Claire Cashmore spent years simmering with irritation. She wanted to speak out, but the thought of actually doing so made her rather uncomfortable - after all, she’s British.
Still, whenever someone referred to the eight-time Paralympic swimming medallist as an ‘Olympian’, which happened with alarming regularity, the frustration bubbled up again.
Finally, she spilled. Cashmore took to social media and wrote: “Being able to call myself a Paralympian is something I’m really proud of.” She gave a Paralympics 101 lesson and, very politely, explained why she really needed people to stop calling her the O-word.
The post immediately struck a chord with fellow Paralympians like Hannah Cockroft, Ali Jawad, Laura Sugar and Mandip Sehmi, who all shared it on their own timelines.
“It just got to the point where I was like, ‘why am I accepting things? It irritates me when people say it, so why don’t I actually just say something?’” Cashmore recalled.
“If you’re never willing to tell somebody, you’re never going to educate, and things are never going to change. So, I just think it’s important we do have those embarrassing conversati-" she stops herself.
“They’re not even a bad thing! But we’re so British, aren’t we, we’d never… it’s like if somebody is calling you the wrong name all the time. You would correct them.
“Well, you probably wouldn’t, actually, because in a British way it would be like, ‘ooh, do I tell them?’ Because it’s slightly awkward.”
The Paralympics themselves have British roots, stemming from the 1948 Stoke Mandeville Games created by Dr Ludwig Guttman to assist injured servicemen and women post-World War II.
By 1960, the year of the first official Paralympics in Rome, Italy, the Games had evolved into a fully-fledged multi-sport event featuring 400 athletes from 23 countries.
Today, Paralympians have their own symbol, the Agitos, their own motto - “Spirit in Motion” - and their own governing body, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). Para comes from the Greek for beside or alongside. And for athletes like Cashmore, that’s more than a classics lesson - it’s an ethos.
She explained: “You’d never call an Olympian a Paralympian, so why are you calling Paralympians Olympians? It’s almost like people think that they’re grouping you under one thing.
“I think they almost see it as a compliment, in that they see it like the Olympics, that every single athlete going to [both] is pushing their body to the absolute max and is doing everything to be the best they can be. But we’re still competing at different Games.
“Everything really about it is quite different, and I don’t think people ever really see that.
“The thing that annoys me the most is when people say ‘the main games’, or ‘the real thing’, and you’re like, ‘so what are we? Little fairies getting ready to dance at our little competition?’ What do people mean by ‘the main thing’ and the ‘real games’? I just don’t get it.”
Cashmore’s inner British referee issues a yellow card; she apologises for getting a bit worked up. Despite her reservations, she explained earlier, most people are very open to correction.
She said: “It’s funny, because when I actually do say something to people, their reaction is generally really positive, like, ‘we didn’t think of it like that. We didn’t mean to cause any offence’. But I suppose people don’t realise the Paralympics is its own entity.”
The 32-year-old has represented Great Britain in every Paralympic pool since Athens, where she nabbed two bronze medals in 2004. In 2016, she won her first gold with the 4x100m medley relay team in Rio.
But competing on home turf left the biggest impression on the Redditch native, who achieved a personal high three medals - two silvers and a bronze - in 2012.
Cashmore said: “I’m so hugely proud of what the Paralympics has done, particularly London 2012. That really put Paralympic sport on a pedestal, and really helped change people’s perceptions [of] how the world saw people with a disability.
“And it just seems a shame that then that gets lost.”
Cashmore wasn’t talking about Tokyo, but she could have been.
The swimmer turned to triathlon after Rio, becoming ITU World Champion in 2019. She was preparing for her fifth Paralympics when the pandemic hit.
Cashmore would usually be abroad at this time of year, training somewhere sunny. Instead, she’s in Loughborough, relying on her static bike and treadmill and trying not to slip in the sludge. She believes it’s made her mentally tougher.
With so many competitions rescheduled, Cashmore feels “very privileged” to have already met the Tokyo qualification criteria. She’s now waiting on official selection.
Like many elite athletes, Cashmore has found the constant speculation around this summer “hard to switch off...[it can] be quite draining.” Yet, she’s also noticed something else in the discourse: the O-word. Exclusively.
She said: “Particularly lately, it’s been all about is the Olympics going to go ahead this year? Is the Olympics this?
“What about the Paralympics? And that’s where it stems from. If the media are doing that, how are we meant to educate people that they are two separate things?
“That’s the thing that really frustrates me, because I’m like ‘hey! We’re here. We’re training for the biggest games of our lives too. Don’t forget us!’”
They won’t. At least, not if one Paralympian keeps having her say.