"Success breeds success so where better to study than the University of Salford".
BSc Physiotherapy graduate (2006) Ritchie Barber is a former Paralympic swimmer who competed at the 2000 Sydney Paralympic Games, winning a silver medal in the S7 50m butterfly.
We chatted to Ritchie about his time at Salford, life as an athlete, and his current role as Athlete Health and Physiotherapy Lead for British Para Swimming.
TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND AND WHERE YOU GREW UP:
I’m 40 years old and I have Cerebral Palsy. I’m a retired Paralympic swimmer and am now Athlete Health and Physiotherapy Lead for British Para Swimming. I love swimming and working for British Para Swimming has always been a dream of mine.
I was born and raised in Salford, and I’m married with two kids: a boy and a girl.
Before working in sport, I worked in the NHS at Warrington and Halton NHS Foundation Trust as a Physiotherapist. I also spend my Wednesday evenings working with friends at Worsley Physiotherapy and Sports Injury Clinic.
I love strategic work and really enjoy mentoring, teaching and my aim in life now is to encourage more Physiotherapists with a disability to work in para sport.
WHAT FIRST GOT YOU INTO SWIMMING?
Swimming has always been in my family; many would say I could even swim before I could walk! My mum and her brothers were all national level swimmers and my mum has been a swimming teacher for as long as I can remember. With my Cerebral Palsy diagnosis swimming I was also encouraged to swim by my Neurological Consultant and my Physio team.
I began my swimming journey as a way to explore movement and become confident with movement in general. In a way, water was my test and control arena; it certainly cancelled out some of the disadvantages my disability often presented on land.
I never really had role models who encouraged me to swim; my motivation was initially embedded in the therapy-driven benefits and ultimately chasing the positive impact it had on my physical and mental wellbeing.
HOW OLD WERE YOU WHEN YOU COMPETED AT THE GAMES, AND WHAT DID IT FEEL LIKE WHEN YOU STEPPED OUT FOR YOUR FIRST RACE?
I was 19 when I competed at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games. The experience was unreal! I made the final in lane 4 and there were three Australians in the final, so as you can imagine the atmosphere was electric! Although I didn’t win Gold, I beat all three Australian swimmers. I raced in front of around 14,000 people, this unsurprisingly added to the excitement but didn’t really affect my nerves.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR ACHIEVEMENTS AT SYDNEY. DID YOU ANTICIPATE WINNING A MEDAL?
Of course, I wanted to win the gold medal, but I had to settle for the silver. To this day, to be honest, it’s still a disappointment, one that I’ve learnt to live with rather than get over! I do appreciate however that winning a silver medal is a great achievement.
This experience helped me realise the importance of not getting achievement confused with happiness. I’ve certainly achieved many things but at times it’s been to the detriment of happiness, but that’s ok because life would be exhausting if we continually measured our successes based on happiness alone rather than achievement.
Just like in swimming, training isn’t always fun, it doesn’t always make you happy; we do it in our pursuit of achievement, the PB, the gold medal. Study is very much the same; there were lots of occasions during my study where I didn’t enjoy it, it kept me up at night, caused arguments, and just felt like a real slog, but in the end I achieved and to me it was all worth it.
SYDNEY MUST HAVE BEEN A HUGE LIFE CHANGING MOMENT FOR YOU, BECOMING A PARALYMPIC MEDALIST?
To be honest, Paralympic success back then didn’t open as many doors as it may do now. The success did however help me understand the importance of a career after swimming. Coming off a four-year cycle is tough physically and mentally and it was difficult to refocus. The support around me at the time, specifically around career development, was excellent and this support kept me on track.
My greatest achievement is becoming a Physiotherapist - I certainly have a lot more clarity around my purpose for being a Physiotherapist than I ever did as an athlete. So really becoming a Physiotherapist was more of a life changing moment for me. Don’t get me wrong; my sporting background certainly did help by providing me with experiences I could draw on in my pursuit of becoming a Physiotherapist.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TRANSITIONING FROM BEING AN ATHELETE TO JOINING ‘THE REAL WORLD’?
My first real transition was a social one! I felt like I’d missed out on so much time with friends, whether that was nights out, or holidays. University life allowed me to develop some of my strongest friendships and I certainly enjoyed some great nights out.
Looking back, swimming really was my comfort blanket. When I started working, I become very self-aware, particularly when I started working in sport. The energy I wasted on external securities such as self-esteem impacted on my ability to understand myself. So, for example as aspiring Physiotherapists spend time developing your own ability to understand yourself, what makes you tick? what’s your purpose? Don’t be afraid to have a philosophy so early in your career, as you develop it will develop with you!
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO STUDY PHYSIOTHERAPY, AND AT SALFORD IN PARTICULAR?
I’m a Salford lad! And at the time a mature student. Although the social aspect was important, I felt I needed to focus on the task at hand; completing my degree. I didn’t really warm to the idea of living the true student life and experience of being away from home, and all that comes along with it, and I’d already spent time away from home, travelling with my swimming career.
More importantly, the University of Salford’s attitude to mature students was very refreshing. They were not solely focused on the grades, a feeling I got from other universities during the application and interview process. The lived experience cannot be forgotten, in my opinion it certainly helps the learnt experience! From a disability perspective, at that time Salford was all built on one campus and that really did appeal to me.
DID YOU FEEL LIKE, AS A PROFESSIONAL ATHLETE, THAT SIDE OF YOUR LIFE INFORMED YOUR STUDIES?
Massively. Physiotherapy has always been a crucial part of my life. It helped me manage the challenges that my disability presented me with and consistently helped me resolve any training or competition related injuries. I developed a real interest in Physiotherapy as a result. Certainly, being a beneficiary of a service does enable you to appreciate what it can offer.
Students of Physiotherapy must however understand that we have to walk before we can run! Working in sport might be your eventual destination, but don’t make it your journey! There any so many environments where Physiotherapy can have an impact, most notably the NHS. The NHS structure really does allow you develop safely and at your own pace; the sporting environment does not always afford you this.
HOW DID YOU FIND THE TEACHING ON THE COURSE?
The teaching on the course was like no other type of teaching I’d experienced before. As a result, its stayed with me and it’s something I’ve embedded in to my work. Action learning really did put the ownness on you as a student. It was a real mature way of learning. We were often faced with a clinical problem and we had to draw in many solutions from a variety of physiotherapy related areas and use reflection to cement the learning process. I’ve replicated this process within my role with British Para Swimming.
Too often it’s too easy to work in silos, but a problem shared is certainly a problem halved. As a student you shouldn’t seek the answers to questions, rather use the questions to further widen your knowledge and ultimately your understanding of the topic area because there then lies your ability to rationalise your answer.
AS AN ATHLETE AND NOW THE BRITISH PARA-SWIMMING PHYSIOTHERAPY AND ATHLETE HEALTH LEAD, WHAT INSPIRES YOU TO SUCCEED?
Of course, I like to see athletes achieve PBs and medals but, for me, their personal growth is more important. I find inspiration in helping athletes take responsibility for their own health and wellbeing by making the right choices, resulting in a positive impact on their own or other swimmers’ health and wellbeing - leading to improved training or competition performances.
Another source of inspiration lies in educating athletes on being open minded and adaptable to their own changing health and wellbeing needs. Hearing stories and celebrating successes within my area also helps drive me on towards further success. Finally, helping to develop unique individuals who respect their teammates’ unique disabilities, whilst challenging them to push the limits of their disabilities safely through purposeful training!
WHAT WOULD YOUR YOUNGER SELF THINK OF YOUR PRESENT SUCCESS?
Wow what a question! It’s often the other way round! I certainly hope he would see me as a role model. He would definitely think there’s more to achieve in my career yet and without sounding too confident, he would definitely give himself a small pat on the back for trusting the process and career plan. I’ve always tried to stick to my career plan and a Professional Development Plan. I would say to students - start this process now! It’s been invaluable to me.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO SOMEBODY THINKING ABOUT JOINING SALFORD?
Obviously slightly (massively!) biased, Salford is the best city in the world! It’s a great university which embraces diversity, and the city itself has so much going for it. The University of Salford and its faculty have had a significant impact on my career. I am an example of what you can achieve by studying at Salford, but I’m not the only good example; L.S Lowry, Jason Manford, Peter Kay. The list is endless! Success breeds success so where better to study than the University of Salford.