Para-swimming star Leo McCrea is a man on a mission. Earlier this month, and for the second consecutive year, he returned from the British National Para Swimming Championships with seven medals. The 14-year-old, who competes in the S6 category, stepped up to the Under-17s level and won three golds, three silvers and one bronze while producing seven personal bests.
The Poole-based athlete was born with Achondroplasia, a form of restricted growth which effects his arms and legs, and has been particularly inspired to pursue his sporting dreams by the story of Ellie Simmonds. The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games are very much in Leo’s sights – when he’ll be just 16-years-old – as he gets set to join the British World Class Para-Swimming Academy squad in January.
You’ve just tasted outstanding success at the British National Para Swimming Championships with a return of seven medals. Which events did they come in?
“The Championships attract the best swimmers from around the UK including multiple Paralympic and world champions. I competed in seven events and came away with seven personal best performances. I am now competing in the 14-17 years category and was able to strike gold three times as well as picking up three silvers and a bronze. My golds were in the 400m freestyle, 200m individual medley and 100m backstroke, silvers in the 100m freestyle, 100m breaststroke and 50m freestyle, and bronze in the 50m butterfly.”
What have been your major achievements over the last year in addition to last weekend?
“Last December, I qualified for the British National Para Swimming Championships 2016 in Manchester, aged just 13, where I won seven gold medals in all seven of my events for Under-14s in the S6 swimming category. In April, I qualified for the British International Open Para Swim Championships in Sheffield, where I achieved five personal bests in all five of my races.
“In June, I qualified for the National Junior Para Swimming Champs in Sunderland, where I then won another six gold medals in the Under-16s category. Later in August, whilst still just 13, I competed in the English Nationals Open Swimming Championships in Sheffield, where I managed to achieve five personal bests. I was the youngest finalist in four senior finals and I just missed out on a medal in 200 individual medley by coming fourth. This was the first time I had reached a senior final!
“This success was the stand-out moment for me in 2017, as it also brought me selection to the British World Class Para-Swimming Academy squad where I will train from January 2018.”
How pleased were you about selection for the British World Class Para-Swimming Academy? What difference will it make now?
“This will be a massive step forward for me because the difference between the British compared to the English is that there is more coaching and this will be a massive improvement to try and make me into an even better swimmer. Not only that, there will be more swimming camps, such as in Manchester as they have specialised facilities at the new British Para Swimming Headquarters.
“I am certain the World Class Programme’s extra coaching and educational advice will be the best way to help me to achieve my goals. Extra training, especially in 50 metre pools, with specialised stroke techniques specifically for S6, and experienced coaches who have already dealt with S6 swimmers, will identify my weaknesses and help find ways to improve each stroke.
“I also believe that more land training, with special equipment that is safe for me to use and catered especially for S6 swimmers, will make me stronger. I am also sure that specialised diet programs and extra nutrition advice will help me to make the right food choices.”
How did you originally get into swimming? Was there anyone who particularly inspired you? Or a specific sporting event?
“I always loved to swim from a young age. One year I competed at the Dwarf Sport Games in Birmingham where there were a range of sports you could compete in for fun against other people with dwarfism of all ages. I competed in the swimming gala. The mum of Ellie Simmonds was watching and I was nervous. I had swum before but only widths and that year I was swimming 25 metres.
“I won every race, but not only that, I was also presented the Margaret Scott Trophy for the most outstanding swimmer. To round it off, Ellie Simmonds’ mum came up to me and said, “you need to join a swimming club”. It was unbelievable. Ellie has the same impairment as me and had already won Paralympic gold medals. I was lucky to first meet her at my first Dwarf Games, when I was only eight-years old, and I was amazed how modest and friendly she was to everyone, despite all her wonderful achievements.
“Later I was able to watch her at the Paralympics in London in 2012, when she got her world record and won another gold medal in the 400m freestyle. It gave me butterflies in my tummy. This encouraged me to pursue my dreams. If she can do it, I can too. I often watch her fantastic 400m freestyle from 2012 and her interview on YouTube, as it gives me an amazing feeling to swim faster and push me to my limits.”
What does your typical training week look like?
“My normal weekly training with Bournemouth Collegiate School consists of six sessions in the 25m pool and three sessions of land training. In addition, I need to attend weekend training camps and long course sessions, in a 50m pool, in Bath and Millfield. In order to qualify for national events, I must also obtain rankings which require me to always attend club championships, county competitions and regional events at weekends.
“In order to reach my goals, I am always focused and work hard in training by giving 110%. As well as pool training, I also do extra strength and conditioning exercises both at home and in the gym, to help me get physically stronger when swimming in the pool, and prevent injury.”
What other commitments do you have outside of swimming? Are you still studying and where? How do you find balancing everything?
“I am still studying at school at Bournemouth Collegiate School in Bournemouth where I’m in year nine. Balancing my school work and swimming is fine at the moment as I manage to combine homework and training well. I also love to play football as that’s another favourite sport of mine. Recently, I have also taken up fishing, as it relaxes me especially during competitions.”
How big a support are your family and friends? How have they helped you since you started in the sport? How much of a difference has SportsAid made to you?
“My friends and family are very supportive. I don’t think I would be where I am right now if it wasn’t for them driving to competitions and training. They are very committed to the sport and to me of course. My parents have to take time off from work to be able to accompany me to competitions which are often far away and require them to be there for an overnight stay as I am not 18 years old.
“My parents also help me by paying the entry fees for my competitions. There are usually seven events I enter per competition, with each costing between £5 and £7. I attend 14 competitions per year, making a total of £700 in entry fees alone. This does not include any training camps, overnight accommodation, travel, sportswear or equipment.
“When in need of an overnight stay, to keep up physical development and performance at these events, I require cooked, nutritious breakfasts and dinners in addition to the hotel costs. The financial burden on my parents is greatly reduced by the assistance of SportsAid.
“During my daily training, I wear a swimming training suit, hat and goggles, which need to be replaced regularly due to normal wear and tear. During competitions, I have to switch between wearing two expensive regulation competition swimming suits, as well as needing two competitive goggles, as one is spare in case of damage.
“Without my family’s financial help and time, I would not be able to achieve my ambitions. SportsAid has given us a real and true opportunity to help assist me in becoming a role model for my peers, and also realising my goal to represent Great Britain at swimming.”
Finally, what are your ultimate ambitions in the sport?
“My next ambition is to get into the British Podium Potential Squad. My long term ambition is to improve every year and hopefully be selected to represent Great Britain. It’s my dream to be able to get into the Paralympics, not only in Tokyo 2020 but also Paris 2024. As well as that I would like to compete for Britain in the Commonwealth Games, and other internationals such as the Europeans and the World Games.”
What will you do to #SupportTheNext generation of British sporting heroes? SportsAid needs your help to ensure talented athletes like Leo can continue receiving the backing they rely on. You can make a regular donation to the charity and have a significant impact on the country’s sporting future.