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City of Cambridge Swimming Club’s Liam Barnett finds medication through sport and British and World Transplant Games success



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City of Cambridge Swimming Club member Liam Barnett (57940534)
City of Cambridge Swimming Club member Liam Barnett (57940534)

It was quite a shock when Liam Barnett answered his phone from a hospital bed.

We had agreed on a day and time to talk about an impressive swimming career that has delivered 26 gold medals on the world stage, and this was it.

But a suggestion to reschedule was flatly refused by the 34-year-old. For him, it was an opportunity without other distractions, apart from the visit of medical staff, to not just reflect on sporting achievements but put a spotlight on a number of issues.

Barnett, a transplant patient who received a new liver in 2011, is in hospital because of ulcerative colitis, and both illnesses are a consequence of being diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis.

Sadly, it is a central aspect of Barnett’s life – in the past, present and future – but is also entwined in his relationship with swimming.

“Still to this day, swimming is my outlet,” he says. “It’s my medication effectively, it takes me to another place.

“You’re floating and you’re moving all of your body parts in a way to propel yourself efficiently but as fast as possible through the water.

“You really have to shut down your mind and let your body do the moving. You’re isolated as well, with just the sound of the water rushing past your head.

“For me, it’s that meditative place that takes you away from the day to day worries. You’re in the water, you’re concentrating on swimming, moving forward.”

Just by listening to the description of what swimming has provided, you grasp the connection and meaning it has in Barnett’s life.

The sporting domain draws such emotive language which is so often hyperbole, both in and out of competition, but that is put into perspective by the battles faced by the City of Cambridge Swimming Club member.

However, as the conversation warms up, nothing is off-limits.

That is down to both Barnett’s matter of fact approach and very clearly a can-do attitude that has been so prominent throughout his life.

The drive and determination comes through loud and clear on the phone, and in many ways swimming acted as an anecdote to that during his childhood, by being a distraction from his studies.

“I was quite academic, but not just academic, I was hard working,” he says. “Swimming lends itself to that personality type.

“The body just isn’t equipped for swimming and you lose fitness quite quickly so you do have to train quite a bit.

“I probably did need to burn off a bit of steam because I couldn’t just do all the studies so it just gave me balance in my life.”

In a discipline of hard graft, Barnett reached regional standard – at the then named Southern Counties Championships – and continued at Bristol University, where he also played water polo.

On moving to Cambridge for work, with Mott McDonald, where he is still employed, he joined the swimming club, but a hernia operation meant he had to coach the masters’ team at first.

Then things took a turn for the worse.

Barnett had been diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver aged 13, but just nine years later, he needed an urgent transplant.

The speed of change was definitely a shock.

“Everything in terms of liver failure happened very quickly which is very dangerous but it just meant that actually it didn’t really interrupt my life too much,” he explains, candidly.

“Having spoken and made friends with lots of people in the transplant world, I think that I was very lucky in that respect.

“If you’d told me a year before I would have thought no way am I going to have a transplant in a year’s time. My illness came on suddenly.

“I was very lucky in the grand scheme of things. It was very dangerous. I was that close to dying, but my life wasn’t interrupted.”

What comes across is such an upbeat approach, as Barnett describes trying to seize on the opportunities that may present themselves from such worrying times.

You see you cannot help but admire someone that was sitting in a hospital waiting room ahead of a life-changing operation and at that moment was being inspired by a poster for the British Transplant Games.

“As I got hurtled towards having a transplant, I was actually looking at the dates for the next transplant games and thinking, ‘you know what? Once I’m out of here and recovered, I’m going to do that’,” he says.

“Having the British and the World Transplant Games on the horizon gave me a real focus.

“Having the ability to go to the British and World Transplant Games and meet such brilliant people there, I think it’s helped shape my life – post-university at least – in a very positive way.”

City of Cambridge Swimming Club member Liam Barnett with his fiancee Maria. Picture: Liam Barnett (58006045)
City of Cambridge Swimming Club member Liam Barnett with his fiancee Maria. Picture: Liam Barnett (58006045)

The admiration, though, comes as much in a sporting sense as overcoming the health battles because Barnett was not content with just competing.

His motivation was to be the best – when he found out that there were world records at the World Transplant Games, he wanted to know what they were and beating them would be the target.

By the manner in which Barnett describes those goals, you can tell there is a sense of satisfaction in the way that they were delivered.

He earned seven gold medals at each of his first three World Transplant Games, and then five at the last edition in Newcastle in 2019, losing his crown in the 50m breaststroke and the 50m butterfly.

Across the age groups, and in relays, the British team manager currently holds 12 world records.

That is all on the world stage, however, the British Transplant Games “feels like family”.

After a hiatus since 2019 caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, they will return to Leeds this summer and it is about much more than just sport, it is a support network.

“For some people, it’s really important to them,” explains Barnett.

“Think about parents who’ve got kids with transplants and the ability to meet other parents and kids with transplants, and make friends as they grow up.

“These kids will be isolated or feel a bit strange as they will have scars on their bodies or have to take all these meds, so having that peer support is really important.”

As we talk about Barnett’s relationship with swimming, he admits that it is a difficult one at the moment, although quickly adding “don’t get me wrong, I still love the sport!”.

The problems are being caused by ulcerative colitis.

He is being hospitalised quite a lot, and the sportsman in him explains why that is hindering preparations for the British and European Transplant Games later this summer.

There is, however, an admission to being “mature enough to know health comes first”, especially as there is a much bigger factor.

With a crackle in his voice, Barnett explains that one of his biggest concerns is that he may not be able to swim for much longer, or that it might be difficult, as surgery may be required to remove his colon and have a stoma, with a bag to collect waste from the body.

With remarkable candour, Barnett goes into great detail about such an uncertain time.

“It’s something I’m very upset about, but the way I’ve been living my life at the moment is very unpredictable and I do like stability in my life,” he says.

“Sometimes I’m good and then sometimes I’ll be going to the toilet 10 times a day, sometimes crapping myself on the way to the toilet which is only two metres away from my desk where I’m working at home.

“It might not be possible or ideal for me to swim if I end up having a stoma and a bag but I will take that over the current life that I’m having right now because it’s really no life.

“Every session that I go to at the moment, I’ve got that in mind. I think ‘enjoy it because there might be a time when you won’t be able to swim so much any more’.

“Even if I do have a stoma, it might be that my time in swimming and the amount of time I can contribute to it would naturally fall away anyway.

“Those are the things I’m trying to tell myself to try to get my head around the situation because I will be absolutely devastated to have this surgery.

“The doctors and the nurses say ‘you can still swim, you can get bags’, but there is obviously a mental side to combat there with walking onto poolside with a bag of poop attached to your body.

“When they say you can swim, I think they may be referring more to ‘you can go for a little splash about when you go on holiday’, not training to be a competitive swimmer three times a week.

“It might be possible, but there is definitely a question mark over it.

“But, do I look at opportunities? Yes I do, and I’ve been thinking that if I do end up having to have surgery then maybe it’s an opportunity to find another sport in my life.

“Swimming is my go to meditative sport, but maybe there is something out there that could fill that spot.

“Maybe one door closes, another door opens.

“It makes me tremendously sad to think about, but wouldn’t it be boring to just do one sport your whole life?”

Liam Barnett has found comfort in the pool.
Liam Barnett has found comfort in the pool.

It is just a sign of the fortitude in which Barnett has lived his life and, as he ponders a possible new sporting challenge, there has been plenty of time to reflect on just what swimming has provided.

The PSC is a very aggressive auto-immune disease so just as it caused the liver cirrhosis, and eventual transplant, it is attacking the gut.

He was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at university, but it had been much more moderate up until the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown.

“I do sometimes examine this and think, do you know what? Is it a coincidence that when I stopped swimming, stopped having that meditation, stopped having that opportunity to wipe the stress slate clean every three to four weeks, is that the build-up of stress because I was also working hard because I didn’t have anything else to do?” he considers.

“I think the stress levels might have increased which of course is bad for any disease, particularly an auto-immune disease.

“Is that what made my ulcerative colitis worse?

“It’s a progressive disease anyway. There is no way of being able to tell now, but it crosses my mind.

“Was swimming keeping me healthy all these years? Certainly, it contributed to much of my health, absolutely.”

It is a question that can never be clinically answered, but 26 gold medals, an abundance of world records and much more success besides would suggest that swimming has been an overwhelming force for good for Barnett.

*For more information on organ donation go to organdonation.nhs.uk and for Crohn’s and colitis, visit crohnsandcolitis.org.uk.



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