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In the swim against the odds

Martin Rice took up swimming at seven and his family have been told it may have kept him from relying on a wheelchair. Now the 19-year-old, a nominee for student of the year who dreams of competing for the British paralympic team, wants to train to be able to coach other disabled people.

Martin, who studies a vocational access course at Wirral Metropolitan College, has cerebral palsy, which restricts his muscle movements, and hydrocephalus or excess fluid on the brain.

Physiotherapists told the family that they credited his dedicated swimming regime - five days a week before and after his full-time college work - with developing his muscles and keeping him out of a wheelchair.

Martin picked up his passion for swimming from his family. "My two sisters got me into swimming," he said. "There's nothing like it. I like doing it because it helps get me out of the house. I don't really like doing anything else."

Swimming in regional competitions and for the senior national disability squad, he has picked up so many medals that he has to keep them all in a suitcase.

Martin also led fundraising efforts for his local hospice, Claire House in Bebingtonn, Wirral, which cares for under-23-year-olds with life- threatening conditions. He raised more than pound;2,000 - double his target - to help pay for a new teenagers' wing.

This dedication resulted in Martin's selection for the final of the Association of Colleges student of the year competition, although the first prize went to Debbie Ball, a single parent with four children who overcame illness to succeed in her college course and now teaches hairdressing. Martin's mother, Carol, said: "I was just really proud to see him in the final, especially to hear he'd been chosen over 300,000 students."

The vocational access course Martin follows involves maths, English and IT. Next year, he hopes to progress to a sports qualification and eventually to teaching other people with disabilities.

"I would like to teach other disabled people how to swim - I know the benefits of doing it," he said.

His paralympic ambitions are on hold for now as his improvement in training was so good that he was upgraded by two categories in the classification system, which is intended to keep the races fair by matching competitors with similar muscle strength, co-ordination or limb length.

This meant that competition for places was fierce and he just missed out on a chance to race in Beijing.

"I nearly got there, but I'm going to keep trying and trying," he said.

Sue Baker, marketing manager at Wirral College, said: "Martin is an excellent student, a wonderful example of how a student should be: focused and interested in his course work, punctual, with a 100 per cent attendance record. He is very supportive of his peers and is a very popular member of his group."

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