THEY don’t hand out Paralympic medals for overcoming challenges, but if they did, Josef Craig would have another gold to add to the one he so memorably claimed at London 2012.

Craig, who announced his retirement from para-swimming this morning, has spent his entire life battling against adversity. That he has achieved so much, and remained so personable and grounded, says much about his character and upbringing. In a world in which sporting celebrity is bestowed on plenty who do not deserve it, his success merits long-lasting recognition.

Born with cerebral palsy, Craig took up swimming at the age of nine. He loved it, and immediately displayed natural talent, but when he was 14, he was diagnosed with Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disease that affects the thyroid, and was forced to give up sport while he underwent surgery to have his thyroid removed.

Within months, he was back in the pool, and by the start of 2012, he was setting five personal bests at the Paralympic trials to earn a place at the London Games.

What happened next was truly exceptional, with a 15-year-old Craig winning gold in the 400m freestyle S7 to become Team GB’s youngest 2012 medal winner. A Jarrow postbox was painted gold in his honour, he was the joint winner of The Northern Echo’s Local Heroes Awards alongside Kat Copeland, and in December 2012, he was crowned Young Sports Personality of the Year at the BBC’s annual ceremony.

“The proudest moment of my career was when I was awarded an MBE,” says Craig. “I got it at Buckingham Palace, and by the Queen herself.”

The Northern Echo: Jarrow simmer Josef Craig celebrates his London Paralympic Games success

More success followed in 2013, with Craig setting a new world record as he won two gold medals and a silver at the World Para Swimming Championships in Montreal. Now 16, Craig was training at Sunderland Aquatic Centre and seemed destined for even bigger and better things, but his life was about to dramatically change. If winning a Paralympic gold medal was tough, things were about to get even more testing.

In 2014, the para-swimming authorities reclassified Craig, changing him from an S7 athlete to an S8. The difference between the two categories is vast, and it is to Craig’s immense credit that he handled the switch so successfully that he made the British team for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, winning a bronze in the 100m freestyle. In doing so, he became the first person ever to win medals at successive Paralympic Games despite being reclassified in between.

The change of classification affected his sporting life, and having achieved so much at such a young age, Craig also found himself wrestling with the personal challenges of having to deal with the pressures and profile of being a Paralympic champion.

He has subsequently been extremely open about his struggles with his mental health in the build-up to Rio, talking freely about having to battle with anxiety, bipolar and depression while still trying to devote himself to his punishing training schedule.

Winning that fight was surely his greatest achievement, and it is entirely in keeping with the rest of his career, when he could often be found supporting his fellow swimmers on the GB team and in his local Tyneside pool, that he wants to use his sporting retirement to try to raise awareness of mental health issues.

“I went through a lot, and for a long time,” says Craig. “I now want to use the platform and influence I have to help those facing mental issues. I want to use my journey as evidence that it is possible to turn things around, no matter how bad a situation may appear.

“Tyson Fury, an idol of mine, also faced his own battles, so to see him come through that and return to the top of his sport gave me the understanding to know that I could overcome anything. I am eternally grateful to the support he and his family gave me.”

The Northern Echo: British Paralympic swimmer Josef Craig at the unveiling of The National Lottery’s Celebratory Image at the Baltic arts centre in Gateshead. Picture: TOM BANKS

Craig intends to return to education, something he had to shelve because of his swimming commitments, and hopes to complete a foundation year studying sports management at Northumbria University. He is also keen to take on coaching responsibilities, helping a new generation of able-bodied and disabled swimmers to realise their goals.

He achieved his ambitions despite adversity at every turn. He won all of his battles, in an out of the pool, and retires as a true North-East champion.

THERE has been much excitement about the emergence of a new crop of English footballing talent in the last few weeks. Jadon Sancho made his senior international debut in Croatia last Friday, having made a hugely impressive start to the Bundesliga season with Borussia Dortmund despite being just 18. Mason Mount and Nathaniel Chalobah were also in Gareth Southgate’s squad, with Phil Foden stepping up to the Under-21s.

They are all exciting prospects, but by focusing so much attention on their young shoulders, we are in danger of overlooking another youngster who increasingly looks like being the key to England’s prospects at both Euro 2020 and the next World Cup in Qatar.

It seems strange to describe Raheem Sterling as a youngster, but while it feels as though he has been around forever, the Manchester City midfielder is still just 23.

He divides opinion, partly because of his propensity to waste chances and partly because of a perceived cockiness and arrogance that have made him a target of the tabloid press. Increasingly, though, he is England’s X-factor, and his performance in the first half of Monday’s 3-2 win in Spain was as good as anything produced by a player for the national team for at least a decade or so.

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Yes, he sometimes lacks composure. But his pace and movement terrify defenders, and he is developing into an ideal foil for Harry Kane.

Pep Guardiola knows just how good he is, having taken the winger’s contract discussions into his own hands in an attempt to prevent him leaving the Etihad. Gareth Southgate is also a fan, having repeatedly backed Sterling when the knives were out during the World Cup.

The England fans in Seville’s Estadio Benito Villamarin were quick to sing his name – surely it is time for the rest of the nation to get on board too.