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David Roberts' journey to Paralympic stardom

National, Performance

David Roberts became the greatest male Paralympian Wales has ever produced after dominating the S7 class across a glittering swimming career.

His journey to world dominance began when he took to the water after being diagnosed with cerebral palsy at age 11, using swimming as a form of physical therapy. Born in Llantwit Fadre, Roberts burst onto the scene as a 19-year-old, and never looked back.

An 11-time Paralympic gold medallist, David Roberts is one of Britain’s most successful Paralympians of all-time. He also won four silvers and a bronze and has held a handful of world records in the S7 class. He took up swimming after being diagnosed with cerebral palsy when he was 11 and made his international debut for Wales in Glasgow at the age of 13.

“It took me two to three years after I had retired to really discover who I was. For a long while, I couldn’t work out what my purpose in life was,” said Roberts in an interview with the National. “They were lonely and they were hard times, but my wife was wonderful and my family were too.

“They didn’t force me, they just let me discover who I was. I look back now at what I achieved and it really was an amazing life.”

His major championship debut or Britain came at the 1999 European Disabled Swimming Championships in Braunschweig, Germany, where he won all four of his races. His first Paralympic Games were in Sydney in 2000, where he won seven medals. For years later in Athens he added four golds and one silver to his collection. In Beijing in 2008 he won gold in the S7 50, 100 and 400 metres freestyle events and was part of the gold medal winning British 34 point 4 × 100 metre freestyle relay team that broke the world record by seven seconds. Illness forced him to fail to get selected for the 2012 Games in London.

He picked up a bronze medal for Wales at the 2002 and 2006 Commonwealth and enjoyed similar success at the IPC World Championships as he did at the Paralympics. Across the 2002, 2006 and 2010 events in Mar de Plata, Durban and Eindoven he won eight gold, three silver and four bronze medals. He had his OBE upgraded to a CBE in 2009.

“I still keep them [medals] in my sock drawer,” he says.“But I have taken them to school with me recently because I’ve been looking at the Paralympics with all the pupils.

“I will let anybody wear them or hold them because it could just inspire someone to be the next Paralympian or Olympian or maybe just to be better at anything. I’m just a small-town boy from Beddau.

“I got to walk out in front of 100,000 people in the stadium in Sydney and I had never seen such a crowd in my whole life.

“So if there is one child somewhere... anywhere, who gets that little grain in their head that they want to do something special then they will. The only limits you have are the ones you put on yourself.

“I was never the most talented swimmer but I fought for everything I had. My technique was just atrocious but I didn’t lose many races because I worked with what I had.

“And as for the overall Welsh Paralympic set up, it’s only going to get better. All the hard work that’s been put in by the likes of Swim Wales and Disability Sport Wales has made the difference.

“The future is very very bright and I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface in terms of our success yet.”

He proposed to his long term partner Agata Jankowska on a holiday trip to New York in October 2010. On 11 March he was invited to address the Human Rights Council in Geneva on London 2012 and the rights of people with disabilities.

David moved to Sweden eight years ago with his wife Agata, and the couple have two children - Dylan, eight, and Eira, two.

“The beauty of living here and for me the benefits of cold water swimming are unbelievable.

“Every year in the winter I break the ice here and go swimming.

“And although my wife thinks I’m crazy I would certainly recommend that everybody try it because it makes you feel brilliant.”