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For more than a decade, Alice Tai had never spent more than three weeks out of the water so after the best part of a year on the side lines, the Paralympic champion is swimming into the unknown.
Now 23, Tai missed out on last year’s Tokyo Games because of an elbow injury that led to four surgeries in 12 months including the amputation of her right foot in January.
That has had a dramatic impact on her everyday life but has also involved almost learning to swim again.
So, as she prepares for Birmingham 2022 and the chance to add to the Commonwealth gold and silver medals she won in Gold Coast four years ago, Tai admits she has no idea what to expect.
With the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games set to inspire people and communities across the country this summer, Tai hopes sharing her story will give others motivation to get involved in sport and turn their dreams into reality.
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She explained: “I’ve never had that much time out of the pool. Since I was ten, the longest I’ve had out is two or three weeks, so to have pretty much almost a year out of the pool completely was weird.
“My first session back, I felt so imbalanced, especially on backstroke where you are supposed to rotate evenly, I found that I was over-rotating and couldn’t get back. So, I worked with my coach and have had to swim that a lot flatter so I’m not rotating as much.
“Then you have things like dives and turns, the push-off on my left leg isn’t great so I’m still working on that. But it’s been nice to get back in. I like learning new things and I’ve had to re-learn how to swim completely.
“Even back in 2019, I would say I was at 80 percent capacity. I had an injury in my elbow which kickstarted the process of looking into amputation because crutches weren’t an option anymore.
“Since then, I’ve not been able to train properly. In the last year I have had four surgeries, both arms, my amputation and then the wound revision (in March following a fall).
“So, I don’t think I’m race-fit yet. I’ll go in and give it my best shot, but I don’t have the fitness to go out like crazy in the race and hold on for the last 20 metres, so I’ll have to be a bit smarter with my racing rather than gutsy.”
In her absence from the squad in Tokyo last year, Tai took up the opportunity to work as a pundit on Channel 4’s coverage of the Games, earning rave reviews for her work.
But as impressive as she was in the role, her heart was breaking as she watched her rivals compete for Paralympic glory.
Now back in training, Tai made her return to international action at the recent World Championships in Madeira, winning a silver medal in the 100m freestyle.
In Birmingham, her focus will be the 100m backstroke, her preferred event, but she is keen to keep a lid on expectations after less-than-ideal build-up.
“I don’t have the base fitness to taper off so I can’t wind down from really hard training to the easier stuff,” added Tai, who is one of over than 1,100 elite athletes on UK Sport’s National Lottery-funded World Class Programme, allowing her to train full time, have access to the world’s best coaches and benefit from pioneering technology, science, and medical support.
“It’s all been very level so I’m just maintaining that. I just want to enjoy it; we’ve got a couple of years until the Paralympics come around, so I want to be 100 percent ready for that. This is a nice step to see where I am.”
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