Ellen Keane’s dream comes true as she reaps a golden reward

26-year-old Dubliner produces a lifetime’s best swim to claim Ireland’s first medal

Ellen Keane celebrates winning a gold medal at the Paralympic Games in the SB8 100m Breaststroke final at Tokyo’s Aquatic Centre. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Ellen Keane celebrates winning a gold medal at the Paralympic Games in the SB8 100m Breaststroke final at Tokyo’s Aquatic Centre. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

Ellen Keane, Paralympic champion. It’s got a nice ring to it. The 26-year-old fulfilled a dream, 13 years on from Beijing, in this her fourth Games when winning the gold medal in the SB8 100m Breaststroke final, conjuring a breathless finish to a pulsating race.

Two high-calibre performances in a day, the first to win her heat, and then in the final with an impeccable sense of timing producing a lifetime’s best swim, two seconds quicker than she had managed previously to oust a Paralympian icon, Sophie Pascoe.

Two years older, the New Zealander has won nine gold and eight silver medals in four Paralympic Games, her country’s most successful Para-athlete.

It’s a beautiful upgrade on the bronze Keane won in the same event in Rio, five years ago and achieved on foot of a stunning performance, by turns composed, powerful and technically astute. It’s Ireland’s first medal at the Tokyo Paralympics.

In the immediate aftermath she struggled to come to terms with her new found status.

“I don’t think it has fully sunk in yet. When I dove in my goggles filled up with water and I thought that maybe that was a good thing because I couldn’t see where the girls were around me; just on the turn I saw Sophie [Pascoe] a little bit.

“I had a game plan and I stuck to it. The last thing that my coach said before I went in, ‘if I need to push you in a wheelchair home, I want those legs wrecked.’ And that’s exactly what I did.”

Her coach Dave Malone, who is also the Irish Paralympics performance director, knows exactly what’s required to win gold in the pool having done so in Sydney (2000).

She continued: “I tend to rush my stroke when I want to go fast. I am a strong person so if I start to rush my stroke I don’t get any power from my legs. It was more being long, strong, controlled and keeping my strokes as streamlined as possible.”

It seems a lifetime ago that the 13-year-old Keane took to the pool in Beijing in her first Paralympics.

“To be honest I thought I would have won a gold medal a long time ago. It did get to me throughout the years. Having that break and time off made me miss the sport and fall in love again.

“I knew coming here that it was an opportunity to enjoy it; I didn’t put any pressure on myself for a medal, I just wanted a PB [personal best time].”

She explained that she had taken a break from social media because it was distracting and fuelling the nerves before explaining that she then was spooked by being a little too calm. Keane admitted that the Paralympics being pushed out by a year gave her “time to work on myself”.

More inclusive

“I usually get really nervous going into competitions but in the last 18 months I just learned to trust myself. That’s what happened here.”

The gold medal will allow the Clontarf native to continue to campaign to make Ireland a more inclusive society for people with disability.

She made the point in a recent interview that if she wasn’t introduced to sport, and by extension the Paralympics, that she didn’t know if she would have come across “someone with the same arm as me and that would be really, really sad”. She wants people with disabilities to inspire and be visible in all walks of life.

Having initially tried to hide her arm, she embraced it and spoke about her “lucky fin” in a desire to destigmatize disability. She also wanted people to understand that the Paralympics is full of high-performance athletes, who commit to their disciplines every bit as rigorously in preparatory terms as their Olympic counterparts and that it wasn’t just a case of competing simply through eligibility.

She is and will continue to be a brilliant role model, an infectious, bubbly personality but someone who can simultaneously be a passionate and eloquent advocate bent on changing and challenging perceptions. Anyway you have to love someone with chutzpah and sense of fun to call their beloved sausage dog (her description), a Dachshund, Denny.

She’s looking forward to being reunited with the dog, her family and boyfriend Gavin Maguire, possibly in that order.

“I want to take this opportunity to say ‘hi’ to my family who are stuck at home. I know they did get up at 3.0am to watch me race [in the heat]. I am really grateful to them and all their support.”

Limerick teenager Róisín Ní Ríain reached the final for the second day running, managing a brilliant sixth-place finish as she set another PB – her third in four competitive swims in Tokyo – in the S13 100m Backstroke.

Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal recorded a new national record time of 1:09.044 in the B1000m Time Trial at the Velodrome, good enough for a sixth-place finish overall and the perfect opening salvo for events in which they will enjoy real medal prospects.

Galway’s Ronan Grimes also produced his best ever performance in the C4 1000m Time Trial Final with a time of 1:08.62., shaving over a second off his personal best in finishing 15th overall.

Tamsin Addison on her horse Farenheit and 62-year-old Rosemary Gaffney on Werona both made their Paralympic debuts and finished 12th and 15th respectively in Grade V and IV dressage.

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