Paralympic swimmer Josef Craig opens his heart ahead of the Rio Games

Josef Craig is preparing for the Paralympics in Rio. Pic by Barrington Coombs/PA Wire

Josef Craig is preparing for the Paralympics in Rio. Pic by Barrington Coombs/PA Wire

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South Tyneside swimmer Josef Craig has opened his heart to talk about his fears and hopes as he prepares to jet off to Rio for the Paralympic Games.

The 19-year-old shot to sporting stardom four years ago when he smashed two world records in the S7 400m freestyle on his way to the top of the podium in London.

Josef Craig with the tattoo that has led to his disqualification from an IPC swimming event.

Josef Craig with the tattoo that has led to his disqualification from an IPC swimming event.

The Paralympic Games in the capital was not the event he had been destined for - the British Swimming team had him in their sights for Rio.

But at 15-years-old they decided to take a chance on the young hopeful and it was a decision that paid off as he clinched a gold medal in remarkable style.

He went on to win a host of medals from championships held across the world and his future as a swimming star looked bright.

However, a change in the classification in which he was moved from S7 to S8 category saw his hopes of competing in Rio thrown into doubt.

I feel a lot stronger. I am determined to go out there and be as successful as I can be.

Josef Craig

A protest over the change was mounted by British Swimming, however, the reclassification was upheld.

“Since the London Parlaympics the past four years have been an absolute whirlwind,” said Josef.

“I’ve had ups and downs but the past two years have been a hard struggle.

“When I was put into a different classification I thought that was it, it was all over.

Great Britain's Josef Craig celebrates winning Gold in the Men's 400m Freestyle - S7 Final, during the Paralympic Games in London. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday September 6, 2012. See PA story PARALYMPICS Swimming. Photo credit should read: John Walton/PA Wire

Great Britain's Josef Craig celebrates winning Gold in the Men's 400m Freestyle - S7 Final, during the Paralympic Games in London. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday September 6, 2012. See PA story PARALYMPICS Swimming. Photo credit should read: John Walton/PA Wire

“It’s all about self-belief. Initially when the classification changed the self-belief I had went. I was left really wondering if I would be able to do it.

“Every day it was like a personal battle. I kept thinking is this realistic? Am I cut out for this?

“It did have an impact on me but I had to make a decision. Yes it was a battle but it was just another obstacle I had to overcome and I just thought I have to find a way.

“I see everything as an opportunity and I knew it was going to be challenge, but I’ve done it before so I could do it again.”

The S7 category is for athletes with one leg and one arm amputation on opposite sides, double leg amputations or a paralysis of one arm and one leg on the same side. Swimmers with full control over arms and trunk and some leg function can also compete in the class. The S8 class is for those who have lost either both hands or one arm. Athletes with severe restrictions in the joints of the lower limbs are also eligible to compete in the class.

But Josef has always been a determined sportsman. Even as a youngster he was adamant that one day he would not only compete in the paralympic games but that he would go on and win a gold medal.

Despite a drop in that self-belief the teenager, who has cerebral palsy, faced his battle head on, focusing his mind on the end result - a place on the team in Rio.

After reaching the qualifying time needed, last month he was given the news he had been hoping for, he had been picked for the team.

Josef added: “London will always be special for me, but Rio is completely different. For London, I was a bit of wild card but here I had to make the time otherwise I wasn’t going.

“But I trained hard and got through it and I was just happy I made the qualifying time and that I’ve been chosen to represent the team again. This is a huge thing for me.

“Now I just want to go out there, not let people down and make myself proud.

“I feel a lot stronger, I feel like a completely different person than I was four years ago. For me I just think of it as another competition and that’s how I keep my focus.

“I don’t feel under any pressure as this is what I love to do. It is my sport, it is what I get funded by the Lottery to do and I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.

“The people who have helped me, believed in me, supported me and stuck by me, they all know who they are. The people who gave up on me they all know who they are too.”

“The change in classification - it is going to be hard as it’s a step up in times and there are a few people ahead of me when it comes to speed but I am determined to go out there and be as successful as I can be.”

Josef, who trains at the City of Sunderland Amateur Swimming Club, has only a few months of training to go before heading off to the training camp and Rio.

The paralympic games will be held in September.