Swimmer Spotlight - Helen Bull



Spotlight on: Inspirational Marathon Swimmer, Helen Bull

As it’s nearly time for Marathon Swims 2022 to return after an in-person 2-year hiatus, we thought it was a great time to look back on some very special interviews from Marathon Swims 2019. First up, we have the amazing Helen Bull who took part in not one, but two 10k swims across the weekend. At the time of interviewing Helen, she was the Aquatics Manager at the home of Marathon Swims, the London Aquatics Centre. She was also dealing with ongoing Cancer treatment. We were lucky enough to talk to Helen, a passionate swimmer, about her swimming experience and why she loves Marathon Swims so much!


This is your third Marathon Swims event. What does it mean to you to take part?

I really debated doing it this time because I haven't done the training, but I just thought give it a go, what’s the worst that could happen?! I made it by the skin of my teeth! For me, it’s always about trying to push things that bit further. My plan initially was to beat my times from last year, but I knew I wouldn’t as I haven’t been training. So then it became about completing the two 10k swims. Psychologically, I knew I took part last year, so if I could do it this year, it meant I hadn’t taken a step back.

How has your health impacted your swimming?

I was diagnosed with a form of lung cancer in 2007 and that obviously brings its challenges. I’ve been going through constant treatment, but you just have to get on with it. I’ve got full use of my legs, but I’ve got nerve damage as a result of the cancer, so when I go to walk, my legs fold under me. It’s really frustrating for someone who used to run marathons. I didn’t care about losing my hair but dealing with a wheelchair has been hard. My life is in the wheelchair now and I struggle with it if I’m honest, but I got to the point where I could sit at home feeling miserable about it or I could just get on and live.


Tell us about your swimming career so far.

I was a national swimmer from 1993 – 1995 and when I first retired from competitions, I was a swimming teacher. I didn’t stay in the industry for long though because I got a job at Disneyworld in Florida. My career has since taken me around the world. Up until September 2018, I was an HR Manager for a cruise company. Dealing with cancer, makes you not sweat the small stuff and I realised I didn’t want to be in a corporate environment anymore, so I took redundancy.

I thought I’d take some time out and spent time training at a local swimming pool. The swim school manager knew about my previous experience as a swimming teacher and suggested I should return to teaching. I got a job at the local leisure centre and wanted to renew my swimming qualifications.

In a twist of fate, my qualification courses were here at London Aquatics Centre. I came here, did my qualifications and on the final course, got talking to the management here who asked if I’d thought about teaching swimming at LAC. I love this place, there’s nothing else like it, so I went through the recruitment process and started teaching one day a week to see how I would cope, especially with the commute from Sussex. I fell in love with the place even more, if that’s possible!


And now you’re the Aquatics Manager at London Aquatics Centre!

Yes! The business decided they needed to bring in a manager and with my commercial experience, I was put forward for the role. I have responsibility for the whole pool programme, anything wet side, swim school, diving, Tom Daly dive academy and dive London. I have a team of Aquatics Officers under me. It all happened really quickly! I wasn’t looking for a ‘grown-up’ job again, but here I am. I just love swimming so it’s meant to be. I wake up each morning, excited to go to work.

On a normal weekday, we’ve got Tom Daly and 10 Team GB high-performance divers, we’ve got Para GB training, public swimming in the main lanes and school lessons. Kids come here from really deprived local boroughs and it all blends really well together. That’s what makes it so special, there’s nowhere in the UK like this. It doesn’t matter if you’re at that top-end elite team GB level, or a school child learning to swim, it’s for everyone.


What’s it been like returning to Swimming as a career?

I was really conscious of being a swimming teacher in a wheelchair. In the water, I can do everything, you wouldn’t know I was in a wheelchair. But poolside, I felt parents were looking at me with nervousness about me teaching their children, so I thought I should get a lifeguard qualification. Turns out, no one in the UK has ever been a qualified lifeguard in a wheelchair, it just hasn’t happened. In April 2019, I was the first wheelchair user to get the NPLQ. To pass it I had to do a 5m depth test and get a body from the bottom of the pool! I wanted to take the next step, so in July I did my lifeguard trainer and assessor course and again, I was the first wheelchair user to pass that. Nothing has held me back. Working and commuting are tiring, but management here are aware of my health and the LAC is completely accessible, there’s nowhere in the building I can’t get to.


What do you think Marathon Swims brings to the swimming community?

This event brings people together. I don’t think it matters what ability you are, you have people who start on the 1k and over the years progress. It doesn’t matter what speed you are, everyone supports everyone else and it facilitates that opportunity to challenge yourself. You challenge yourself differently at this event versus if you rocked up to a public swim, you tend to raise your game at an event like this. Stats tell us that swimming participation is, unfortunately, going down and families don’t swim together like they used to. We need to turn that around and events like this prove that swimming is accessible for everyone.

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