Jim Muirhead is Scotland’s most successful visually impaired male Paralympian. Jim won 5 gold, 5 silver and 3 bronze medals at the Games in Toronto in 1976 through to the Games in New York in 1984. Both Jim’s parents were good swimmers and he claims his sister Lindsey was a better swimmer than him but didn’t like competing. Family members encouraged his involvement in competitive swimming throughout his career and he joined Belmont swimming club in Dundee age 10.
Jim had worn glasses since he was 5 and in 1966, aged 13, had an operation to repair a detached retina and was told not to compete or dive or play contact sports. Gradually however he became involved in more sports and in 1968 the retina detached again. After an unsuccessful operation he lost all sight in his right eye. Jim became more engrossed in swim training, committing 5 nights per week to his ambition of becoming an Olympic swimmer. In 1968/9 Jim was invited to join the pre-Olympic squad, concentrating on butterfly, freestyle and some back stroke but not breast stroke. The Munich Games of 1972 were his target. Sadly in 1970 age 17, an unsuccessful operation to cure glaucoma resulted in Jim losing his sight totally. Jim was unable to maintain his place in the Olympic squad and gave up swimming.
After a spell at the Royal Blind School and the Rehabilitation Centre in Ceres in Fife, Jim headed to London in 1972 to study to become a physiotherapist. Recreational swimming was followed by an introduction to BSAD swimming at Stoke Mandeville but as yet no training. In1974 age 21, based on his grounding in mainstream swimming, Jim competed in his first World Championships winning 5 gold medals (free style, backstroke and butterfly). These were the first pan disability World Championship in the disability sports movement and for his efforts he was awarded ‘Sports Personality of the Year 1974’
In 1975 Jim qualified as a physiotherapist, returned to Scotland in 1976 and started working in Dundee. Jim’s mum took on the duties as coach at morning training and soon after he headed back to Stoke Mandeville for Paralympic trials. Jim was selected for the 1976 Toronto Games winning 2 gold and 2 silver medals (gold 4×100 individual medley and 100 butterfly. Silver 100 freestyle and 100 back stroke)
In 1978 resigned from his job in Dundee and was out of work for 9 months. He then travelled to the USA on his own for three months which resulted in about two years out of swimming. In 1979 Jim trained harder than ever and even applied for a couple of American universities, but was not accepted because they did not have the facilities for a blind athlete. Jim’s ambition was to study more physiotherapy and train in the USA. In 1979 he headed back to London to work at Greenwich hospital, mainly due to the close proximity of the 50 metre pool at Crystal Palace. He joined an inclusive training group at the ‘Saxon Crown swimming club’ and spent two and half hours every day in the pool training.
Aged 27 Jim was selected for the Paralympic Games in Arnhem and once again contributed to the Team GB total with golds in 100 Freestyle and 100 backstroke and silvers for 100 butterfly and 4×100 individual medley. Following six months out of training Jim returned to the Saxon Crown Club for the 1984 Paralympic Games in New York and ended his illustrious career with gold for 100 butterfly, silver for 100 freestyle and three bronze-medals for medley, back stroke and 400 metres freestyle.
No Scottish male visually impaired swimmer before or since has come anywhere near matching the performances of the great Jim Muirhead. As a competitor he was outstanding and as an opponent he was highly respected. Jim was an outstanding ambassador for Scotland and Great Britain and he was one of a number of great Scots who put Scotland on the international disability swimming map in the 70s and early 80s.