“Swimming means the world to me – it’s my life.”

Claire Gillespie

Cerys McCrindle was only three months old when she first dipped her tiny toes into the water of a swimming pool, and at that moment her parents, Karen and Ewan, could see how much she loved it. Cerys, who was born with Down syndrome, took Learn to Swim lessons at a young age, started competing when she was 11, and joined the South Ayrshire Swim Team (SAST) para squad when it was formed in 2013.

Today, aged 22, Cerys is one of the top female swimmers in the UK with Down syndrome. She’s also one of only four Scottish athletes in the Down Syndrome Swimming Great Britain (DSSGB) team. In March, Cerys and the rest of the GB team competed in the 11th World Down Syndrome Swimming & Artistic Championships in Antalya, Turkey. They brought home a number of gold, silver and bronze medals and retained the World Championship ‘Best Team’ title they were awarded in Albufeira in 2022.

“Taking part in a world championship is special and I really enjoyed representing my country,” says Cerys, who lives in Ayr. “I feel very proud.” And so she should: not only did she win gold in the 200m freestyle X4 women’s relay (breaking their own world record by 30 seconds) and silver in the 100m freestyle X4 women’s relay, she also set new PB times for the 100m freestyle and 50m fly.

Naturally, Karen and Ewan are extremely proud of their daughter and her swimming achievements. Cerys also competed at the 5th Open European Down Syndrome International Swimming Organisation Swimming Championships in Sardinia in 2019, breaking the European record for the 50m freestyle X4 women’s relay and winning gold for her team. The same year, she received the ‘Inspiration in Sport’ Award at the Scottish Women in Sport Awards for her hard work and influence on the sports community.

“When Cerys was young we had no idea there were disability swimming events,” Karen says. “A teacher at mainstream lessons put us in touch with a lady who advised us about an event in Southampton for swimmers with Down syndrome only. This was Cerys’s first event, and she ended up being disqualified a few times because she was swimming too fast. “At that point, we knew she was going to do okay,” Karen laughs.

The benefits of competitive swimming have been far-reaching. “It has given Cerys a lot of discipline and a lot of life skills,” Karen says. “Due to her hard work, she’s had a lot of great opportunities. Like most parents, we are only too keen to help her attend these events and be the best she can be. Seeing Cerys competing and doing what she loves is a great reward for us.”

“Swimming means the world to me – it’s my life,” says Cerys, whose favourite stroke is freestyle (in all distances, but especially 400m). “I enjoy all parts of it, from training, galas and camps to socialising with other swimmers. I like seeing the same friends at every SAST session and welcoming new people into the para squad. I feel very lucky that swimming has taken me and my family all over the world to many different countries.”

“Cerys is a massive part of our club,” says James Jeffreys, Chairman of SAST. “Along with Laura and Emma [other para squad members] our para squad has achieved fantastic things, primarily through their own hard work along with their great support systems.”

As well as competing, Cerys assists at Learn to Swim lessons at the Citadel in Ayr and Prestwick pool. “I enjoy teaching so I can pass on the knowledge I have gained over the years,” she says. “I like to see the children progressing and enjoy swimming safely.”

When Cerys isn’t in the pool, she might be found on the dance floor. “I’ve enjoyed dancing since I was four years old,” she says. “I am especially proud to have qualified as a freestyle dance teacher. I enjoy teaching children to dance, taking part in our dance school’s annual summer show, and seeing everyone else performing. I qualified as a Zumba instructor during lockdown when I completed an online course. I don’t teach Zumba at the moment, but love attending weekly classes.”

Looking forward, Cerys’s swimming goals are to keep working on her overall fitness, gain more individual medals, and break more world records with the GB relay teams. She’s an inspiration to all young people who love swimming, but particularly anyone who has a disability. Sadly, it can be difficult for swimmers with Down syndrome to enter the para pathway.

“Cerys is an S14 (learning disability) classified swimmer, which allows her to enter para events,” says Karen. “However category S14 is the only category for swimmers with learning disabilities and this covers a huge range of disabilities.”

“There needs to be a fairer class for Down syndrome only,” says Cerys. “It’s a learning disability but it has physical features too, such as short stature and low muscle tone, etc. I hope changes will be made in the future to give people with Down syndrome a chance of competing at the Paralympics.”

Karen and Ewan share Cerys’s wish for a more even playing field in competitive swimming. “There are no swimmers with Down syndrome in the Paralympics later this year, which is sad,” Karen says.

“At grassroots level, swimming with a disability can be an almighty struggle, with limited competitions and opportunities to race,” says James. “It’s always special for us as a club when Cerys and the other para swimmers are with us at meets. I believe swimming is unique in the support it gets from volunteers but we still could be forming stronger links between our para and non-para swimmers at junior levels. That’s something SAST is committed to in the future. We all hope to see swimmers with Down syndrome compete at the Paralympics one day.”

In the meantime, there’s no stopping Cerys. “I hope to keep competing in S14 events to help prove that the difference in this class is huge,” she says.