At the British Summer Championships in July, Tully Kearney MBE won Gold in both the MC 50m Freestyle and 100m Freestyle for her Loughborough University Swimming team debut. Tully retained her titles from 2019 when she won Gold at the World Para Swimming Championships in the S5 50m Freestyle, 100m Freestyle and 200m Freestyle, and she won Silver in the MC 100m Freestyle and Bronze in the MC 50m Freestyle at the Para Swimming World Series German Open/IMD Berlin in April. After withdrawing from the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games due to injury, Tully made her Paralympic debut at Tokyo 2020 last year, becoming the Paralympic champion in the S5 100m Freestyle, and she also won Silver in the S5 200m Freestyle. When returning from the Paralympics, Tully was a guest on The Last Leg and Channel 4 studio with Clare Balding, and she attended the ParalympicsGB Homecoming Concert. In 2019, Tully won the Disability Sports Award at the Pride of Sports Awards, and this year, she was awarded an MBE which she will collect in November, and she was a baton bearer for the Queen’s Baton Relay, as well as being a volunteer at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham this year. Currently, Tully is targeting the World Championships in 2023 and the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games, and away from swimming, she trains and competes in frame running. We recently spoke to Tully about retaining her titles at the World Para Swimming Championships this year, becoming the Paralympic champion at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games and adapting her training during the pandemic.
In July, you competed at the British Summer Championships, which saw you win Gold in the MC 50m Freestyle and 100m Freestyle, what did you enjoy most about your races?
I really enjoyed being part of the Loughborough University Swimming team for the first time and how much support I got from the other swimmers in the team.
Can you tell us about your time competing at the World Para Swimming Championships in Madeira this year, where you won Gold in the S5 50m Freestyle, 100m Freestyle and 200m Freestyle and retained your titles from 2019?
Going into the World Championships I was quite nervous as an injury had disrupted my training going into it and I had moved to train at Loughborough University leading up to Worlds. I knew I had a good chance of retaining my three World titles if I stuck to my race plans but I really wasn’t expecting to be breaking a World Record – never mind three – so I was very happy with my performances, especially with how well I executed my race plans.
What was it like competing at the Para Swimming World Series German Open/IMD Berlin event in April, 11 years after making your international debut for Great Britain there, and how was it winning Silver in the MC 100m Freestyle and Bronze in the MC 50m Freestyle?
Going back to Berlin after 11 years was really special and it was a really enjoyable event for me that I learnt a lot from. Getting a Silver and Bronze with a World Record time was incredible as I wasn’t expecting to be able to swim that fast that early in the season.
How did you find the experience making your Paralympic debut at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games and what was it like staying in the athletes village?
Going to my first Paralympic Games was a surreal experience but it was quite strange with no spectators allowed at the venues! It was tough racing without a crowd cheering but it was still a very cool experience and I loved being In the athlete village. It was amazing to win both my Gold and Silver medals and especially breaking the World Record for the 100m Freestyle which I didn’t expect to do! It was a sustainable site so everything inside the rooms was made from cardboard. The food hall was out of this world!
What was it like finding out you’d been selected for the team and how did you feel becoming the Paralympic champion in the S5 100m Freestyle and winning Silver in the S5 200m Freestyle?
It was a dream come true for me to get to a Games after having to withdraw from the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games two weeks before I was due to fly out due to an injury triggering a huge progression in my Dystonia. I was disappointed with my 200m Freestyle swim as I didn’t follow my race plan, got too excited, went out too fast and couldn’t sustain the pace, I was beaten to Gold by such a small margin. It made me even more determined that no one was going to beat me in the 100m Freestyle the next day. I knew what I had to do and went out and did it!
How was it being part of The Last Leg, appearing as a guest in the Channel 4 studio with Clare Balding and attending the ParalympicsGB Homecoming Concert?
I love The Last Leg team – especially Adam Hills, so to appear on the show several times was such an amazing experience. Adam is not only so clever and funny, but he’s actually a really lovely person too! It was great to meet Clare and I have seen her a few times since then – she is such a consummate professional in the studio and it was amazing to watch her work. Plus, she has a genuine interest in her guests. The ParalympicsGB Homecoming Concert was fabulous – especially because we were able to be together after having to follow such strict COVID guidelines prior to and during the Paralympic Games.
How has it been getting back to competitions after the pandemic stopped them and how was it adapting your training during the pandemic?
During the first lockdown, I returned to the family home in Aldridge Village near Birmingham. I purchased an above ground pool and trained by being attached to a bungee cord held by the fence post with my coach on Zoom. We bought a hot tub as I could no longer access the physio I rely on several times a week. I attached my frame runner to a treadmill and bought gym equipment second hand for my garage and, again, accessed S & C sessions via Zoom. It was hard at times because I was classed as ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ so was told to isolate so I wasn’t even allowed to exercise outside of the home. After the first lockdown, elite athletes were given dispensation to return to their training centres. I had to make the difficult decision to return to my apartment in Manchester and only left the house for training sessions and my university course was all delivered virtually. It was lonely and hard at times, but I brought my cat Mistletoe to Manchester to keep me company and I got through it. I was quite scared being classed as extremely vulnerable, but knew that I would not achieve my dream of getting to a Paralympic Games if I did not return – there’s only so much training you can do attached to a bungee cord in your garden!
What do you remember most from competing at your first European Para Swimming Championships in 2018 and winning Gold in the S5 100m Freestyle and Bronze in the S5 50m Freestyle?
That competition was very hard for me as it was my first international competition back but I was up for classification review and initially was classed up so missed some of my races. It was hard for the classifiers to understand Dystonia as it presents quite differently to Cerebral Palsy (which I also have). Luckily, during the competition, it was realised that I was classed incorrectly and I was put back down to an S5 near the end of the competition. On the day of the 50m Freestyle, I had had to do many max effort swims as part of my classification so going into my race in the evening was tough and I was disappointed to only get Bronze but I was absolutely exhausted! After some rest, I was over the moon to get Gold in the 100m Freestyle. The classifiers’ understanding of Dystonia has certainly moved on since that time, which is good news for all athletes with this condition.
Can you tell us about some of the other competitions you’ve been part of over the years and some of the stand-out highlights of your career so far?
The highlight of my career has been returning to swimming after a sudden, unexpected and severe progression in my Dystonia at the end of 2015. This meant I had to take almost a year out of the pool and basically learn to swim again with a much greater level of impairment than before. This culminated in me becoming a Paralympic Champion and being awarded an MBE.
How does it feel finding out you’ve broken a World Record?
There is nothing like that feeling! It’s a surreal yet unbelievable feeling.
Where does your love of swimming come from and is it something you always wanted to do professionally?
My mum was a National Level swimmer and wanted both myself and my brother to be able to swim for safety reasons. My brother used to swim competitively and I used to spend a lot of time poolside watching him. Eventually his coach asked me if I wanted to join in and it all went from there! My brother eventually retired in order to play water polo at a high level but I carried on. I always found dry land sports so difficult and swimming was something I was good at and felt free! I just love the water and love to race!
What is a typical training day for you and how often do you train?
I am at the aquatics centre five days a week and my training consists of pool sessions, strength and conditioning as well as physio and soft tissue sessions to help with recovery/injury prevention. I don’t train in the pool every day so each day looks a little different. I also do a lot of frame running to support my cardiovascular fitness as the progression in my condition means that I cannot do the same amount of pool sessions as I did before. Cross training in this way means that I am able to maintain a high level of fitness and remain competitive without having to train more than my body can cope with in the pool which results in injuries and setbacks.
Also training and competing in frame running, can you tell us about this?
Frame running is an adapted sport for people who cannot functionally run and rely on aids for mobility and balance.
A frame runner is a three wheeled frame where the athlete’s body is supported by a saddle and body plate which takes their weight. The athlete propels against the frame using their feet, and steers using the mobility within their hands and/or arms. I started frame running in 2018 as I was out of the water for a period of time following surgery as a way to keep some level of fitness and for my mental health. I realised how much it helps with my fitness level and it’s now become an integral part of my training to help me be fit enough to break World Records without having to put as much load thorough my shoulders by doing more pool sessions.
You were a volunteer at this year’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, what was this like?
Volunteering was a great experience and allowed me to see the other side of the sport and just how much goes into the behind the scenes running of big events, something I had never thought about before! I didn’t realise how much work goes into a Field of Play volunteer role but I really enjoyed it and I now have added admiration for allocate volunteers who make all these events possible!
Can you tell us about being a baton bearer for the Queen’s Baton Relay?
I was honoured to be selected as one of the baton bearers for the Queen’s Baton Relay. I was pleasantly surprised at how many people showed up to watch and it was an amazing experience that I will never forget.
Earlier this year, you received an MBE for services to swimming, how did it feel being awarded the title?
It was a huge honour to be awarded an MBE by the Queen and I will be attending my investiture in November, which I am really excited about.
What was it like winning the Disability Sports Award at the 2019 Pride of Sports Awards?
I was shocked when I won the Disability Sports Award at the 2019 Pride of Sports Awards. It was such an honour to have even been nominated and I still don’t know who nominated me!
How do you like to spend your time away from sports?
I like spending my downtime with friends, family or doing one of my hobbies like sewing or playing the steel pan drums. I’ve learnt over the years that it’s very important to have good balance between sport and other activities.
Do you have any competitions coming up that you are in training for or that you are targeting?
I have a few competitions soon, but the main one I’m focusing on this season is the World Championships in Manchester that start on 31st July 2023. Obviously, we are now not far away from the Paris Paralympic Games in 2024, so that is the major target.
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