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By Rachel Steinberg
Scott Quin first took to swimming like a cat to water. Which is to say, not very well at all.
The Scotsman was ten and still sporting water wings when his family went on holiday to Great Yarmouth. So excited was the Edinburgh lad that he jumped straight into the pool—without one very crucial thing.
“I forgot my arm bands,” he said, remembering the moment he hit the water and realised what he’d done. “The panic started to sink in. It was my oldest brother who saved me a wee bit from drowning.”
Most of us recoil from our childhood mishaps, leading to stubborn refusals to get back on bikes, skis, horses – whichever sports we spilled from – ever again. But Scott Quin isn’t most of us.
“From there on,” said the 31-year-old, “that’s when I really took the passion of what I wanted to develop in myself.
“It’s more so the fact of growing up with a disability, my parents always got told, ‘oh, your son won’t be able to do this, your son won’t be able to do that.’
“When you’re at school, you see guys doing different sports, you see gymnasts doing somersaults, backflips, my brothers playing rugby through their teenage years, and I’m getting told things like ‘you can’t do this’.
“So me finding a love of swimming, I can just be like, ‘I’m good at it. And I can show it’. And that’s where my character comes out.”
Quin isn’t just ‘good’ at swimming—he’s exceptional. Paralympic podium great, in fact, powering his way to S14 100m breaststroke silver, and a Games record, on his debut five years ago in Rio. And maintaining his place as one of over 1,000 Olympians and Paralympians in receipt of National Lottery funding which enables him to train full time and benefit from world class facilities, technology, coaching and support teams.
So how does one go from nearly drowning to defending a Paralympic medal in Tokyo?
Grit, determination, mentors who became lifelong friends—and a lucky pair of pink boxer shorts.
Let’s rewind. Quin, a twin, was born with Crouzon Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder in which the seams between a baby’s skull bones close early, affecting the development of the face and eye sockets.
He underwent multiple surgeries and spent much of his childhood, sometimes entire days, in hospital.
“When I was born,” said the affable athlete, “the doctor said to my mum and dad ‘your son’s only got a three percent chance to live. We don’t really have any hope for him.
“So the way I look at it, is he says that to my mum and dad, so that means that 97% of me, for the rest of my life, is just pure luck.
“And to make that extra three percent, from 97 to 100, 100 per cent is what you’re going to see and what you’ll get from me.”
Remember the number three. It comes back later.
Quin grew up watching the Paralympics and reckons if he wasn’t a full-fledged fan when the Games were in Sydney - the year of the Great Floaty-Forgetting Incident - he was definitely hooked by 2004, when fellow Scot Jim Anderson won four gold medals in the Athens Paralympic pool.
“I remember seeing him, and obviously [he’s] a wheelchair user,” he said.
“And I was like, I can walk. I can do everything. If he can swim up and down, I’m sure I can get out of armbands.
“I said to my mum and dad, ‘I’d like to try that’ and they got the ball rolling.
“I’ll always remember watching Jim coming away with his medals, and I said to my parents, ‘that’s Jim Anderson, he goes to the pool where you drop me off. That’s unreal.’”
Don McFarlane was Quin’s first coach at Loanhead Dolphins.
“I thought he was a nice lad, quite bubbly, but very petite and not carrying a lot of weight,” said McFarlane.
It took “about four or five years” for Quin to develop his technique, during which time his coaches determined breaststroke would be his main event.
Quin, who still weighs in at two or even three stone less than some of his competition, might not have looked like a typical champion. But, said McFarlane, “his enthusiasm and his commitment to swimming was second to none.”
“And that helped him develop over the years. When he got to a level that we felt we couldn’t really do any more for him, we had a meeting and decided we would try to get him into mainstream swimming.”
He moved to Warrender Swim Centre, which has benefitted from National Lottery investment, where he trained with fellow Paralympian James Clegg. Quin is classified as an S14 athlete, someone with an intellectual impairment, so McFarlane had concerns about how he’d adjust.
“The challenge,” explained Quin, who recently moved to the University of Edinburgh to train, “is I get in the water, but the hard part is for me to remember basic things.
“My coaches will tell me the warm-up, they’ll tell me the middle of the warm-up and tell me the end part of the warm-up, but by the time they get to the end part, I’m like, ‘so what was the first part you said?’”
Though Quin joined Warrender at 15, his times weren’t fast enough to stay competitive with kids his age, so he and Clegg raced 10 and 11-year-olds.
“That was quite a big challenge at the time,” recalled McFarlane, who Quin still messages for advice (“he was my coach, now he’s a friend for life”).
“But Scott being Scott, he took it on board and he just got on with it.”
Quin got his first big break in 2011 when he booked a place to the Europeans in Berlin, where he finished fifth. This is the bit where the boxers come in.
He said: “When I qualified I had my lucky pink boxers on that day. It could have been any colour of boxers, and I just thought to myself, I’ll just keep these from now on for racing, going up to the block, and just kind of showing my character a wee bit.
“I’m passionate, I love the sport, yes you’ve got to be serious because it’s a job, but I like to keep myself entertained.
“Two occasions I’ve been at a competition and someone’s tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘you’ve still got your boxers on.’”
Besides, they seemed to distract the competition.
Quin was, said McFarlane, “smashing PBs in everything he raced” in the lead-up to London 2012 selection, but missed the qualifying time by 0.1 seconds at trials.
“He was absolutely devastated,” said his mentor. “I think he was ready to throw in the towel. But I said, swimming is what you love. That’s what you want to do. Get back in the water, and just do your talking in the pool.”
He screamed through the intervening years, becoming European champion in 2016 and booking his place to Rio where he broke a Paralympic record in his first 100m breaststroke heat, touching the wall in 1:06.65.
“I was mind blown,” said the swimmer, who was simply aiming for a personal best.
Quin missed out on gold by three hundredths of a second – pipped at the last by teammate Aaron Moores.
“This must be a kind of myth,” he thought, incredulously, when he saw the clock.
“To miss out on gold by three hundredths of a second, when my parents got told there’s not much hope for your son, we’ve only got a three percent chance for him to live.
“I was like, that’s scary.”
Quin’s parents weren’t expecting the international posse - Brits, Brazilians, Argentinians - that followed their son up to the stands after the race. Frankly, neither did he.
He said: “People wanted my photo. I said to my mum, ‘my jaws are getting sore. I feel like I’ve had Botox done because I’ve been smiling too much.’”
The fortunes of ParalympicsGB have transform over the past two decades thanks to National Lottery funding to athletes like Quin but he knows he still has his work cut out for him in Tokyo. The world No.3 both set and subsequently lost his world record titles in the SB14 100m and 200m breaststroke. The “young pups”, he says with a laugh, are coming up fast.
So, he stated calmly, “I’m that older veteran athlete now. I’m going to try not to get myself worked up, and just keep being myself when I’m preparing behind that block.
“I’ll have my lucky boxers with me.”
And he’ll take to the pool like Scott Quin to water—97 per cent luck, 100 per cent heart, and no floaties in sight.
No one does more to support our Olympic and Paralympic athletes than National Lottery players, who raise around £36 million each week for good causes including grassroots and elite sport. Discover the positive impact playing the National Lottery has at www.lotterygoodcauses.org.uk and get involved by using the hashtags: #TNLAthletes #MakeAmazingHappen