Swimming record-breaker Hayley Bettinson tells Anuji Varma how she foughtback from a serious back injury to rule the pool again.
PE teacher Hayley Bettinson wondered if she would ever be able to walk properly again, let alone continue her passion for swimming after a prolapsed disc in her lower spine left her in agony.
The 46-year-old had broken a string of British records in the pool for her age group and was keen to get back into the water to continue her sporting glory.
Hayley, who teaches at King Edward Camp Hill Boys School, in Kings Heath, Birmingham, did everything she could think of to ease the pain.
At one point she even took an epidural in the hope of swimming again.
But nothing worked until she heard about a tricky operation that was on offer at Spire Parkway Hospital in Solihull.
And, remarkably, since the successful surgery, Hayley has not only regained her health – but has broken the British age-group record for backstroke.
“I never thought I would break the record for backstroke of all things,” Hayley laughed.
“It’s probably not my best swimming style either, so I was quite surprised.”
Hayley’s problems began at the end of 2006 when she woke up one morning suffering from an overwhelming stabbing pain in her lower back.
Before then she had been a leading competitor in Masters Swimming, which is primarily aimed at adults over 25. Competitions are held across the world with competitors divided into age groups.
Hayley, of Harborne, said: “I don’t remember doing anything in particular that could have caused the injury but the pain was unbearable.
“My whole life changed when I suffered the prolapsed disc. I couldn’t even go out for a 10-minute walk with the dog.
“Sitting down was painful and I could only swim about once every two weeks – but it wasn’t pleasurable.
“Yet before this happened I was breaking British records.
“After a while the problem was destroying my life. I tried various remedies, but the only thing that would take away the pain was alcohol. I’m not a big drinker, so that really wasn’t much of an option either.
“But I really wondered whether I would be able to swim competitively again.”
Desperate Hayley underwent a microdiscectomy operation at the Spire Parkway in March 2007 and was off work for five weeks.
She said: “The procedure went well and the first question I asked the surgeon was when would I be able to swim again?
“But it was quite a while before I got back into the pool, although I was also undergoing hydrotherapy following the operation which helped my recovery.
“I realised that doing some sort of activity was good for me and because swimming is weightless it was better for my type of injury. I soon started going swimming again once a week.”
Hayley’s determination meant that by August that year she was competing in the European Masters Swimming tournament in Slovenia.
“I wasn’t sure how well I was going to swim but I wanted to go along with my fellow swimmers because I didn’t want to miss out,” she said. “Yet I ended up coming second in the 50 metres freestyle event.”
Over the next year Hayley kept on building up her fitness and at the end of 2008 she broke the 50 and 100 metre freestyle and the 50 metre butterfly British records for the 45 to 49 age group.
She added: “I was so pleased and it felt great to be back. I wanted more.
“Everyone was really supportive and there was a really good friendly atmosphere between us all, although we were competing against one another. There’s a good mix of swimmers of all ages.”
In April this year, Hayley achieved her ultimate goal of breaking a world record for her age group after travelling to Mallorca for the International Open Masters Swimming competition.
She said: “I really astounded myself by breaking the world record for the 50 metre butterfly which was an amazing feeling. I also smashed the 50 metre European record for the front crawl.
‘‘But the real surprise was when I swam the 50 metres backstroke and broke the British record. I’m not a backstroke person.
“Since the operation I’ve done some of the best swimming of my life.”
Hayley’s passion for the sport began as a youngster when she regularly competed in swimming competitions.
In fact, the future PE teacher was so good she nearly made the Moscow Olympics in 1980 until a wrist injury ended her dreams.
She recalled: “I was 17 and swimming really well. I had a promising career ahead of me but the injury, which may have stemmed from over-training, led me to give up swimming.
“I just missed out on the Moscow Olympics which was devastating.”
Hayley pursued a career in teaching instead and it was not until 1995 that she started to swim competitively again.
Spencer Harland, the consultant spinal neurosurgeon who performed Hayley’s operation, said: “I was delighted to hear about Hayley’s recent success. She has trained very hard to regain her fitness following her spinal surgery for sciatica. Whilst few will achieve Hayley’s level of sporting excellence, the vast majority of patients following a microdiscectomy are able to return to their normal activities including sport.”