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Swim Lab International
Small boy stood at the edge of the pool, smiling with his Swim Lab International certificate and his therapist crouched beside him

Get to know Paul and how Swim Lab International began

When you come to Swim Lab International, we spend a lot of time getting to know all about your child, so we thought we’d flip the script and help you get to know a little more about all of us.

This month, we’re going to hear from Paul, our CEO and one of the Pediatric therapists you may work with during your week.

Swim Lab Internationals CEO Paul in his black polo smiling to the side with palm leaves behind him.

 

I’ve always had a love of the water and of swimming, although I’ve had some challenges with that over the years. I’m allergic to chlorine, so I developed a barrier cream to prevent the reaction. I guess you could say I’ve always been a problem solver, or perhaps more of a rebel, at least as a child!

I would always do everything the opposite of what I was told. If someone said no, I would find a way to make that a yes. But I suppose having that rebellious mindset and attitude as a kid actually led me to bring Swim Lab to where it is today. Without that, I would have maybe given up being told no and having doors shut so many times, but I just pushed through and found ways around it.

 

Being told no enough times can dishearten you and make you feel like something isn’t possible, when actually it is possible. And that’s what we instill in our clients, that no isn’t always the right answer, that impossible is just a mindset.

 

I learned to swim at a really young age, when I was 3 and from there I started swimming competitively, which filled a large part of my life, so every morning, every evening I was swimming. That’s partly how Swim Lab was born, having spent so much time in the water, take me out of it what was I going to do?!

When I was a kid I didn’t see any disabled kids at all swimming, it was always an able-bodied sport, which now I suppose makes me slightly angry, in the sense of why did I get the opportunity to do this, when there was somebody else just as capable or with just as much as enjoyment as me but they just weren’t able to do it, because they didn’t have access to the water in the same way that I did.

I think it took a long time for that to kick in, it’s not something that you would necessarily pick up unless you are familiar with or associated with children with disabilities. For example, many of the families that come to us would never have known another family with a child with a disability, until they had a child with a disability.

My cousin has a little boy with Down Syndrome and Autism, and obviously, I’m the first person they came to because my background is with disability so they’ve had a headstart in many areas whereas other families don’t. That’s why we created the global family support page on Facebook so families are able to ask the questions they need or want to ask as well as to offer a source of comfort and a way of getting to know other people. So far it’s been inundated with questions and the questions have been really good, giving lots of people different ways to find information and sources to use.

A small girl standing in a shallow pool with her pediatric therapist supporting her

 

Early on, during my studies, I began working with a client who was involved in Hillsborough (a fatal human crush during a football match in 1989). This guy had two masters, but all he could do with his body was use one finger for yes and two fingers for no.

I said I wanted to take him in water and was told I could, but only for 2 out of the three sessions. So I went in the water with him and within the first two sessions, the face, the smile that he was giving me, was just priceless.

That’s literally where the Swim Lab ratio of 2 aquatic and 1 land session a day came from, it worked from day one. It became apparent that everything that we study and deliver in physiotherapy and everything from competitive swimming is aligned. It’s just how we combine the two together, and that guy kind of gave me that sense of, this is how it needs to be done.

The difficulty was that there’s nothing that will actually give you a set qualification in this, because Swim Lab is unique and there isn’t anything set in place that will actually do that. There are lots of seminars and a couple of day workshops that you can do for disability swimming or disability aquatic therapy and hydrotherapy, but there’s very little that crosses over all those boundaries.

Here at Swim Lab we take not just Physiotherapy but OT, Speech and Language therapy, and learning to swim, so it’s all about how it’s blended together. There isn’t one set way for any client to have what we do – there’s no manual to do this.

CEO and pediatric therapist Paul in the pool doing aquatic therapy with a young boy on his back holding a small pool weight in both hands.

I wanted to work with children because I felt like I wanted them to have access to the water to learn to swim, just like I did. We tell them that they’re here to learn to swim, but really they’re doing everything but that in terms of the therapy we build into the sessions, they’re just learning to swim almost as a secondary thing along the way.

With the first few clients, I was just feeling it out and going with my intuition. I was going with what I felt was appropriate based on taking the four main strokes in swimming and breaking them down in a way that enables a child with reduced mobility in a specific limb to be able to still move in that way.

So with backstroke for example, maybe they can’t do individual reciprocal movements but they can move both legs together, which still means they’re doing backstroke; they’re on their back it’s just modified.

From there it was a case of building as we went along to the point where we recorded the data from every single client we’ve ever worked with, which then gave us our own complete database of knowledge and information. This has all of the programs, all of the planning, all of their reports with everything in there and their progress to date. Bearing in mind we’ve had clients now with Swim Lab for 8 years, and clients before we were Swim Lab for another 4 years, we’ve got 12 years of data there.

So that’s where the no limits, think out of the box attitude started because we were starting from scratch. There was no blueprint, it was figuring it out as we went along, removing the limits for ourselves.

We also had to reach out further because we’d come across syndromes like PMS (Phelan-McDermid Syndrome). At first, I didn’t have a clue what that was, I’d never studied it, but no professional person is going to know everything about every single aspect of their field. So we have to research, we have to look into it. An example of that would be where we flew to America and met with a consultant, created a whole program with them and now have a client on this island (Lanzarote) who is on that global clinical program, where they’re provided with all their medication, all their consultations, everything.

So we do go the extra mile to be able to get the information for clients but it’s very much built on a page-by-page concept, you know, it’s not there, there is no textbook, you can’t turn to page 67 and have all the information you need.

Fast forward to today, and bringing a new team member on now is much easier with training because we have all that data and those points of reference. No two children we work with are ever going to be the same but they may present with similar difficulties and we can then direct any new team member to go back to this client, on this date and they’ll be able to pull all the information about that particular issue. So whereas you maybe had 20 solutions to try, we can now take that down to maybe 8 of them, 6 of which are likely to work and 2 maybe not but instead of trying 20 we’re already narrowing the field of what you need to do in order to get the results. For our clients, that means they get the results quicker, because we’re not having to go through trial and error as we go along. We’ve built this now to a point where we can pretty much pinpoint what we need to do every time.

A teenage boy in a wheelchair at the side of the pool, smiling with her certificate and his two therapists at either side of him.

 

I love being part of the team, and I don’t use the word I very often because it’s always we, but bearing in mind when I set up Swim Lab there wasn’t a team to be part of, I’ve had to create this team to best support each other and our clients.

Knowing you can share your knowledge, and also share your worries and concerns makes being part of a team because we don’t all know the answer to everything and that’s why being such a close team is so important. There will be challenges with clients in the sense that they are trying their hardest but to get the results requires an awful lot of thinking and an awful lot of work and there’s been many a call at 11 pm at night where we had to speak with all team members just to find a solution for the next day, but that’s how it works.

For me, the most rewarding thing about being part of Swim Lab is that, whilst I plan before every client comes, I still don’t know exactly what challenges I’m going to get or how they’re going to present on that given day. The exciting part is being able to just quickfire in that given moment to be able to come up with solutions using the information and the background from the clients along with that database of knowledge in my mind from all our previous clients.

I’m one of those very lucky people that remembers an awful lot of information, once it’s in, its stays in! It’s almost like an encyclopedia lives in the back of my head and I can pull it forward for whatever we need for clients, which is brilliant, because it enables me to think fast on my feet and get results. It allows me to be able to associate with them and relate to them very very quickly.

A Swim Lab International pediatric therapist sat on a wall high fiving a small boy after his therapy session

Expanding into Florida has been a bit of a pinch-me moment. It’s quite nerve-wracking but it’s extremely rewarding because when I set out to do this, I set out to help as many families as I possibly could, but we’re fully booked in Lanzarote all year round, so I’m not helping any more families. Expanding into Florida means we can reach more people, and bring new families into our larger Swim Lab family. There’s this fine line between expanding the team and helping more families, and losing the quality though. So right now I’m working with both teams really closely to make sure the quality remains the same.

What do I look for in a new team member? Out-of-the-box thinking, thinking on your toes literally because we’re never sat down, and being able to relate to situations. You can’t fully understand what a family is going through with a child with a disability. You can’t understand what that child feels, but you can appreciate the difficulties that they have and associate them with other difficulties that you’ve had, to try and put yourself in their shoes. And that’s important, to really be able to connect with them.

High energy is also super important because, unlike a lot of other jobs, we can’t have a single day where we take things more slowly or have a down moment. We’ve got to make sure that whoever is part of our team actually has that high energy, can talk openly about any problems and be able to find solutions to them quickly.

How do I keep my energy levels high? Traveling. When I started Swim Lab, I realized that it wasn’t possible for me personally to be able to work 50 or 48 weeks a year, and maintain that high energy. Yes, I live in a beautiful place and yes I get stimulated by the ocean and the mountains and everything else, but I’m in a very small bubble here. I feel that having new experiences, learning from others, and visiting new spaces and new cultures enables me to become a better person in myself to then help my clients more.

Thailand’s one of my favorite places in the world. Their culture is based around Buddhism and Buddhism is all about being free and relaxed, it gives me that recharge of my batteries.

Do I still love swimming? Well, an easy answer to that is I’m just putting a two-lane pool in my own house, so the answer to that is very clearly yes! I love it, and I think no matter whether it be in a swimming pool or in open water, there are very few days in the year when I don’t spend some hours in the day in the water. It doesn’t need to actually be swimming, it can just be standing in water, it can be on vacation visiting waterfalls, it can be visiting hot springs it can be going in the ocean, it can be swimming along the beach it can be in the great barrier reef, it can be anywhere, I always need water, it relaxes and refreshes me, I need it around my body.

And I think that’s it for me, we should all have that access to water, for swimming, for relaxation, for therapy, whatever it may be, we want to make sure it’s accessible for everyone.

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