Students competing in the Panathlon London and Essex Swimming Finals got an unexpected bonus as they met Britain’s Olympic diving hero Tom Daley at the London Aquatics Centre.
The heats saw Whitefield School in Walthamstow crowned the London champions and Treetops School in Grays claim gold in the Essex final to seal their qualification for the grand Divisional Final back at the Aquatics Centre in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in July.
Tom, who won gold at the World Championships in 2009 and 2015 and bronze at both the London and Rio Olympics, was full of praise for Panathlon after coming across the young swimmers while he was training at the Olympic venue.
“I think it is a fantastic charity,” he said. “The more people, of all abilities, that you can get involved in sport and health and fitness in a fun and engaging way can only be a good thing.
“And to have this event at the London Aquatics Centre is just another example of the legacy of London 2012,” added Tom.
The diving star helped calm the nerves of students from Doucecroft School from Eight Ash Green, Colchester, who won silver in the Essex heat. Andrea Griffiths, sports coach, said: “They were all a bit nervous coming here, but meeting Tom Daley certainly helped. Many of our students don’t take part in team games so Panathlon provides them with this amazing opportunity.
“It helps build their confidence and self-esteem and also shows them the importance of teamwork.
“The whole day has been absolutely fantastic, all our students have really enjoyed it and been really impressed.
“It has also been great to mix with other schools – many of our students have now made friends with students from other schools.”
It was a day that would not be forgotten by Essex winners Treetops in Grays. Team captain, Pavel Yanvareu, 15, said: “It has been a really good day – my favourite part was winning the gold medal. This is an amazing venue, so big, and a once in a lifetime chance to swim here.”
Ryan Jones, assistant headteacher, said: “These kinds of sporting opportunities are difficult to come by, so when Panathlon suggested we took part we jumped at the chance. To be able to come to the Olympic Park with students of all different needs is an amazing opportunity.
“Panathlon is about breaking down barriers and our students have all absolutely loved it. We have had one pupil who has severe autism and is non-verbal, but just got into the pool and started swimming. It was amazing to see.”
The children also got to meet Paralympian, swimmer and Panathlon ambassador Liz Johnson who had the honour of laying the final tile in the competition pool at the London Aquatics Centre, when it was built.
Liz said: “I first attended a Panathlon event in 2008 and it is great to see how the charity has grown in terms of its reach, activities offered and range of pupils taking part.
“Panathlon offers a competitive sporting environment for all. So often it is seen that for minority or disadvantaged groups, taking part is enough.
“But you can learn so much from competitive sport. In my own swimming career, I have learnt about winning, losing, travelling, new environments and working together in a team.
“Panathlon provides this opportunity to develop these skills which are so important throughout life.
“Sport can make people confident and resilient and to be able to hold this event in the Olympic Park is just an added incentive for students and staff alike.”
The London and Essex winners now look forward to competing at the Panathlon Divisional Swimming Finals at the London Aquatics Centre in July.
More information about Panathlon and images from the day can be seen here.
To see what other events are taking place at the London Aquatics Centre click here.