Swimming soulmates push each other to great lengths

STRONG BOND: Close friends from Spalding Sophie Taylor and Chloe Hannam who share a passion for success in the swimming pool.  Photo by Tim Wilson.
STRONG BOND: Close friends from Spalding Sophie Taylor and Chloe Hannam who share a passion for success in the swimming pool. Photo by Tim Wilson.
  • SPORTS STARS OF THE FUTURE: Chloe Hannam and Sophie Taylor, Olympic and Paralympic swimming

There are about 4,400 miles separating close friends and swimming soulmates Chloe Hannam and Sophie Taylor – both 19 and from Spalding.

Because while Sophie is studying for a degree in civil engineering at Loughborough University, Chloe is in her second year studying at the University of Arkansas, USA, how the human body and its muscles move.

But the former Spalding High School pair have social media to thank for maintaining their strong friendship as they both strive to make a splash in the world of swimming.

Sophie said: “We’ve known each other since our days together at primary school and we’ve had similar experiences in swimming, so we want to keep up our friendship.

“When Chloe comes back to England, it doesn’t feel as if we’ve been apart because we always motivate each other and we have plenty of stuff to catch up on.”

Chloe and Sophie’s progress in swimming has been a regular feature in the sports pages of the Lincolnshire Free Press and our sister newspaper, the Spalding Guardian, for at least the last five years.

AMERICAN GIRL: Chloe after helping Arkansas University to its dual meet win over Nebraska University earlier this month and Sophie with her four gold medals from the 2014 Disability Sports Events National Junior and Youth Swimming Championships in Sheffield.

AMERICAN GIRL: Chloe after helping Arkansas University to its dual meet win over Nebraska University earlier this month and Sophie with her four gold medals from the 2014 Disability Sports Events National Junior and Youth Swimming Championships in Sheffield.

In that time, Chloe and Sophie have both lined up against the best able-bodied and disabled swimmers in the country to compete for a place at the 2012 Olympics and Paralympic Games in London.

In a TV interview before the trials at London Aquatic Centre, venue for the 2012 Olympic swimming events, Chloe said: “It’s quite scary realising that I could be a part of the British Olympic team.

“But obviously I don’t think I will be because I’m not that fast and getting the times to qualify for the trials was such a surprise, even though it was really good.”

The friends started swimming within a year of each other, Chloe at the age of four when she was taken along to Spalding’s Castle Swimming Pool and Sophie as a five-year-old at primary school.

We’ve known each other since our days together at primary school and we’ve had similar experiences in swimming

Swimmers Chloe Hannam and Sophie Taylor

Chloe said: “My grandmother taught me to swim when I was on holiday in Menorca and when I came back, I joined a Swim School in Spalding where I reached a stage good enough for the swimming teacher to suggest that I should take up competitive swimming.

“I then joined South Lincs Competitive Swimming Club when I was nine and two years later, I won my first national swimming medal with a silver in the 1,500m freestyle.

“But due to the club not having a head coach, I moved to City of Peterborough Swimming Club in September 2011 and after joining the club full-time the following October, my swimming has moved onto a higher level.”

So high in fact that Chloe became the best 200m freestyle and 400m individual medley (two lengths each of backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle or front crawl) in the Midlands when she captured both titles at the Amateur Swimming Association Regional Championships in 2012.

Sophie Taylor with her four gold medals from the 2014 Disability Sports Events National Junior and Youth Swimming Championships in Sheffield.

Sophie Taylor with her four gold medals from the 2014 Disability Sports Events National Junior and Youth Swimming Championships in Sheffield.

In her most recent major competition, this summer’s British Swimming Championships in Sheffield, Chloe overcame jetlag to win silver medals in the 200m backstroke and 400m individual medley, as well as bronze in the 400m freestyle.

“Because the championships came after my first year at university, I used them as a bit of a transition event so I was quite happy with my medals,” Chloe said.

“I also managed to set new personal bests in the two races where I got silver, having trained and competed while carrying a shoulder injury.”

Chloe may have to swim through the pain barrier because of her shoulder injury, but she would be the first to acknowledge that the challenges facing Sophie are much more significant.

Having been diagnosed with spastic diplegic cerebral palsy as a three-year-old, Sophie has to cope with the severe impairment of her leg muscles and virtually permanent use of a wheelchair.

But instead of this being a barrier to entry when it comes to sport, Chloe has instead flourished as a swimmer, wheelchair racer and – until recently – a dressage rider.

Sophie said: “I’d always liked swimming from when I was smaller, but I was quite reluctant to join in because my times would have been significantly slower than able-bodied swimmers.

“But when my parents became worried about my health, they thought that swimming was something I could do and so I started competitively at a comparatively late age of nine or ten.

“I went to my first national championships when I was 12 and won most of my races which led to me taking part in my first able-bodied championships as a 14-year-old – with Chloe there as well.

“It felt very different from the disability competitions I’d competed at before and it was a lot busier, but the experience I gained and the people I got to meet there were incredible.”

In August, Sophie was part of the 18-strong England swimming team which competed at the Cerebral Palsy World Games in Nottingham where four silvers and one bronze in the 50m, 100m and 400m freestyle, 100m breaststroke and 100m backstroke (bronze).

“I was quite disappointed with the times that I swam because they weren’t as close to my personal bests as I wanted,” Sophie said.

“If I’d swam closer to my personal bests, I would have won gold.”

Chloe and Sophie do have a precedent to follow in the person of two-time Olympian Mel Marshall who swam for the Spalding-based South Lincs Competitive Swimming Club, which Chloe and Sophie have both been members of, and now coaches triple world champion and world record holder Adam Peaty.

Sophie said: “Every sportsperson’s goal is to compete for their country and that’s my dream too.

“But right now, I just want to improve and get closer to being a Paralympic swimmer by getting better in myself.

“If I can get there, I can’t be angry with that.”

If Chloe’s original plan had have come off, the pair would have flatmates at Loughborough University as this was the, still firmly English-accented, kinesiology student’s first choice of university.

“During my last year doing A-levels at Spalding High School in 2014, I talked to a friend who was out in the USA and she told me to look it,” Chloe said.

“Then I emailed some coaches with my swimming times, but I still had my heart set on going to Loughborough University.

“It was then that the University of Arkansas’s swimming coaches made it clear that they really wanted me to come.

“So when I went to the university on a recruiting visit in April 2014, I was really impressed by the way everyone saw each other as a team.”

Chloe and Sophie will continue with their transatlantic friendship, safe in the knowledge that they will blossom as both swimmers and as people.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself since going to the USA and I’m more confident, more sociable amd more outgoing now,” Chloe said.

“But I’ve also learned a lot about swimming in that it’s not just about what happens in the pool, but it’s about making new friends and relating 
to them as well.

“That’s why Sophie and me are so close because we’ve both been quite successful and how committed you have to be to swim competitively.”