A chance meeting with a Paralympic gold medal winner was the inspiration for star Mansfield swimmer Charlotte Henshaw.
Now the 29-year-old is preparing for her third Paralympic Games – in Rio in September – and is determined to make the most of the occasion.
“I was about nine when I went to a multi-sports weekend in Swindon and met a Paralympian swimmer who had just won gold in Atlanta (1996 Paralympic Games),” said Charlotte.
“She had brought her medal to show everyone. I remember she put it on me and I thought maybe one day I could go to a Paralympic Games myself.
“That’s when I became aware of the Paralympics for the first time. I just wanted to go to one games, so to now be going to a third is more than I thought I would ever do.”
Charlotte first shot into the local sporting limelight in 2008 when she claimed an unexpected fourth place at the Beijing games as the town’s golden girl, Becky Adlington, grabbed worldwide headlines for her double Olympic gold in the pool.
Four years later Charlotte, who by then had become a national face herself following world and European success, claimed a silver medal at the London Paralympics - coming within a fingernail’s width of the gold medal.
Now the former All Saints’ RC School student, who reclaimed her European SB6 100m breaststroke title in April, is training hard for this September’s sporting extravaganza in Brazil, where she is a strong medal hope for the area along with Ashfield training partner Ollie Hynd.
The two – part of a 31-strong GB Paralympic swimming team heading to Rio - had the competition pool at Mansfield’s Water Meadows swimming complex named after them, and Ollie’s Paralympic gold medallist brother, Sam, because of their multi-medal success over recent years and Charlotte said: “Obviously everyone wants to win a Paralympic gold, but I try not to put too much pressure on myself in terms of medal colour.
“So many things can happen in a Paralympic Games. People can emerge who you have not raced before and can take you by surprise. You have got to be prepared for that.
“I just want to go and race as quickly as I possibly can. My ideal would be to race a personal best in the final. Then I would know I would have done absolutely everything I could have done to try and win gold.
“If that happened that would be amazing, but as long as I can leave the pool completely happy with how I have performed that would be a successful competition.
“Last year at the World Championships I came second, but I broke the European record twice that day so I knew I had done everything in my power to win gold. On the day someone was better than me and I walked away happy with how I had performed and the medal I got.
“I want to come out on a high again (in Rio). Whether that brings a gold or not, I will be happy to have done my best... but of course I want to win gold.”
Charlotte, whose legs were amputated above the knee when she was 18-months-old, started swimming as a baby.
“I had always been to the pool from being a baby and then I wanted to learn to swim as a lifeskill,” she said.
“I went on to join Sherwood Swimming Club and it moved from being lessons to a bit more of a hobby... and then the rest followed.”
After that chance meeting with the Atlanta gold medallist, Charlotte switched more of her attention to swimming as a main hobby.
At Sherwood she was already training with award-winning coach Glen Smith – who remains her coach today – and then progressed along the county’s swimming ranks, joining the Nova Centurion club and moving through its development, B and A squads.
Charlotte, who first represented Great Britain aged 16, had around six years under Glen’s guidance and returned to him after four years at Stirling University, where she studied psychology and sports studies.
“He is so passionate about what he does,” she said. “He has had a lot of experience with Paralympic swimmers over the years and I suppose learned the ropes with me, Callum Lawson and Sam Hynd.
“Glenn was very willing to learn, adapt and change. Now it is more of a partnership between me, Ollie (Hynd) and Glenn, rather than him telling us what to do.”
Charlotte trains six days a week and has Sundays off. She has eight two-hour periods in the pool as well as gym, psychology and physio sessions – using the middle of the day to recover.
“As I have got older I have had to be mindful of recovery,” she said. “My shoulders aren’t as young as they were. It is really important to recover so that when I am in the pool I can do what I need to do.”
A setback two years ago has proved to be an added spur for the swimmer and her coach.
In 2014 she was hospitalised by a leg infection that meant she missed major competition (the European Championships) for the only time since she broke into the GB Paralympic team in 2008.
“I was geared up to swim well that year so I was disappointed, but it kind of helped me to come back in 2015 and made me more determined to do what I knew I was capable of. We did quite a bit of tweaking, it was a massive learning curve for myself and Glen.
“We managed to hit it right last summer and that made a good springboard for this year. Last summer I was in the best place I have ever been physically and mentally and that set me up well coming into a Paralympic year, feeling confident in what we are doing and the work we have done towards September.”
As well as winning silver at last year’s World Championships, Charlotte broke the European record three times in as many weeks and set new records in the 50m and 200m breaststroke.
She described those three weeks as a massive positive curve after the disappointment of 2014.
“I had gone five years without doing a pb (personal best),” she said, “I had started to forget what that felt like. To do it three times in three weeks and have such a very strong summer was a huge boost and is still something that keeps me going now. That was very special.
“I am in a better place now than I was last year and still have the summer to come. This time last year I wasn’t as quick as I am now, yet come the major championships I did well. I still have three months to try and move things on more ahead of Rio.”
Another memorable career highlight was claiming her first world record in 2010 from fellow Paralympian, teammate and friend Liz Johnson.
Charlotte will spend the next three months training hard and taking part in a few races to test out her race skill before setting off for Brazil.
“Everything will be pretty much the same,” she said. “Just hard graft and tweaking a few things until not long before we go to Rio, when we will ease back and rest up. Then it will be a case of getting yourself fresh and in the right mental state to race.”
Charlotte thought Rio would be another incredible experience. “Every time I have raced for Paralympics GB it has been special,” she said. “There is that extra something that you can’t describe. I am looking forward to Rio as I haven’t been to Brazil before. I am sure they will put on a great show.
“Paralympic sports are now a lot more popular than in Beijing eight years ago. Hopefully that will continue and we will get a lot of people watching us.
“It makes a huge difference having a crowd there, whether they are predominantly British or not. We are used to most of our meets being in front of small crowds. It makes it feel bigger when people are packing the stands around you stood on the block.
“We always have amazing support from the British friends and family. There will be a lot of people there supporting us, which is great.”
Charlotte thanked her sponsors, including Solo Sports, which supplies Arena training equipment and racing suits. She also praised Mansfield District Council for its continued support.
“They help with time we need for training,” she said. “It is a huge support and nice to have that from home. Ollie and I appreciate that.
“Naming the pool after us (at Water Meadows), the place we have trained at for a long time, meant a lot. I know they backed Rebecca (Adlington) a lot and it was nice to be put alongside that and be treated equally. It was lovely.”