She was one of Scotland’s brightest stars at the London Paralympics, but Libby Clegg concedes that if it wasn’t for Edinburgh’s Royal Blind School she would never have fulfilled her potential.
The 22-year-old is a two-time Paralympic silver medallist and has emerged as a recognisable role model across Britain for visually-impaired children.
But when she was first diagnosed at the age of nine with a degenerative eye condition that would rob her of almost all her sight, Libby did not even understand the concept of disability sport.
Today, she and her brother, James – who also has a Paralympic medal to his name – are helping to launch the Evening News Christmas Appeal to raise money for Royal Blind, the charity which runs the school.
The campaign aims to raise as much as possible to help provide vital equipment and funding for some of the many services the charity provides.
Libby and James were both helped on their route to Paralympic glory by the school.
The sprinter, from Newcastleton in the Scottish Borders, suffers from Stargardt’s Macular Dystrophy, an inherited genetic disease that causes progressive vision loss starting from an early age.
She only has peripheral vision in her left eye and is legally blind. As a nine-year-old, she was not even aware she had a problem until her diagnosis.
She says: “Looking back on it, I did see that I had problems with my sight, but I didn’t really know that it was a problem. When you’re young, you just think that you’re the same as everyone else.
“It was quite strange. When I got diagnosed, it wasn’t really a shock. It was quite a surreal feeling. I didn’t fully understand what my condition was and what had really happened.”
Younger brother and Paralympic swimmer James Clegg – four years her junior – was the next in the family diagnosed with the same eye condition about a year later.
He would not be the last, with youngest sibling Stephen also inheriting the disorder. Currently a pupil at the school, Stephen is also a swimmer, though is not competing.
Libby says she would not have wished the situation on her brothers, but admits: “Previously I was the only one out of my siblings that had the eye condition, so it was weird. I just felt like the odd one out.
“[But with James], I didn’t feel like I was singled out anymore.”
It took enrolling at the Royal Blind School in 2002, at the age of 12, for Libby to discover the confidence needed to excel despite her physical setback.
Founded in 1793, the school provides specialist education, term-time residential care, therapies and health support for young people aged up to 18. It caters to young people who are blind or visually impaired, including those who have complex, multiple disabilities.
Libby would board at the school’s main Craigmillar campus for six years until her graduation in 2008.
She had started competitively running from the age of ten, but says she has the school to thank for getting spotted by UK Athletics aged 14.
“When I was about 14 I was at a school competition in Scotstoun, a Scottish disability sport event,” she says. “I went as part of the school and got spotted by a development scout and it kind of took off from there.
“I got selected for the World Championships in 2006 and school actually gave me time off for that.
“My routine was I’d go to school and then straight after school I’d go for training and I wouldn’t get back until 9.30pm and then I’d have to start my day all over again.
“It was quite intense, but the school was very supportive.”
The hectic schedule peaked in her final year at the Royal Blind School in 2008, a time that culminated in Libby’s Paralympic debut in Beijing in September, where she won silver in the T12 100m.
James has also gone on to great things since being introduced to swimming at the age of 11 in his first year at the school.
The 18-year-old, who is living in Musselburgh, surged through the field late to clinch a surprise bronze medal in the 100m butterfly S12 final at the London Paralympics.
He says: “I wouldn’t be swimming if it wasn’t for the Blind School. I owe a lot to them.
“It was brilliant for building confidence because you didn’t really know how to socialise with other people and the education is great because their classes are quite small.”
James, who spent five years as a pupil at the school, has since been inspired to become a social care worker. He says: “The staff at the school had a big impact on me and that’s what I want to do later on in life.”
Libby herself still feels an immense debt of gratitude. She intends to take her silver medal from London in to show to existing students before Christmas and, just maybe, inspire a few others to reach for their wildest dreams.
“Royal Blind has helped me massively over the past few years,” she says. “Without them, I definitely wouldn’t have been able to achieve what I’ve done.
“They’ve made me a much more confident person. I got to know who I was myself and accept that I had a sight problem because I did struggle with it for a few years. They were really there to support me.”
Richard Hellewell, chief executive of Royal Blind, said: “The work we do at Royal Blind is only possible because of the generosity of others.
“Because of this support we are able to continue to provide our vital services to people of all ages and continue to light up lives. Every day I am inspired not only by the work that is achieved at Royal Blind, but by the people who give up their time to fundraise for us, who donate every month or take time out of their busy lives to support us and the work we do.
“Every donation we receive helps our students, residents and staff see potential, opportunity and success.”
Evening News editor Frank O’Donnell said: “I am delighted this Christmas to be supporting a truly great Edinburgh institution which continues to transform the lives of countless young people. I hope you will join me in offering whatever support you are able.”
Libby’s been in fast lane from age 14
Paralympian Libby Clegg was born on March 24, 1990, in Bollington, England, but moved to Newcastleton in the Scottish Borders with her family at an early age.
She was always athletic, and first started running competitively in 1999 – the same year that she was diagnosed with the degenerative eye condition Stargardt’s Macular Dystrophy.
The condition, which causes progressive sight loss and eventual blindness, was not something that would stop the determined runner from fulfilling her dream, however.
As her sight deteriorated, Libby enrolled at the Royal Blind School in Edinburgh three years after being diagnosed, and boarded at the Craigmillar campus five days a week.
A talented athlete from an early age, she spent six years at the institution where she combined her studies with intensive training.
Such was her potential that the visually-impaired sprinter was spotted by UK Athletics when she was just 14.
She burst on to the scene two years later at the 2006 IPC Athletics World Championships in the Netherlands, winning a silver medal in the T12 200m and just missing out on a second medal.
Two years later she was making her Paralympic Games debut, competing in Beijing 2008, where she won silver with a stunning performance in the T12 100m.
In June this year, Libby cemented her position as one of the country’s finest athletes by winning both the 100m and 200m at the IPC European Championships.
Two months later, she won her T12 100m heat in a then world record time of 12.17 seconds at the London Paralympics to qualify for the semi-finals.
She made sure that it was a Games to remember by recording a personal best time of 12.13 seconds in the final, winning a silver medal to go with her brother’s bronze.
Libby competes with a guide runner. She only has slight peripheral vision in her left eye and is registered blind.
Bronze success sealed family medal double
James Clegg was born on January 5, 1994, with full sight, but was later diagnosed at the age of six with the same eye condition as elder sister Libby.
He was a pupil for five years at the Royal Blind School from 2005 to 2010, when he left the institution’s Craigmillar campus at the age of 16 in order to devote himself to swimming.
Despite all his hard work, the teenager initially failed to meet the qualification standards for the London Paralympics. But he was handed a reprieve when British Swimming was granted permission to add two more competitors to the squad., allowing him to compete at the Games. He went on to compete in both the 50m and 100m freestyle at the Games, but achieved his best result in his “pet” event – the 100m butterfly S12.
The Musselburgh athlete became the first British S12 swimmer to go under a minute in the event while winning his heat. He entered the finals as the third fastest qualifier and accelerated home in the race’s final 25m to claim bronze. The medal was won on the same night sister Libby claimed silver in the T12 100m.
What your money can buy
Moving and handling equipment £10,000
Pressure-relieving chairs £2500
Talking microwave £225
Talking kitchen scales £47
Ultra-light, vibrating cane £29
Adapted dinner plate with high sides £10
• ROYAL Blind was founded in 1793 in Edinburgh and was the world’s third foundation devoted to the welfare of blind people, after Paris and Liverpool.
It had a humble beginning, with nine blind people being admitted to one of the old houses in Shakespeare Square (now Waterloo Place), known as a Covenant House, rented for £15 per year.
With increasing public support it was able to expand, purchasing 58 Nicolson Street in 1806 and 38 Nicolson Street in 1822, to provide accommodation for women.
Royal Blind’s services continued to grow dramatically with the establishment of a residential home for elderly women in 1825, and perhaps best-known of all The School for Blind Children (now known as The Royal Blind School) in 1835. The introduction of the early Scottish Braille Press in 1891 also helped extend the capacity and range of the charity.
The 21st century has seen progressive development of accommodation and facilities, and today the charity looks after the Royal Blind School, the Scottish Braille Press, the award-winning Braeside House Care Home for older people who are blind or visually impaired, and Forward Vision, which provides a purpose-built facility where young adults aged 18-25 with visual impairments and disabilities can be supported into independent living, learning to run their own home while they grow into adulthood.
How to donate
THE Royal Blind has been helping people with visual impairments for more than 200 years – and now you have the chance to help.
The Evening News has joined with Royal Blind for our 2012 Christmas Appeal and we are calling on all our readers to donate whatever they can and make a real difference to the lives of blind and visually-impaired people from across the country.
The money will be used to help purchase vital equipment including everything from talking microwaves and high-sided plates, which help provide blind people with a greater degree of confidence in preparing and serve their own meals, to moving and handling equipment which gives them greater freedom in performing tasks.
There are many ways to donate to the charity.
To donate by mobile phone, simply text XMAS10 to 70070 to give £10 to the appeal.
For online donations go to www.royalblind.org and visit the Support Us section of the website.
To donate by mail, make cheques payable to ROYAL BLIND and send to Royal Blind, PO Box 500, Gillespie Crescent, Edinburgh, EH10 4HZ. Please do not send cash.