 2022 for a Service of Celebration of Lay Ministers.

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