A DISABLED swimming champion from Wirral has powered his way to the podium no fewer than seven times in a two-day national competition.
Matthew Harding's cache of seven medals at the National Junior and Youth Swimming Championships 2014 in Sheffield marks a triumphant return to competition at the highest level since undergoing a life-changing operation on his spine last year.
He came first in five races in his disability category of S6: 50m Freestyle 100m Freestyle 400m Freestyle 50m Butterfly 100m Individual Medley.
He also swam to victory in the 4 x 100m Individual Medley and 4 x 100m Freestyle relays representing the North West of England.
He said: "It took a while, but I'm back enjoying competitions again. They told me at the hospital that it normally takes two months just to recover from the operation, but in my case it was just six weeks."
The 14-year-old's consistent record of success singles him out as a possible Paralympic athlete for the 2016 Games in Rio.
The Year 10 student at St Mary's College in Wallasey is one of around 25 young swimmers selected each year for specialist training as part of the Amateur Swimming Association's Disability Spotlight Programme.
Matthew has achondroplasia, a condition which causes short stature.
As well as dealing with the challenges that brings, two years ago the lumbar vertebrae in his spine had become compressed, causing him pain and discomfort in walking.
But surgeons at Alder Hey Hospital, Liverpool, carried out a delicate and dangerous operation in September 2012, removing some of his lumbar vertebrae to decompress the spine and keep him relatively pain free.
After the operation, Matthew had to rebuild his fitness over many months and get back to his usual speed in the water.
St Mary's headteacher, Tony Boyle, said: "Matthew is a great role model for every member of our college community, showing just what you can achieve if you have sufficient determination and perseverance.
"We are inspired by his outstanding achievements and are so proud of him".
Matthew joins older brother William in regular swimming sessions. Eighteen-year-old William, also a successful competition swimmer, is in his final year in St Mary's Sixth Form.