British Swimming Star Harriet Lee Talks Dogs & Rio Paralympic Games
Harriet Lee is a British Swimmer and part of Team GB heading to Rio's Paralympic Games. Having overcome many hurdles along the way, Harriet, who has Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome, goes into this year's Paralympic Games full of confidence after reaching a new personal best in the qualifying stages.
Kim O'Meara spent time with the medal winning swimming superstar on behalf of K9 Magazine as she took time out of her training schedule to meet us in Nottinghamshire introducing us to her three special boys – her fiancé and their two dogs, Baya Bear and Bow.
Hi Harriet! Thanks so much for taking the time to meet with us today. We can't wait to find out more about your boys – tells us all about them.
We were so excited, thank you. I have two dogs. Baya Bear and Bow.
Bow was our first dog. He was born the day that I raced in London in the 100m Breaststroke final so he's was named after Stratford Bow, where the Olympics were that year.
We had decided that we wanted a dog and I really wanted a Labrador and my other half, Laurie, wanted a French Bulldog so we compromised and went for a cross-breed, although not of those two breeds. Bow is a Puggle and a cross between a Beagle and a Pug. He's a big character and our lively one. He's always getting up to mischief (laughs).
Baya was our second dog and he was my guilty dog (laughs). We got him after I'd had a really tough few months with my swimming. My friend had just had 11 Labradoodle puppies and she said 'come over and have a puppy cuddle' to cheer me up, so I went over and when I got back home I told Laurie I'd bought one. I hadn't really but he knew how down I had been, and he said 'oh amazing, really?' and I said 'yeah' and he said 'okay'.
So I told him the truth and he still said it was okay so we got Baya. I liked the name Bear and Laurie liked Baya, so Baya became Baya Bear and now everyone just calls him Bear for short.
Bear is a lot calmer, and normally better behaved than Bow. Not that you have seen that today (laughs), but he is.
They're like chalk and cheese but they go really well, and they adore each other. They can't be without each other. They have the cutest, strongest bond where when one leaves the room the other is looking for him.
We've had a glimpse of that today during the shoot. It's always nice to see two dogs with a bond like Bear and Bow. You and Laurie obviously have a love of dogs. Did you grow up around them?
We had cats and rabbits when I was younger, and then when I was about 9 or 10 years old we got our first family dog. We had wanted one for a while so my brother and I petitioned our parents (laughs).
All Photography Shot for K9 Magazine by Dan Lord/Forecast Designs
We hid notes in their bed every night and spent our pocket money on Westie ornaments. My mum hates ornaments so we spent our money on them to encourage her to give us a dog instead (laughs). Eventually it worked because they saw how serious we were about the commitment and we got our first dog, Angus. He's 14/15 years old now so he's doing well for a Westie and has been joined by Artie.
So yes, I grew up around a few and then we added the boys to the family. Now when we go home to see everyone or for Christmas, there are four dogs with Artie, Angus, Bear and Bow. So it's a bit of a mad house but lots of fun (laughs).
How do the boys get on with Angus, and vice versa now he's an older boy? Is he a no-nonsense older boy or does he join in?
Thankfully they do all get on well. Artie and Bear, in particular, get on really well. Angus is a bit older so sometimes the younger three get a bit too much for him but I think he secretly quite likes them (laughs).
Bear, in particular, is quite gentle so sometimes he'll just lie on the floor and let Angus play around with him a little bit. It's an interesting dynamic when they're all together, but we're lucky they get on. They know each other's boundaries I think.
As we speak you're preparing for the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games. You've had a fantastic year so far setting new British records and getting a Silver in the 100m Breaststroke event at the IPC European Championships. Does this kind of a build up help you go into it more confident?
Yes, it does really. I've kind of had a tough few years since London's 2012 Games. I've had ups and downs and times where I've thought 'is it all going the right way?' and 'is it worth pushing on for another couple of years?', and then suddenly you turn a corner.
Last year I made the decision to move away from Laurie and the boys to a training camp in Manchester and that was massively hard on our dynamic and so suddenly when everything starts to go well, like at Europeans and trials, where I set the new British records, you realise that all of the sacrifices were worth it.
So with that sort of a build up, it makes you excited for what's next and I'm looking forward to Rio.
Obviously I know my job's not done yet, but the Europeans were a stepping stone in the right direction and I want to build on that and hopefully walk away with the same medals as I did at the Europeans.
You mention moving away to training camp to prepare. Tell us a bit about how you manage this as a couple and dog owner.
The dogs come and visit and Laurie and I try and see each other every weekend or we'll do a mid-week weekend, whether I go to him, he comes to Manchester or we'll go to either of our parents' homes, so we try and spend a couple of days with each other every week.
Normally our time together is filled with dog walks around Manchester or if we're in Newcastle we'll take a trip to the beach so we have some time just the four of us and we get to spend time with our families regularly.
It's been tough but we've worked it pretty well. I sort of thought it would be a lot harder than it has been if I'm honest, but surprisingly we got the balance right in terms of how we've done it.
It definitely gets lonely at times though because I'm used to my three boys being around and I love our time together, but when you're on your own in your room you'll think of the little moments. Like Bear and Bow coming into the bedroom for a bit of a cuddle before bed, so I miss those sort of little moments.
But we've worked it as well as we could and if there's ever been a period of time where we've not managed to make the weekend or mid-week weekend work, then we'll try and make sure we spend more time together next time.
Where there's a will, there's a way, right?
Exactly. We knew it had to work because Laurie and the boys are a massive and important part of my life so we had to find a way.
Do you Facetime with the boys when you're away from home, whether at competitions or training camps?
(Laughs) We do, quite a lot actually.
Bear is really good at Facetime actually. He can see me so he'll come and watch me on the screen whereas Bow is oblivious, but Bear will come and sit in front of it.
Facetime is the answer to everything nowadays. I catch up with nieces, nephews and godchildren as well that way, so as not to feel too guilty that I'm missing out on them growing up.
You mentioned London 2012 earlier, I know it wasn't your first major competition but how did it feel competing at home, compared to when you prepare and head overseas for competitions?
It was mind blowing. I'd competed in 2010 in the Netherlands and won gold and silver there and a big part of the GB family went to that World Championship, but London was just another level. I think we had 17,000 British people watching us, all willing you to be the best you could and win a medal. The noise was just something else, I've never experienced anything like it.
During my race, when I had 25 metres to go I knew I was in with a shout to win a medal because I could just tell by the crowd's reaction and so it was just something that I don't think we'll ever experience or feel again with it being a home crowd.
For me, I was really emotional for so many reasons. It had been a really tough journey to get there but even now thinking about it, it makes my skin tingle. The crowd, the noise. It was electrifying. You felt like you had the weight of the world and expectations on your shoulders, but at the same time it was such a buzz.
Crazy, I've never heard a crowd like it before.
Were they your 12th man?
Yes, definitely. I think they were the secret ingredient to some of our performances.
When we were in the stadium for the closing ceremony and hearing the national anthem being played, it just gave you goose pimples.
Do you ever re-live the experience and watch it on Youtube?
I've never watched my race to be honest. They play it at schools when I go in and I just can't watch it. I think there will be a point when I can watch it though, but I haven't yet.
It brings back a lot of the feelings of the race and expectations, as well as feeling unwell during the race. I know at what point during the race I started to not feel too well and when I felt my body had started to have enough of racing.
Although I'd been really poorly about 12 weeks before London and was in intensive care, I knew I was going in as everyone's favourite for gold.
To be honest, I used to find it hard thinking I had won bronze when I was a favourite for gold but now that medal is so sentimental to me and the journey I went on to get it, it means a lot more.
I've watched the closing ceremony and other people's races, but not my own one yet (laughs). I'm sure I will get round to watching it one day.
You've just touched on it here but how do you push through when you feel ill because it's a big commitment doing what you do, not just mentally but physically. Is it that you've always known what you wanted to do that helps through, or is it your personality that pushes you?
I think I'm quite mentally tough, I mean don't get me wrong Laurie will vouch for me when I say that there are moments when I completely crumble with it all but I don't want my disability and my illness to define me. I want to have that real drive to push further and do better than what people and doctors might expect.
When I was in hospital in 2012 I was told that I wouldn't be able to compete at London. I was like 'yeah, okay then' while thinking you carry on telling people that, I'll be there racing.
So I had the bit between my teeth and I just didn't want to let it hold me back so there are times where I'll feel poorly but I'll still want to go to World Championships or whatever event it is.
Touch wood I've had quite a good run over the last year or so. Moving to Manchester has been one of the hardest things for us, but it's also been one of the best because I've got on tap medical support so it's meant that we can just keep things going a bit better, so it's been really good.
Ultimately though, I would rather be in control of it, rather than it control me.
You've travelled quite a bit competing. Thinking of everywhere you've been, where do you think is the most pet friendly place you've visited and why?
We absolutely love Whitley Bay. We go there a lot when we're in Newcastle and we can have a really nice walk. The dogs love it too.
They've got a dog friendly cafe on the beach and some good dog friendly pubs so we can just chill, have some lunch and enjoy a really good walk.
Wearing another hat on behalf of our dog adoption site (www.dogsblog.com), we can tell your dogs mean a huge amount to you and are a big part of your family. There are over 100,000 dogs in rescues across the UK who are looking for a second chance and home to call their own. What do you think is the best thing about owning a dog?
I think dogs give you so much in life. They bring affection and love, and thinking of our two boys, through their characters they bring so much happiness to our home.
I think if we hadn't got mum and dad's two dogs making up a party of four when we get together, we seriously would have considered getting a rescue dog to add to the family because every dog deserves a second chance and a happy home.
In a way, having a dog has completely changed our relationship. It has made us stronger because we have the boys and they've just brought so much more to our relationship. We can get out of the house and go for nice walks together and they're a massive part of our family.
Okay, so we know this has been an all-round experience of a day, what with it being the boys first magazine photoshoot and all, but we think our next set of questions might be a first for you, so here we go....
Do you have a motto you live your life by? And if your boys had mottos, what do you think they'd be?
My motto is definitely 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger' because I feel like I've been there and had to deal with questions about whether something is going to cause long term problems and been on ventilators and stuff, and it hasn't killed me yet. I think as a person I'll always come back mentally and physically fighting.
I think that no matter what you want to do in your life you can do it, you've just got to find a way and if a door opens keep fighting to find your way through. Never give up.
So that's mine, as for the boys I think Bow's would definitely be something food related, like 'stumble through life one meal to the next'. He's a real foodie.
The boys are complete opposites really so their mottos would be completely different.
Bear's quite a free spirit and loves to have fun. He's quite a chilled out character but loves to be outdoors, so his would probably be something about being outdoors getting the wind behind his ears and loving life.
With that in mind then, who do you think you'd enjoy being most if you had to swap roles for a day?
Oh that's a hard question!
I guess it comes down to this – would you like to play, and be Bear, or would you like to eat, and be Bow?
In all honestly, I know I've sat watching both boys doing something and thought 'I'd love to know what's going on in his head' at one time or another. But if I had to choose just one I'd like to get in Baya Bear's head because he's quite an emotional dog.
I'd like to know what's going through his head. For example, if either of us leaves the room, even just to go to the toilet, and he has to come with us. He also creates games in the garden on his own so I'd like to know where he gets his games from. I think it'd be quite fun to get in his head and see how he thinks.
If he were me, I think he'd quite like bossing me around (laughs). I also think he'd enjoy my job. He absolutely loves going in the sea when we're at the beach so I think he'd really enjoy going to the pool.
Actually, it'd be quite a good role reversal. He could win me a medal and I could just not do the work. He has endless energy so it'd be perfect (laughs). He could have a quick power nap and he'd be off again.
So yes, I could swap with Bear and Laurie and Bow could swap because they both like food.
For this question, we ask our celebs to match up the following sports stars to a breed of dog. So if the following celebrity dog lovers were breeds of dogs, based on their personalities alone, what type of breed do you think they'd be...
Michael Owen (former Footballer) – He was quite fast in his day wasn't he, so I think he'd be a Whippet or a Greyhound.
Sharron Davies (former British Swimmer) – I could see Sharron as being a British Bulldog. Everyone loves her, but you don't get on her bad side (laughs).
Mario Balotelli (Professional Footballer) – I think he would be something like a Dalmatian. Quite cute, but can also be quite wild.
Onto our quick fire questions, are you ready?
Which do you prefer and why?
Big dogs or little dogs – I have one of each but if I'm honest I quite like a bigger dog. But not too big though, so maybe medium size (laughs).
Pedigree dogs or cross-breeds – Well, we have two cross-breeds so that probably says it all.
I think you can sometimes get the best of both worlds with both breeds in a dog's genetic make up.
Bow's a Puggle and Pugs can have a few health problems but because he's a cross between a Pug and a Beagle we've been lucky and he's not had any of them. He's been as fit as a fiddle for the last four years.
Days off or days at work – (Laughs) I love my job, I love what I'm doing so I know I'm lucky in that it is a job, but it's also a different kind of job.
That said, my rest time and my time with Laurie, the boys, friends and family is amazing so I do love days off, but I do love what I do. I think it makes you appreciate the time off that you do have even more.
What do your boys do that makes you laugh?
Oh gosh, they're always making us crack up. We always laugh when they play in the garden together because they have such a great time.
More often than not they'll chase each other and Bear will end up somersaulting or something to get away from him. Even though Bow's the smallest one, he'll still manage to end up taking Bear out.
They can be so dramatic sometimes, jumping up for a cuddle or just playing together. Just little things, but they always make us laugh. They really do bring such joy to us.
If you were arranging a dinner party and could invite three people from any era, who would you invite and why?
Okay so I'd invite David Beckham, he's my secret crush. I do like a bit of David Beckham (laughs).
I'd invite David Walliams, I think he's great and he'd bring quite a lot of fun to the table. And thirdly I'd invite Dawn French, the video of her introducing Jennifer Saunders at the Glamour awards had me in stitches. I think I watched it three times because it made me laugh so much.
And so as not to leave him out, Laurie can be the cook (laughs).
What is your current favourite…?
TV show – I'm a massive 'Grey's Anatomy' fan. I'm absolutely addicted and the boys watch it with us. They like it too (laughs).
Album – I'm not a massive 'sit and listen to music' person so I'll just listen to whatever Laurie has playing in the car, which at the moment alternates between Oasis or The 1975, but we like all sorts.
Film – I love my Disney films. Our plan is that we'll have seen them all by the time we have kids (laughs).
I like all of the classic girly films such as the 'Bridget Jones' collection, 'Mamma Mia', all those types. I can't wait for the new 'Bridget Jones' film to come out!
I also really liked 'The Theory of Everything' with Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking.
Book – I couldn't put 'The Girl on the Train' down. There are so many different stories going on that you find yourself just completely gripped. You think you've worked it out and you haven't. It's definitely worth a read.
Tell us something no one else knows about you.
I'm an open book really. Because of what we do, especially being a swimmer, you spend so much of your life with the team that lots of people basically know everything about you. But maybe outside of that, something not many people might know is that I have issues with cheese (laughs). I love cheese, I'm addicted to it.
How much have your boys changed your life?
I think they bring so much joy to us and in a way they're like our children. We absolutely love the pair of them and we're never lonely. If one of us is at work or away, then we've got them for company.
They're amazing to be around and watching their personalities come through, whatever they're doing, good or naughty, they make us happy and I think they make our relationship stronger. We've got a family unit with the dogs. They bring us so much happiness.
I also think they know when I'm having a bad day and not feeling well. Bear used to watch me all night if he knew I wasn't feeling well. I love that they're protective and looking out for me.
Life wouldn't be the same without them. They're our best friends.
And finally, this is always a tough question but…if Bear and Bow had the ability to speak and answer one question and one question only, what would you ask them and what do you think that they would say?
(Laughs) 'Who's your favourite - mummy or daddy?'.
And who do you think they'd pick?
Mummy (laughs). I think I'd come out on top.
In all seriousness, although I'd really like to ask them that I'd just like to know what they like to do.
You know when you're deciding what to do or where to go, I'd like to ask them what they'd like to do. I'd like to get to know their personalities more by having a conversation with them, so you could find out what they like. They're like mini-people aren't they, I'd like to understand them a bit better.
Many Thanks, Harriet!
You can keep up with Harriet's progress throughout Rio's Paralympic Games on the British Swimming website here