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Ellen Keane's remarkable journey from self-conscious 'girl with one arm' to Paralympic medallist

The 21-year-old’s outstanding efforts were rewarded at her third Paralympics with a bronze medal.

SPEAKING TO ELLEN Keane, it’s hard to believe that she’s a three-time Paralympian and a bronze medallist at that.

She’s just like any other 21-year-old girl – makeup done, smiley, bubbly and full of chat. But Ellen Keane, or ‘the girl with one arm’ as she refers to herself as, is something special.

2016 Images of the Year Source: Paul Mohan/SPORTSFILE

Born with an underdeveloped arm, she hasn’t always been as comfortable in her own skin though.

Understandably, teenage years were tough for Keane. Being a self-conscious and insecure teenage girl is already tough enough as it is.

“I was so conscious and I think, allowing myself to be self-concious made it worse. I would always wear my sleeves down,” she tells The42.

“I felt the need to hide it. I never wanted to be the girl with one arm, I didn’t want people staring. But people aren’t like that, I think it’s all in my own head. People don’t notice it.

“But I think the problem there as well is that when people think of a disability they think of people in a wheelchair, or that they’re blind or deaf, because people don’t put themselves out there. So that’s what I’m trying to do at the same time.

“I had nobody to compare myself to, and it was kind of only staying in sport and staying in swimming that I got more comfortable with myself, and my body.

And now, I’d feel weird with two hands, I don’t want to have two hands, I think it’s just one of those little things that I enjoy and that makes a difference. People are never going to forget the girl with one arm.

Since then, the swimmer from Clontarf has come an incredibly long way, not just on a personal level but she’s taken the international stage by storm in doing so.

Something that really epitomises Keane’s journey on both scales is a picture from the medal ceremony in Rio during the summer. She tells me that it was actually her idea that they raise their stumps in unison, showing the equality of the race across the board.

“Well, we all have the same arm, we’re all missing the same arm, why don’t we just put our arms up?” she said to the girls as they were photographed, making for one of the best images of the sporting year.

Rio 2016 Paralympic Games - Day 7 Source: Paul Mohan/SPORTSFILE

Keane competed at her first Paralympic Games at the tender age of 13. She then swam in London at the 2012 Games, and has picked up three bronze World Championship medals on the way.

She reflects fondly on Beijing 2008, and manages to link it to this summer’s Games.

“That’s the thing, at the time it was just exciting. It was like ‘oh I get to go to China, all my friends are in school and I’m staying in this five star hotel made of marble.’ And then going into the Olympic village and getting to see all these famous athletes. Everyone just treated me the same, they just treated me like any other athlete. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time.

“But when I was in Rio, Nicole Turner was only 14. So I got to watch her experience her first games, only being a year older than I was in Beijing. It was so weird. It was nice to be able to relive the moments through her, I would have reacted the same way she did.

“In Rio, nothing phased her, she didn’t even get what it was. She obviously knew how important it was, but she just went with it. I was so jealous of her, I was like ‘can I be as carefree as you are right now? You’re just loving life, I’m having an anxiety attack in the corner!’”

This year was the big one for Keane. It was quite the contrast to Beijing where she took everything in her stride as a carefree 13-year-old. She knew what she needed to do in Rio, and undoubtedly so, she delivered.

It was so big to me, being my third Games, in my head I needed to win a medal. To kind of validate myself as an athlete, I needed to win a medal. I knew I was fully capable of it.

“I was training really really well from September to March, I was really good. And then I don’t know what happened, I hit a low, and I found it really hard to pick myself up. I went to Europeans in April and I swam terribly, and then leading into Rio, I knew that I wasn’t where I wanted to be. But I had to deal with where I was.

“I just kept getting frustrated, my anxiety was hitting in, I wasn’t sleeping properly. The closer it got the more anxious I got, and I think that really reflected in my first race which was the 200m Individual Medley. I went out so fast, and I just died then, I couldn’t come back from the speed I went out. I didn’t even make the final and I had won a world medal [in the same event] the year before.”

Fortunately, everything clicked right in time for her favourite stroke – breaststroke. Keane lead from the front in her heat, stormed to the final and took home a bronze medal.

With the achievement only having hit her since she returned home, Keane took a well-earned break from the pool but has still had a rather hectic schedule between college, award ceremonies and her social life.

From talking to the DIT Cullinary Entrepreneurship student, it’s clear that swimming isn’t the only thing she’s passionate about.

“I really like it. I get to do cooking modules, all of this year I was baking with chocolate and it’s so cool. This time last year we got to make a massive gingerbread house! And then you get to learn all of the different business aspects, so it’s a good mix and it keeps me distracted.

If you’re 24/7 swimming, your mind would go numb. Swimming is quite a mind-numbing sport to train anyway, because you’re swimming up and down looking at a line and you’re alone with your thoughts. If that’s all you’re doing with your life, you’re going to go crazy.

“Because I’ve been so strict with myself I haven’t allowed myself to enjoy college. It’s always been train, go straight to college, leave college early to go back training and then go to bed, so it’s just been the same thing every day. My friends were like ‘we’ve never seen you so much!’

“I took a month off and then I went back training, just more to keep my fitness up. When I actually went back, training I didn’t want to be there. It was like coming back and being like ‘why am I here?’ I didn’t want to compete.

“I said I was going to go to Tokyo but I didn’t know how I was going to at that time. We have Europeans in Dublin in 2018 – that’s kind of the goal at the moment. But even then I was like ‘I’m going to come last in all of these races.’

“But the awards that we go to, they keep playing back all of these highlights from the Games and I’m thinking oh no, I need to go back. I’m ready to go back now.

Rio 2016 Paralympic Games - Day 7 Source: Paul Mohan/SPORTSFILE

Low and behold though, her focus is firmly set on Tokyo now.

Two weeks ago, Keane took to Twitter to express her frustration at the lack of recognition Paralympians receive.

An Irish media organisation had compiled a shortlist for their female athlete of the year award, and Keane was disheartened at the absence of a Paralympic nominee.

“I think that’s kind of what has made me more focused about Tokyo now, because the more awards that I go to it’s great to see all of this recognition for the Olympians. But then there’s people who – Katie Dunleavy and her partner Evie Mc Crystal, won a gold medal and a silver – get nominated for things but it’s somehow not good enough.

“I didn’t personally care if I was nominated, it’s the fact that they didn’t even acknowledge a Paralympian. So I put up the tweet, I was trying to think how I could do it without being too cheeky. It’s just the fact that there was nobody and no recognition.

“When it comes to the equality thing, it’s not even Olympians first. In Ireland, it’s GAA first, then maybe rugby, then women’s GAA and women’s rugby, then it goes Olympians, male Olympians and female Olympians, then it goes Paralympians, male Paralympians, and we’re just at the the bottom.

“The thing is the females on the Paralympic team, we won more medals than the males, and we won more medals than the Olympians. It’s just frustrating.

Everyone was kind of complaining that Conor McGregor won the RTÉ Sportsperson of the Year, but I think he’s amazing for what he did. Basically he took a sport that nobody cared about in Ireland and he turned it around, and that’s what I feel like we need to do with Paralympics.

The 21-year-old has been swimming for pretty much all of her life, and credits her parents highly for her successes.

“They didn’t want to treat me any differently. I started lessons with my brother and my sister, and my cousins. I hated lessons, and I think they sort of regretted it as soon as I started competing because they had to get up at half 4 in the morning to bring me training!”

She now trains with the NAC (National Aquatic Centre) swim club, alongside fellow Paralympians James Skully and Rob Kelly. and modern pentathletes Natalya Coyle and Arthur Lonergan.

“In the lead-up to Rio, Monday would be only one session so that would be two hours and then on Tuesday, I’d have a morning session, an evening session and gym and there might be physio in there as well.

“It was like that every second day. It would be one, and then three, and one and then three and one and then three and always Sundays off. But I could be racing as well, so I mightn’t actually have Sundays off.

“And competitions in Ireland would be Friday, Saturday, Sunday and if I was travelling away it would be Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. And then I had college on top of that.”

Irish Paralympic Team Homecoming Source: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE

Looking to 2017, Keane is enjoying some down-time before the mayhem and European, along with Olympic preparation starts again.

“I suppose it’s giving me that one last chance at freedom before it all kicks off again. 2016 was what I wanted it to be but it wasn’t perfect. Our main goal now is Europeans in Dublin in 2018. It’s kind of like a home competition, and trying to get a big home crowd so I really want to perform there to make it a big deal.

“Just announced, there’s been a World Series and they’ve never had a World Series in Paralympic swimming. So there’s five competitions, and the more you go and the more you race, the more points you get. And at the end of the five, they award a winner. It’s a money-based thing as well, there’s never been cash prizes at a Paralympic event before, so it’s a bit of fun and you can earn some money at the same time. I think it starts in March.

“Like I said, in my head it had always only been about Europeans in Dublin and then I was like ‘I would be a fool to give up two years leading into Tokyo’. The thing about Rio is I always believed that I could win a bronze medal. I’d never thought I could win a silver medal, I don’t know why I’d never even thought about it.

“To me, bronze was what I wanted, bronze was acceptable. It was silly in my head, to even think of silver. But since I’ve come back I’m like ‘why not? I want a gold medal!’ Trying not to go for it is the stupidest thing that anyone could ever think of. So Tokyo 2020, that’s the goal.”

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Emma Duffy

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