Gemma Almond

Ba History. Class Of 2014. Historian Of Disability And Medicine. Former Elite Athlete.

Dr Gemma Almond is an accomplished athlete and academic, who has represented her country at international level, while gaining a History degree (2014), MA in Early Modern History (2015) and PhD (2019) all at Swansea University. We asked Gemma how she combines her passion for study and sport.

How did you begin in sport? 

I started sport from an early age namely because I wanted to copy everything that my older sister was doing. However, I was introduced to swimming at age four when I had hydrotherapy following each of my four major operations. Hydrotherapy gave me the confidence to walk again and a love for the water. As I was born with bilateral hip dysplasia this is the one place where I do not have to weight bear and do not feel pain.

What are your proudest moments as a sportswoman? 

My proudest moment was qualifying for the London 2012 Paralympics in a new British Record. It was my first British Record, in the Olympic/Paralympic venue, the culmination of years of training, and in front of my family and friends. A home games was a dream come true.

"...nothing is impossible with some dedication, hard work and resilience."

What have these experiences taught you?

The positive experiences taught me that nothing is impossible with some dedication, hard-work and resilience. I proved medical, as well as my own personal expectations, wrong about what my body was capable of and I will always be proud of that. However, I also learnt that things do not always go to plan no matter how hard you work. The losing and setbacks were just as valuable in helping me to grow as a person and develop a positive outlook, whatever the circumstances.

How did you combine sport with study?

 With very careful time management! You can’t hide in sport; you have to give everything to it and apply yourself 100% in training. It is something that is very transferable to academia and I learnt to prioritise my time and ensure I got the outcomes in both. However, I am also incredibly grateful to the School of Culture and Communication for being supportive in a variety of ways, including arranging alternative assessments when exams or essay deadlines clashed with key training camps or competitions. A number of these accommodations were integral to ensuring I qualified for, and performed at, a home games, and other major internationals while I was studying for my BA and MA.

"...I am passionate about what I do (both the research and getting the opportunity to teach)."

What do you like best about your job in academia?

Like all athletes, retiring from something to which you dedicated hours of your life each week for as long as you can remember is really tough. I worried that I would not be able to do something that I enjoyed for a living again. I love that that is not the case and that I am passionate about what I do (both the research and getting the opportunity to teach). 

Tell us about your research area.

I specialise in the history of disability and medicine (primarily in the nineteenth century). I am particularly interested in the lived experience of disability and how disability has been categorised, measured and understood. This offers a broad scope of topics and currently I am working on turning my PhD research on spectacles and vision into a monograph.

What unique opportunities does your research offer?

Paralympic sport has been a big part of my life. My research allows me to continue to engage with disability communities and interrogate the meaning and experience of disability, and perceptions towards disability, in new ways.

"There are a number of crossovers between a career in academia and competitive sport..."

How can you inspire the next generation to believe a career in competitive sport or academia is possible?

By helping them to see their potential and that they are not limited to what others think they are capable of. I was told as a child that I would not walk properly, let alone participate in sport and I was also from a small town that did not have state of the art sport facilities. However, this did not stop me from getting to the highest level.

Within academia, I was never told that I couldn’t, but I was very aware of how competitive it was and that a lot of it could depend on luck. There are a number of crossovers between a career in academia and competitive sport, both require hard-work and entail setbacks, but both are possible and are worth the journey.

It isn’t about being unrealistic though, I did not try to become a professional runner for example! But, with realistic targets and goals, a commitment to work towards these, and a support network that believes in you, you can achieve what you set your heart on.

What or who is it you want to make an impact on?

Those who have hip dysplasia and have faced setbacks similar to myself, those engaging with disability sport or are hopeful of Paralympic careers, and anyone who has felt limited by the expectations of others and cannot see the potential that they have.

I am a patron for DDHUK, which works to support parents of children with hip dysplasia as well as campaigning for greater awareness of the condition.

How do you spend time when not working?

I still swim and do exercise for enjoyment (it keeps me sane), I also enjoy being with friends and family, exploring the Gower, baking, playing music and painting. However, I am expecting my first child this year and know that how I spend my time when not working is all about to change!