IT’S easy to assume that Stephen Clegg was always destined for sporting excellence. 

He is the middle sibling of Paralympic champion on the track, Libby, and Paralympic medallist in the pool, James, so is well familiar with success at the very top level, as well as navigating the world of elite sport with a disability. 

The suggestion that he has long been on the path to success could not, however, be further from the truth. 

Despite having swum as a young child, Clegg admits he drifted away from the sport and ended up spending much of his time in his teenage years “stuck inside playing video games.” 

In fact, Clegg only returned to swimming as an eighteen-year-old in an attempt to rebuild his life and recover from the mental health problems that had blighted him, with no view to taking it seriously. 

“At school, I struggled with bad anxiety and depression so I started swimming to try to rebuild myself, there were no performance goals in the early days,” says the 26-year-old, who suffers from the degenerative eye condition, Stargardt disease. 

“For me, it stemmed from a lack of self-belief. I think it’s societal – there’s a stigma around what people with disabilities or visual impairments can do.  

“In my case, my disability wasn’t diagnosed until I was 9 and it’s progressive so it’s been interesting to see how people changed in terms of the way they treated me.  

“I was a very outgoing kid – I loved climbing trees and that kind of thing but after I was diagnosed, what I wanted to do didn’t change but how people treated me did.  

“People’s expectations changed – that I shouldn’t be doing certain things anymore. I grew up in the Borders and being outside exploring was a big part of my childhood but I felt like, having this disability now, society expected me to be a bit of a recluse.  

“And especially when you’re younger, you tend to do what society expects you to do rather than what you want to do.” 

For a long time, Clegg didn’t reveal the turmoil he was going through. 

But in recent months, he began to open up about his feelings and the challenges he has faced and this, he admits, has made a huge difference to his life. 

“I’ve always been a pretty private person and for a long time, I didn’t speak to anyone about any of this. And I’ve never spoken publicly about it. Part of it is that fear of showing weakness and I didn’t want anyone to see me as weak – which is such a misconception because feeling like this is not weakness,” he says. 

“I definitely feel better having spoken out, especially with my family. 

“My family found it hard to understand why I was quite withdrawn and distant.  

“I dealt with a lot of it on my own because I’d just shutdown and not speak to anyone but then I got into a long-term relationship and that’s when I began to open up. I felt very vulnerable but it’s helped a lot.  

“Talking about it takes the power away from the situation.” 

Clegg is now in what he describes as a “very good place” mentally and he heads into this week’s World Championships, which begin today in Maderia, as one of the leading athletes in the 30-strong British squad, which also includes fellow Scots Toni Shaw, Ollie Carter, Sam Downie, Louis Lawlor and Scott Quin. 

However, Clegg is adamant he is not setting himself any concrete targets having learnt his lesson last year. 

Last summer, at what was his second Paralympic Games, Clegg, as world record holder, went in as favourite for the 100m butterfly in the S12 category but the fairy tale ending that he so hoped for did not materialise, with the Scot only winning silver, as well as a brace of freestyle bronzes. 

A recent bout of Covid did nothing to help Clegg’s World Championships preparations, but more than anything, he has spent recent months focusing on reassessing his goals in the sport. 

“This year has been quite an interesting one,” the Edinburgh University swimmer says.  

“In the end, Tokyo was a bit disappointing for me and I’m not sure if that was because of the pressure I put on myself so what this year has been about is changing my approach, changing where I put my emotional energy and changing my relationship with the sport. That’s been a really nice journey. 

“Now, what I want to get out of my career is something more than just performance – I want to see how I can give back to other people and disability and the visually impaired community.” 

Following his return from Maderia, Clegg will have a quick turnaround, with the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham beginning only a month later. 

With the host city selecting the para-events they include, this is Clegg’s first opportunity to compete at a Commonwealth Games so he admits that despite possessing an already impressive CV, Birmingham 2022 is going to be particularly significant. 

“Commy Games is going to be a special moment for me – it’s going to be my first time competing for Scotland and it might be the last time,” he says. 

“I’ll be swimming the 50m freestyle and while it’s not one of my strongest, it makes it a different challenge for me.  

“I’ve still got a chance of squeezing a medal though, it’ll be a good fight between the top four. And being part of Team Scotland will be fantastic.”