Ellen Keane - A champion to change our minds

Ellen Keane: ‘If people are going to stare you might as well wave it in the air and be proud of it.’ Photo: Sam Barnes

Eamonn Sweeney

Ellen Keane’s victory in the 100m breaststroke at the Paralympics feels like the perfect gold medal performance.

Not just because her triumph on Thursday morning in a personal best time represents the crowning achievement of a long and illustrious career. But because Keane has worked almost as hard to educate the public about the Paralympics, and those who compete in it, as she has in the pool.

The Clontarf 26-year-old’s achievement in knocking almost two seconds off her personal best to win in Tokyo is the apotheosis of a remarkable journey which began in 2008 when she competed in the Beijing games when just 13.

Her age made her noteworthy but so did her performance when finishing sixth in the 100m breaststroke final. Two bronze medals followed in the 2013 world championships and another one at the same event two years later.

Her bronze in the 100m breaststroke final at the 2016 Paralympics was followed by a memorable victory at the 2018 Europeans in Dublin where she also took bronze in the 200m individual medley.

But the Tokyo gold beats all, not least because controversial changes to the disability qualification criteria after Rio made Keane’s task tougher to the extent that two years ago she was lamenting, “It doesn’t matter how much faster I get, how hard I work, I’m never going to get there.” Yet she knuckled down, redoubled her efforts and moved up a gear with golden results.

Her honesty about her feelings was typical of someone whose eloquence and outspokenness have made her an ideal ambassador for Paralympic sport.

In February she wrote on Instagram, “I am a Paralympian. Not an Olympian. The Paralympian movement uses sport to showcase how powerful, how strong and how great a person with a disability is if you just give them an opportunity. I represent people with disabilities, not just my country.”

Keane feels that referring to her simply as an Olympian suggested a certain unease about the subject of disability. That seems about right. Well intentioned statements about Paralympians being exactly the same as Olympians miss the point. They’re not exactly the same. The crucial point is that this doesn’t make them lesser athletes or human beings.

On one level Ellen Keane is an elite athlete like Paul O’Donovan or Kellie Harrington. But she’s also a young woman who was born with most of her left arm missing below the elbow and who can remember, “The first time I learned to tie up my hair. I literally stood in front of the mirror crying for an hour until I finally did it because I didn’t want my mam to have to do it every day.”

Some media articles before the London games urged people to concentrate on the performances and forget about the disabilities altogether. But Keane’s struggles with the arm she used to hide out of self-consciousness are part of her story. Just as the fact that archer Kerrie Leonard was paralysed from the waist down after falling from a tractor at the age of six, that weightlifter Britney Arendse was rendered paraplegic by a car accident when she was nine and that cyclist Gary O’Reilly has had to overcome a broken back to make it to Tokyo are part of theirs.

That reluctance to mention disabilities was perhaps rooted in a fear of condescension. But most people’s reaction to Paralympian stories is one of awe rather than condescension.

There’s an important fundamental difference between the Olympics and Paralympics. I love the former, but there is something problematic about its privileging of physical excellence. It’s not entirely surprising that totalitarian regimes have always prized success at this celebration of Supermen and Superwomen.

By contrast, the message of the Paralympics is radical rather than reactionary. It upends received ideas about what people with disabilities are capable of, it gives centre stage to the kind of bodies which are sidelined by a mass media obsessed with ideal images of health and beauty and it challenges complacent ideas about what ‘normality’ actually is.

No sporting event is more truly diverse than the Paralympics.

This makes it an event for these times, as does its status as a living monument to resilience, which the last 18 months have shown may be the most important of human qualities. Whether we have a disability or not, we will encounter times in our lives when we need to dig deep and overcome.

The message that, as Keane says, “Whether you have one leg missing or you’re in a wheelchair or you’re blind, you can do literally anything you want to do. There’s always a way of doing something,” is one we all need to hear.

The new champion isn’t finished yet as she should also be a contender in the individual medley final on Wednesday morning. And there are plenty of other potential Irish highlights over the next week. Five-time gold medallist Jason Smyth will bid to continue his remarkable 100m run at 11.50 today, while Michael McKillop, who has won four golds at 800m and 1500m, will run in the final of the latter next Saturday. Cork discus thrower Niamh McCarthy, who took silver in Rio, will bid for another place on the podium next Wednesday morning. There’s also an intriguing addition in Dungannon’s Phil Eaglesham, who was left with chronic disabilities from a disease contracted while serving with the Royal Marines in Afghanistan. A world bronze medallist two years ago, he’s Ireland’s first competitor in a shooting event.

But for the moment the focus will be on the woman whose journey began when she was invited to a competition in Lisburn by someone whose daughter had swum in the Paralympics. It continued as her parents Eddie and Laura spent years getting up at 4.10 in the morning to bring her training three or four times a week. Tokyo was the culmination of a Herculean effort by not just Ellen, but her family too.

She’s come a long way in and out of the pool. The memory of how, “when I was younger there was nobody in the media with a disability,” makes her determined to speak out. The girl who hid her arm has become a woman who says, “My message is this — if people are going to stare you might as well wave it in the air and be proud of it.”

There’s a refreshing humour about someone whose Twitter bio reads, “known for swimming up and down with one arm,” and who earlier this month responded to a tweet, “Harrington has today leapfrogged Keane to become Ireland’s greatest sporting surname,” with the words “challenge accepted.”

So let’s celebrate our latest gold medallist. Not an Olympic gold medallist, a Paralympic gold medallist. One who deserves every bit as much praise and celebration as the winners at the other games in Tokyo.

This is a champion to not just win hearts but to change minds.

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