Straight2Swimming: Using Swimming to Improve the Lives of Children with Scoliosis

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Photo Courtesy: Straight2Swimming

By Caitlin Daday, Swimming World College Intern.

Around 300 million children worldwide suffer from scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine. Scoliosis typically onsets during childhood, often around the age of ten. In the U.S. alone, around 30,000 children affected by the disease have to wear back braces while an estimated 38,000 must undergo invasive corrective surgery.

As such, the toll that scoliosis takes on a child is not just physical, but it is emotional as well. In fact, scoliosis patients are 40% more likely to have suicidal thoughts. The emotional struggles scoliosis brings are often as great as the physical ones.

A swimming program in Northern Ireland has set out to heal the scars that scoliosis inflicts on children with the disease. Called Straight2Swimming, this program has made significant changes in the lives of these children, both physically and emotionally.

Participants of the inaugural season of the Straight2Swimming programme were joined by Olympic boxer, Paddy Barnes Michael Angus, Chairman of Swim Ulster and Paralympic athlete Michael McKillop at their end of season celebration. The unique programme, ran by City of Belfast Swimming Club was launched to provide a unique opportunity for children suffering from scoliosis.

Photo Courtesy: John Murphy Aurora Photographic Agency

The first program of its kind in the world, Straight2Swimming launched in September 2014 in Belfast with just 10 children. The program’s aim is to give children the chance to participate in a sport and activities they never thought they could and to give them the self-confidence to do so. In just under three years, Straight2Swimming has done that and so much more.

Swimming helps children with scoliosis maintain the level of fitness they had prior to surgery or back braces. For many children who have had corrective surgery, the swimming helps to reduce recovery time and serves as a gateway for helping them to return to sports. Because of their physical disability, these children feel as though sport is something impossible for them.

Since its inception, the program has encouraged many children to excel at swimming. As swimmers show adequate improvement, Straight2Swimming offers funding that allows these children to join a competitive swim team for the first time. All of the children, however, leave the program feeling that they can do much more than they had before.

Photo Courtesy: Straight2Swimming

A group of four girls–Naomi Murphy, Rose Dalton, Hollie Cowden, and Jessica Cowden–who participated in Straight2Swimming were so inspired by the opportunities that the program opened up to them that they decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in August 2015. Of the four girls, three had undergone full corrective surgery in the previous 18 months. The fourth girl, Hollie Cowden, had not had surgery, and she was required to wear a full torso brace for 23 hours a day.

These four girls are likely the first group of young people with scoliosis to climb and summit Mount Kilimanjaro. Since their climb, the four girls have served as an inspiration to the rest of the children in the program, and their achievements perfectly exemplify what Straight2Swimming is all about.

“Before Kilimanjaro I felt that there were lots of things I could not do, and I would be missing out on things that my friends or other young people could do,” one of the girls said after the climb. “But after doing Kilimanjaro I have realized that scoliosis does not limit what you can do with your life.”

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Photo Courtesy: Straight2Swimming

While swimming and increasing physical ability are central to Straight2Swimming’s goals, promoting body confidence and self worth are just as important. Some of the children have scars as a result of surgery, while others are still grappling with being physically deformed. Straight2Swimming encourages these children to be confident in themselves and their bodies. The program teaches them that it does not matter that they are different, and they can be comfortable being themselves. And, as the Kilimanjaro climbers demonstrated, the program teaches them that they can do so much more than they would have thought they were capable of doing.

In addition, many children involved in the program have never met other children with scoliosis. Straight2Swimming provides these children with the opportunity to meet others just like them and to realize that they are not alone.

Straight2Swimming also offers Parents Forums. Many of the parents have never met other parents with scoliosis children either, and the forums allow the parents to form some connections as well. The Forums include speakers from relevant medical fields who teach the parents, provide support, and help them understand what their child is going through.

Straight2Swimming has received widespread support from medical professionals across Ireland. Many orthopedic consultants in Ireland are encouraging their patients to attend the program because of the enormous benefits it has had on young scoliosis patients.

“Straight2Swimming is the most positive single action in enhancing scoliosis patient’s capacity, allowing them to be themselves and all that they can be,” Pat Kiely, a consultant spine surgeon in Dublin, has said regarding Straight2Swimming. “The improving respiratory and musculoskeletal function brought by swimming directly links to improved speed of recovery. Scoliosis surgery can become a little phase in life no longer spent with fear or restrictions.”

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Photo Courtesy: Straight2Swimming

In addition to the praise they have received from the medical field, Straight2Swimming has won two awards since its foundation. In November 2015 at the Irish Health Care Awards, they were chosen as the Best Non Pharmaceutical Patient Education Programme. Most recently, they were awarded the Sport Northern Ireland Coaching Project of the Year 2016-2017.

In September 2015, after only a year, Straight2Swimming opened its second location in Kildare and reached 50 participants. In May 2017 they launced their third center in Cork and hosted their largest Parents Forum thus far.

Straight2Swimming was founded by Philip and Edel Convery and is directed by Eimear Brown. Today, they boast three locations, 168 kids, and a dream for the future. Recognizing that scoliosis is a global problem, they plan to expand worldwide as they have across Ireland to help children across the world manage their scoliosis and gain confidence in themselves.

For more information, you can visit their website.