As a child, Lauren Steadman had to get used to other people’s stares and whispered comments.
Born without her right hand and arm below the elbow, she knew that she didn’t look the same as the other children.
But she quickly learnt how to deal with the reactions of others and thinks her experience has actually made her a much stronger person.
Before she was born there had been no indication that anything was wrong.
Yet she believes that her disability has helped her do more with her life, rather than less.
‘It was a bit of a shock for the doctor delivering me and for my parents, but it hasn’t stopped me from doing anything,’ says Lauren.
‘If anything, I can do things better than most people. I wouldn’t change anything now.
When I was younger, children would stare and people would say things because there was obviously something missing, but these things don’t bother me any more.
‘I’m confident about who I am and what I’ve achieved.
‘I wouldn’t have done any of this if I had two arms.’
This bright and chatty 19-year-old certainly has a lot to feel proud about.
She only began swimming competitively in 2006 but she’s already racked up numerous awards and medals including a bronze at the Paralympic World Championships in 2009.
Despite her relative inexperience, she qualified to take part in the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing and believes that will now stand her in good stead at this year’s London Games.
Of course, every athlete yearns to take part when the most prestigious tournament is taking place on home soil.
Lauren’s no different. But like all the others who want to compete, that also means she’s got to be prepared to make plenty of sacrifices along the way.
While other first year students are more interested in exploring all that the social side of university life has to offer, she’s dedicated to qualifying for this summer’s Paralympics.
That means she’s tucked up in bed when others are going out and leaving her halls of residence to head off for training sessions when the partygoers are coming home in the morning.
Her schedule is punishing. Lauren trains for two hours every morning and two hours every night. Only Sundays are a training-free zone and that’s when she allows herself to relax a little.
The psychology student picked Portsmouth because she liked the city and was looking for somewhere that had a 50 metre pool and a top coach.
Luckily she found both – the Mountbatten Centre and Northsea Swimming Club coach Paul Hogg.
And when the university’s sport department offered her one of two London 2012 scholarships, the deal was sealed.
The scholarship gives Lauren access to physiotherapists and psychologists as well as financial support in what would otherwise be an expensive time in her life.
So far she’s enjoying life in Portsmouth but admits that she’s not quite like other students: ‘I haven’t done any of the normal things that freshers do. I haven’t had the social life I should because I’m working so much but I’m on a mission to qualify.’
She adds: ‘The Games aren’t my main focus at the moment because if I don’t qualify, I don’t go. The qualifiers are in March and April and I’m pretty much pulling out all the stops to make sure that I’m competitive.’
On Saturday she flew to South Africa for a two-week training camp and Lauren’s hoping that will stand her in good stead and give her a confidence boost.
She hopes to qualify for the 400m and 100m freestyle events and believes she’s got a good chance.
When she took part in the Beijing Games she was only 14 and picked up an eighth, 11th and 12th place.
‘I was surprised when I got to the Games,’ she adds. ‘I was training for London not Beijing.
‘Hats off to the Chinese because they did an amazing job. The venues were amazing, the volunteers really wanted to be there.
‘Now I’ve got the experience of being there so I know what it’s like. Now I know what it takes to get the gold.
‘Having the games at home in my lifetime is amazing. I want to compete. To be at the Games would be fantastic.
‘If I think about it too much I’ll get too excited. I’m just trying to focus on what will get me there – and that’s the skills and being positive.
‘It’s not just me as a swimmer either. I’ve got a massive team behind me, my parents, my coach, the university.’
For now she’s on countdown. If she qualifies then she’s determined to give the Games her best shot – and she’s been impressed by how the team behind London 2012 have championed the Paralympics.
‘I think they’ve really done a lot to promote it this year and to give it equal status,’ she adds.
‘For me it’s just about taking part, I’m not worried about what others are thinking and anyway, the Olympics has been around a lot longer than the Paralympics.’
She adds: ‘Swimming is my life. Everything I do I think “Will this help my swimming?”
‘At the same time I’m thinking “What else can I be doing?”
‘You hit some low points but you have to step back and look at all you’ve achieved and your aims and build yourself back up again.
‘You stand on the starting block and everything you’ve trained for is over in a minute.
‘All those hours of training come down to that minute – but it’s worth it.’
Lauren Steadman has been swimming for as long as she can remember.
In fact, her parents Sharon and Adrian took her to the pool before she’d even learnt how to walk.
Like many other mums and dads they were keen for their daughter to experience as many activities as possible.
But unlike other parents they had a special reason for making that happen.
‘My parents weren’t expecting a baby born with an arm missing,’ explains Lauren.
‘When it happened they were worried and said “How’s she going to ride a bike and do all these other things?”
‘So as soon as they could they started me off on doing all these things – like swimming – and realised that there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do.
‘I could do anything I wanted and it got any fear out of me as a baby.’
Lauren, who has a younger sister Ellen, laughs as she admits that she’s naturally determined.
Her boyfriend Gareth tried to race her in the swimming pool once, she reveals. He hasn’t made the same mistake twice.
And when it came to learning how to drive, she was adamant that she’d do it in a manual car, not an automatic model or an adapted vehicle.
Today she drives a car with gears, just like everyone else.
‘I would like to think that I’m a role model,’ she adds. ‘It’s not about people looking up to me and thinking “She’s amazing”.
‘I want them to see that I’ve done what I wanted. I want to inspire people to believe in themselves.
‘I’ve always been like that. I just want to prove that I’m as good as everyone else.’