Interview: James O’Shea, Paralympic swimmer

Great Britain's James O'Shea during the Men's 100m Breaststroke - SB5 Final at the Aquatics Centre, London. Image: Press Association

James O’Shea lost his legs in a drunken accident at Milton Keynes train station New Year’s Eve 1998, aged 20. After meeting former swimming champion Mark Foster, he decided to embark on a career as a Paralympic swimmer. He makes his Paralympic debut Wednesday September 5th in SB5 100m breaststroke and is hotly tipped to win a medal. Here he talks to Goggleblog about his alternative diet, his hatred of chlorinated pools and his training regime for the Paralympics

So how did the meeting with you and Mark Foster come about?
I was filming Dancing on Wheels with some of of the celebrities and jumping around in the background. Instead of using the lift I was jumping up some stairs because the lift took ages. I think Mark (Foster) saw that I was quite agile. He hadn’t even seen me dance at that point and his first question was ‘you look fit, can you swim?’ And I said ‘yeah like a fish’. At that point, I didn’t know who he was – he was just some lanky geezer. But I thought he must be on the TV programme.

Then the next thing he said to me was ‘I want to train you for the Paralympics’. And I’m, like, ‘alright then’.

Had you swum that much before he discovered your potential?
I used to go swimming lunchtimes when I was working in an office for a charity because I like water. But I hate chlorine so I preferred to swim in the sea or in lakes and rivers when I was away on holiday. I hadn’t trained since I was 13 when I won a regional silver medal for 50m breaststroke.

You’ve been quite vocal in your opposition to chlorine in pools. Why is that?
It causes asthma. Fifty per cent of competitive swimmers have asthma because the lining of your lungs is being melted by the horrible gas that is exploding above the water. That is horrible and disgusting and it needs to be stopped. I’m sure many lung cancers and many deaths are because of the chlorine. People die of asthma attacks.

Paralympian James O'Shea with his coach Rhys Gormley

Has chlorine in the pool affected you?
Yes. I was wondering why I was coughing after a while. I went to see the GB doctor and he was, like, ‘you are probably getting asthma.’ I was waking up 2 o’clock in the morning and coughing my lungs up and couldn’t stop. I was sweaty and wondering how long this is going to go on for. Luckily I’ve had training in learning how to control my breath so I knew not to get into a panic.

What’s the alternative to chlorine?
Every modern pool in Europe uses ionised salt or UV. The best thing is grapefruit seed extract –  it’s the best anti viral, anti fungal solution around and can be used in conjunction with ionised salt. Barnet Copthall (where O’Shea trains) doesn’t use it because they are worried that their filters are going to clog up but it’s incredibly unlikely because it’s less caustic and less toxic than chlorine. There’s this idiotic mindset that because no one else is doing it they shouldn’t change, but it is being used in Los Angeles and Japan. But pools like Barnet Copthall will have to change one day because they will get sued for causing these respiratory illnesses.

James O'Shea looking like he's a cricketing umpire!

What kind of foods do you eat? Do you have a special diet?
The most important thing I do is I eat the right foods at the right time. I don’t believe in things like pasta. It really is my nemesis. I was told by the sports nutritionists at the English Institute of Sport that I should eat pasta and meat and I just laughed in their faces. It’s terrible advice really. If I’d listened to their advice there’s no way I would be in the Paralympics. I’ve done one year of training and I’m a medal hope. That doesn’t happen unless you eat properly and rest properly.

So do you have your own nutritionist?
I’ve got an alternative nutritional guru who I met years ago. I do have long chain carbohydrates but I take it in the form of activated barley. It’s got loads of enzymes which are taken out and turned into a powder which I put into a smoothie and take when I need it. I take a bunch of other things too, like protein powders. I’ve got a natural hemp and natural rice and a natural pea protein, but they all do the same thing – they add a little bit of strength and bulk, but not too much. You see these body builders who take protein shakes but they’ve got too much creatine in them so they are taking in too much water. Their muscles don’t get much chance to relax.

It sounds like you just live on smoothies. Do you eat food as well?
Yes I do eat as well! After training I tend to have gnocchi as it’s a carbohydrate that’s quite easy to digest and I’ll have loads of protein with it and amino acids. I’ll have it with home made wild garlic pesto to which I’ll add loads of vegetables, tomatoes, salad and soaked nuts which are easy to digest. I have one cooked meal a day.

So you don’t eat any meat or fish?
I’m not a vegetarian. I’m a ‘choose-atarian’. I was in Japan for quite a while and I didn’t turn down the high quality steak on offer, but normal beef I’m just not interested in. It doesn’t do anything to me. I get all the nutrition from being quite a hippy really and it’s better because meat takes quite a long time to digest.

One of the nibbles I have a lot is called UpRaw – a nutritional bar which a mate of mine designed. It’s made of chocolate, protein powder and nuts. He’s a climber so he’s got amazing upper body strength.

Today I’ve had some soaked barley and a bunch of cereals. Rather than cooked oats that you get in muesli these cereals are digested much more easily. I’ve eat a lot of dates, figs and prunes too. Basically you don’t want much too much in your gut when you are training because you don’t want your stomach taking away blood from your muscles. You want your digestive system to be empty so everything you do in the pool is maximised rather than working on breaking down meat.

What’s your training regime?
I swim in the morning and weekday evenings. In the morning it’s just about stretching out, feeling the water and swimming 3 or 3.5Km at my own speed. My coach (Rhys Gormley, Barnet Copthall Swimming Club) wants me to save myself for the evening when we do the hard work.

You must have to do a lot of weights to build up your upper body strength musn’t you?
Actually I don’t really do weights at the moment because I’m still learning breaststroke and learning to swim. After the games I might try to bulk up like Van Der Bergh. I’ve got reasonable upper body strength but my coach doesn’t want me to go down that route yet. It’s all about feel in the water. He’s worried that I could bulk up and completely destroy my stroke. I’ve been developing without any weights. I have improved my strength and stamina but haven’t really bulked up since I started swimming.

Why breaststroke, it’s an unusual choice for someone without any legs?
I used to like breaststroke when I was young because it was a leg based stroke and maybe my arms weren’t so strong back then: I was a skinny kid, but I had a really good kick. I wasn’t really very good swimming front crawl or backstroke because you couldn’t get as much purchase in the water.

How can we get more champion swimmers in this country?
There’s too much swimming, too young. I think we are too brutal. Between the ages of 9 and 13 the focus should just be on technique.  I was bored by the age of 13, I hated the chlorine and had eczema. I hated how my skin felt. So I just stopped swimming. If you want to be a swimmer you really need to go to a school with a pool because it takes too much time out of the kids’ lives and out of their parents’ lives.

Who are your swimming inspirations?
Having watched Cameron Van Der Bergh (South African 50m Swimmer) in the Olympic Games I was blown away by his technique. I’m going to try to incorporate some of his technique within my race. I watched his race over and over again. Obviously, though, he can get much higher out of the water because he has legs so I can’t do everything he can.

But when I was growing up I didn’t really watch swimming. I preferred track and field, watching athletes like Linford Christie. It’s only now I’m going back and watching classic performances from breaststroke swimmers like Duncan Goodhew and Adrian Moorhouse.

Who are the main contenders in your race (SB5 100m breaststroke)Unless there’s a surprise entrant who we haven’t seen before, there’s really three guys who can win: Mexican Pedro Rangel, German Niels Grunenberg and me.

Do you think you can go quicker
My personal best is 1min 37.4. I reckon I could lose a second on my turn. I’m still very inexperienced. I’ve only done about 10 races in 50m pool. My reaction time is good, but it’s just about improving  the little things.

James O’Shea: Fact File

Date of Birth: 12th February 1978
Club: Barnet Copthall Swimming Club
Coach: Rhys Gormley
Event: SB5 100m Breaststroke, 5th September
Personal Best: 1 min 37.42 seconds (Berlin Open, June 2012)

UPDATE: James O’Shea finished 4th in the Paralympic final of SB5 100m breaststroke with a time of 1 min 38.3 seconds. Well done James. You can see the race below.