‘These are the first Games where I’ve seen the Olympic and Paralympic logos side by side’

Gold-medal-winner Ellen Keane says her achievement has helped her to own her story

Ellen Keane  after winning the women’s 100m breaststroke swimming event: ‘We’re being treated as equals to Olympians. We’re just athletes who happen to have a disability.’ Photograph: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty

Ellen Keane after winning the women’s 100m breaststroke swimming event: ‘We’re being treated as equals to Olympians. We’re just athletes who happen to have a disability.’ Photograph: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty

 

Ellen Keane can’t yet luxuriate in her new status as a Paralympic champion. The protocol that attends winners swallows chunks of time in the immediate aftermath, from media duties to compulsory drug testing, but she still managed to personalise a few moments here and there.

One involved her coach, Dave Malone, whom she asked to put the gold medal around her neck, a formality that is no longer observed at the poolside ceremony because of Covid-19 issues. She was able to draw breath, the two sharing a laugh about the 13-year time lapse since Keane first dipped her toe in the water as a Paralympic athlete in Beijing (2008); a slow, steady crawl to her 26-year-old peak.

“I had put the medal around my own neck so no one had actually put the medal around my neck yet,” Keane said. “I gave it to him straight away and said, ‘here you go, this is yours’, and he said, ‘we’ll get a photo’. We had a little moment because he is a Paralympic gold medallist himself so it was nice to be able to have that with him.”

A decision to disengage from social media in the build-up to the race allowed her to sleep better and enjoy a more even keel emotionally, but no longer constrained she gorged on social media feeds until 3am, while also scrolling through messages of congratulations.

It was one of the reasons why she woke up tired, but there were others. “You need to swim down and get all of that lactic acid out of your body and recover, but I didn’t get that yesterday because it was media, doping control and medal ceremony. So this morning when I woke up I was literally in bits and I was just, ‘I can’t even think about the gold medal right now’, I was in so much pain.

“I just had a swim there so I’m starting to feel a little bit better and even seeing everything on social media and Twitter, I’m beginning to realise what I’ve done and it’s really lovely to know that I’ve actually finally done it.”

Tactical changes

Tactically three changes from her semi-final – she didn’t drop her head on entry to the water, timed her turn perfectly and enjoyed a caffeine kick in the shape of a coffee prior to the race – contributed to a lifetime-best swim. There was one other alteration. “I also changed my suit because I wanted to be in a purple suit.” Why a purple suit? “It just looked prettier and I was easier to spot if you were following the race,” she laughed.

The Clontarf woman is a keen advocate when it comes to changing the perception and increasing the profile of athletes and people with a disability. In Tokyo she has noticed some positive steps. “In Beijing there wasn’t that much coverage or knowledge about the Paralympics. I was still getting called a ‘Special Olympian’.

By London 2012, with the coverage that Channel 4 did, people were starting to understand Paralympics a bit more. And then with Rio, having won the medal, it’s always been growing, but I feel like Tokyo has been the pinnacle.

“These Games are the first I’ve been at where I’ve seen the Olympic and Paralympic logos side by side. We are seen as equals here; there’s a bottle of water in front of me and it has the two logos on it, and I’ve never seen that before.

“In Rio, all of the Olympic athletes got their phones and the Paralympians didn’t get anything. Here in Tokyo we’re getting all the same things; we’re being treated as equals to Olympians. We’re just athletes who happen to have a disability. The goal of the Paralympic movement is to help people realise that anyone who has a disability is still a person and is still capable of things once you give them a challenge.”

Credibility

On a personal level she feels that the gold medal lends more credibility to her story. Keane said: “Yeah I think this gold medal is actually going to make a difference. I feel like I have always been a bit hesitant to fully embrace talking about my sporting journey.

“I have always been quite open about my own personal life and my own personal feelings about my body, but now that I have a gold medal I have a bit more of a story to tell because I have gone through ups and downs. I never felt that I had that high to be able to say that you can get there; now that I have that I can fully have peace of mind knowing that I am not a fraud,” she smiled.

“To be honest it is all about not giving up on yourself, you don’t have to have a disability to relate to my story. The reason that I kept going is that I knew deep down inside of me that there was something special that I could do. That’s what I did and that’s just because I didn’t give up on myself.”

Footnote: She slept with the gold medal under her pillow.

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