Ellen Keane: ‘When grown men give me a disgusted stare, I think you should know better’

The Paralympic champion swimmer spoke at the Irish Times Winter Nights Festival

Ellen Keane on winning Paralympic gold: ‘I was at peace and I had a quiet contentment inside me.’ Photograph: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty

Ellen Keane on winning Paralympic gold: ‘I was at peace and I had a quiet contentment inside me.’ Photograph: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty

 

“I want to see other beautiful dancers like me”, said Paralympic champion Ellen Keane, when explaining why she decided to take part in the current RTÉ television series, Dancing with the Stars.

She said that being the first Paralympian on the show has pushed her “out of her comfort zone” but that “it’s good to be uncomfortable because that’s how you grow”.

“I’m athletic and used to physically performing but trying to [perform] for the cameras is completely out of my comfort zone,” she told Irish Times sports columnist Joanne O’Riordan in the third night of The Irish Times online festival, Winter Nights.

When I got to Tokyo, I had such a good routine. I knew I had done everything I could

Keane spoke about the challenges of learning how to move her body differently when dancing. “It’s very obvious that if I do what the others do, my right arm is longer than my left. I’m not ashamed of my arm but I want to look aesthetically pleasing so I have to relax and see what comes naturally,” said Keane, who is looking forward to Sunday night’s movie themed show.

Keane is taking part in Dancing with the Stars this year. Photograph: RTÉ
Keane is taking part in Dancing with the Stars this year. Photograph: RTÉ

Moving the conversation back to Keane’s swimming achievements, O’Riordan asked her what changed between the time when she won a bronze medal in the Rio Paralympic Games in 2016 and when she won a gold medal in Tokyo in 2021.

“I didn’t trust myself in Rio. I had hit a wall in February/March and went downhill from there. It was such a relief when I won the bronze. Tokyo was what I needed. And when lockdown forced me out of the water, I started reading books like The Champion’s Mind [by Jim Afremow]. I worked so hard in the garden and when I got back in the water, I was so grateful. And when I got to Tokyo, I had such a good routine. I knew I had done everything I could,” she explained.

And when she won her gold medal in Tokyo for the 100 metres breaststroke, she said that “a calmness washed over” her. “I was happy. I was at peace and I had a quiet contentment inside me.”

Keane started swimming competitively at the age of 13 and credits her parents with always encouraging her to do anything she wanted to do. “They didn’t put up with anyone thinking less of me because I had a disability. I’ve come across people [with disabilities] who have been bubble-wrapped and they are incapable of doing things for themselves and that’s heart-breaking,” she said.

When fully grown men give me a disgusted stare, I think ‘you should know better.’ But, if kids are afraid of me, that hurts

However she felt as a child that other children were sometimes afraid of her but that children nowadays are completely different. “Children now have so much more understanding – it could be because of their parents, their schools or that they have more exposure to people with disabilities.”

But, what makes her most angry now is when adults stare at her. “When fully grown men give me a disgusted stare, I think ‘you should know better’. But, if kids are afraid of me, that hurts, that’s the hardest thing [still] about having a disability.”

She says that education and facilities are the keys to making sports more inclusive for people with disabilities. “Sport is so important for people with disabilities. It’s important for everyone’s health and wellbeing but it’s easier to retreat back in [if you have a disability] and that will make your disability worse. If you don’t look after your posture and muscles, you’ll end up getting injured,” said Keane, who will be back in training for the 2024 Paralympics in Paris once Dancing With the Stars is over.

The 2022 Irish Times Winter Nights online festival continues until Thursday, January 27th. Still to come are writer and feminist Caitlin Moran and Co Armagh poet, Paul Muldoon. For tickets, go to irishtimes.com/winternights.   

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