BLACKPOOL, England -- Erin Green is perched on a starting block, ready to start her race. Everything is silent around her. Born profoundly deaf, she can't hear the orders from the marshals or the excited buzz of the crowd around the swimming pool -- and she is nervous. But then she feels her coach, Emma Inglis, place a hand on her back, and suddenly she is not alone.
The touch is more than a display of reassurance. It is a moment of trust that symbolizes Green's relationship with Inglis, and a scenario they have practiced hundreds of times as Green prepares to compete for Great Britain in the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (March 14-21). With the sound of the starting whistle, Inglis removes her hand from Green's back, and only then she knows it is time to race.
Green's mother, Alison, can hardly watch. "I'm probably more nervous than Erin," she says. "I ask my husband to tell me when she is in the water because I don't want them to get disqualified. She has to rely on Emma in getting it right."
Green won't let anyone apart from Inglis help her with the responsibility of the "tap start" in an important race. The pair shares a special bond, inside and outside of swimming. Inglis is not only Green's coach, but she is her friend and role model, too. Bilateral cochlear implants allow 18-year-old Green to hear when she is out of the water, but when she is in the pool, Inglis is vital because of her ability to use sign language and communicate coaching instructions. They call it their secret language, although a lot of the time facial expressions are all they need. "I can tell when she wants me to work hard," Green says. "She has that serious face on."
The nerves disappear once Green is in the water. She is a fighter, fiercely determined and unbelievably competitive. Green's team used to have to put a sick bucket at poolside because she would try so hard during her training sessions and races that she would vomit when she got to the end of her lane. "Thankfully we're over that now," Inglis says with a laugh.
Inglis adds that the pool is Green's "safe space" because of how happy she is when she's in the water. Swimming has also given her the confidence to enroll at a local college and pursue a sports degree. When she is older, she wants to be a coach, just like Inglis. "It's always been me and her from the start," Green says. "I don't know what I would do without her."
Through her swimming, Green has also become strong and athletic, a remarkable transformation considering she weighed just 1 pound, 10 ounces at birth. She was born prematurely, at just 27 weeks, with an intellectual disability, and spent her first five months in hospital before she was able to be taken home. Four years later, she almost drowned in a swimming pool when she was on a family holiday. The incident prompted Alison Green to take her daughter to her first swimming lesson. "To see where she is now is great," Alison says. "Swimming gives her the chance to excel at something."
Inglis met Green while volunteering at a youth club for local deaf children. Her ability to sign, which she learned when she was a teenager before pursuing a sign language degree at university, gave her and Green an instant connection. Inglis, whose brother has Down syndrome, was also head coach with the Blackpool Polar Bears, a swimming club her mother founded for those with intellectual disabilities. Inglis invited Green to join. The friendship blossomed from there.
When Green and Inglis talk, they bounce off each other and the conversation -- on this day, about how Green plans to catch up on some much-needed sleep -- moves at an unrelenting rate. "I've seen a difference over the last few years from being such a young, quiet, timid little girl," Inglis says. "Now we're not able to shut her up!"
Naturally, the conversation always comes back to swimming. Green specialises in long distance and will be competing in the 400-metre, 800-metre and 1,500-metre free races in Abu Dhabi. They are hard events, but Green is ready to live her dream of competing for her country after almost four years of training. "It shows how much work I've done to be able to swim those races," Green says. "It's going to be a challenge but I like a challenge, and that's what it's all about in sport."
Representing Great Britain is enough for Green, but her competitive nature means she will be wanting to win as well. She hopes to be as successful as her other inspiration, Michael Phelps. "I know what I want to achieve," she says. "I've trained hard, so the next thing I can do is perform my best and hope to get a gold medal."
"I just want Erin to do her absolute best," says Inglis, who will be with Green in Abu Dhabi.
Inglis knows what the experience is like, having coached the GB squad at the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles four years ago. The event became an overwhelming experience for her after several athletes won medals and set personal bests.
"It was the most emotional I've ever been," Inglis says.
Now it's Green's turn.