ELAINE Barrett clutches the much-prized Athens Olympic gold medal in her hand. It is a medal she has never seen.

But, as she reads the Braille inscription on it there is no mistaking her pride.

For this is one more achievement in a remarkable life which started off with a massive disadvantage.

Elaine was born prematurely, when her eyes had not developed properly.

She had a small amount of sight, but so little that she was registered blind from an early age. Then in 1997, this gradually disappeared to leave her with none.

Her disability, however, has not hampered a remarkable swimming career - winning Olympic and European medals and breaking world records.

Now 27 and living in Little Hulton, she embarked last year on a different kind of challenge: studying at Bolton Community College and planning a working career.

Elaine's story started in Hackney, London, as one of a family of 10.

She went to the visually impaired unit of a mainstream secondary school and started attending her local swimming club at the age of 11.

In the water, the athletic youngster had no disability - but she did have aptitude, which was quickly spotted by a coach there.

The swimming club closed down, but the coach continued to teach her.

And when Elaine took part in the London Youth Games in 1989 for the first time, she developed a real taste for competition. Her face lights up as she recalls that time: "It was great - I really enjoyed it!'

That event signalled a turning point. Swimming is a notoriously demanding sport in terms of training, but she wanted to do well and was prepared to put in the hours each day, arranging her life around training and competing.

This was rewarded when Elaine was chosen to swim for England in 1991 at the European Games in Barcelona, starting an international career which saw her compete in a host of countries.

She broke the European record for the 100m butterfly in Rome, won medals at the World Championships in Malta, got two silvers in the breast stroke at the Paralympic Games in Atlanta and added "a couple of golds' in the World Championships in Madrid.

She took part in team events, too, succeeding in freestyle competition thanks to all-round stroke skills. And all the time setting, and breaking, British records in her disciplines.

One of the highlights of her sporting career so far was winning gold in the 100m breast stroke at the Athens Olympics last year. "That was cool!' she says with typical understatement.

Even in the paralympic field Elaine's achievements are outstanding, but, like any successful sportsperson, it is all down to hard work and dedication.

She moved from London to the North-west to continue her coaching at the Manchester Aquatic Centre, where she is a regular each morning at 6am for an hour's training, then again later for an hour each afternoon.

She goes to the gym three times a week to build up strength and stamina, and to keep her already lithe frame toned.

"I eat fairly sensibly anyway, but I don't starve myself and I have occasional treats,' she explains, although you suspect an iron will from an athlete plainly with the drive to succeed.

The sheer logistics of being a blind swimmer would certainly daunt the average person.

Imagine diving headfirst into total darkness - this is something Elaine does every time she trains or competes.

"You just get used to it, so I don't worry too much . . . although my friend Dervis did smash his face on the bottom once,' she says.

Stroke count is vital for training in the pool, and in competition there is also a team member to tap her on the head to signal the turn, or tap her hand to change strokes in the freestyle events.

Competitors are also led to the poolside by aides and, for the category that Elaine swims in, blacked out goggles are worn by swimmers to ensure that all are competing equally.

Elaine, however, has often swum in different categories, and thus at a disadvantage. "But I did OK,' she comments. In other words, she won more medals.

She is also realistic about sport as a career, and is currently taking an RSA word processing qualification at Bolton Community College on Manchester Road where specialist tuition and facilities allow many visually impaired students to learn computer skills.

Teacher Ayleen Greening is pleased with Elaine's progress - "She's doing well," is her verdict.

Here, Elaine works with headphones which simultaneously translate her typing into aural words, to ensure she corrects mistakes.

"Eventually, I would perhaps like to study more and go into physiotherapy or sports massage," she adds.

College principal Alison Bowes commented: "We are very proud of Elaine and her achievements both in and out of the pool.

"Her success in Athens, and that of our other Olympic champion Amir Khan, means that Bolton Community College is developing quite a reputation for supporting international athletes!"

As for Elaine, she is obviously enjoying this course and fits it into her busy lifestyle with all the training, although she still has time for social outings with friends.

Fellow Bolton students have been previously unaware of this unusual sporting star in their midst, but her quietly outstanding track record has started to catch their attention.

As we take photographs in the Excel gym at the College, one man exercising there comes over to shake her hand.

"I've never met a gold medallist before - well done!"

And the shy Olympian gives a smile of real pleasure.


The first Games for athletes with a disability were held in 1948 in Stoke Mandeville, England. On the day of the Opening Ceremony of the 1948 Olympic Games in London, the Stoke Mandeville Games were launched and the first competition for wheelchair athletes was organised

The first Paralympic Games were held in 1960 in Rome, and featured 400 athletes from 23 countries. They competed in eight sports, six of which are still included in the Paralympic Competition Programme (archery, swimming, Fencing, Basketball, Table tennis and Athletics)

In 1976, the first Paralympic Winter Games took place in Sweden

In 1988, the Seoul Paralympic Summer Games marked a significant change, as both Olympic and Paralympic Games were held at the same venues. Since then the Paralympic Games have always taken place at the same venues as the Olympic Games

By 2000 more than 4,000 athletes from 127 countries were involved