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Ellen Keane’s golden journey in the pool is an inspiration to all

Ellen Keane kisses her gold medal after her SB8 100m breaststroke success in Tokyo. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Seán McGoldrick

Her life will not be defined by what happened in a race lasting 80 seconds in the Tokyo Aquatics Centre today.

Still, Ellen Keane becoming Ireland’s first Paralympic gold medallist at the 2021 Games represents another milestone in the remarkable career of the 26-year-old Clontarf swimmer and disability rights advocate.

Her win in the SBS 100m breaststroke final in Tokyo was the culmination of 13 years of “blood, sweat and tears” since becoming Ireland’s youngest Paralympian at the age of 13 in 2008.

It’s a measure of her maturity that her focus remained on her primary goal even after her goggles filled with water after diving into the pool when the starting pistol sounded in Thursday’s final. “I think that was maybe a good thing because I couldn’t see the girls who were around me,” she suggested afterwards.

Like all great champions, she focused on what she could control and swam the perfect race to secure the gold medal in a personal best time of 1:19.93.

Having medalled at European level, she won the gold medal in her specialist event when Dublin hosted the championships in 2018, and at the World Championships and securing a bronze medal at the last Paralympics in Rio in 2016, this was the crowning moment.

As she once described it, she was born “without my left arm from below the elbow”. The medical term used for her condition is dysmelia.

Growing up, she mucked in with her siblings and did all the leisure activities they enjoyed. She loved dancing, played Gaelic football and went to swimming lessons. Her life changed after her father Eddie touched base with the then manager of the Irish Paralympic swimming team, Geraldine Conway, whose daughter had the same condition as Ellen.

Having been invited to a swimming competition in Lisburn aged eight, she found her drug of choice: racing in the pool. “I loved racing. I loved the control I had, and I got told that I was quite good, so I decided to keep it up.”

Back home in Dublin, she joined a swimming club. Before long, what had begun as a once-a-week visit to the pool evolved into twice-daily sessions four to five times a week. Her parents were getting up at 4.20am to drive her to the swimming pool.

Initially, she continued with her hip-hop dancing classes three times a week. Ultimately, it got to the point where she had to make a choice.

“I think somehow I just made the smart choice of going with swimming because I felt like there was more of an opportunity there for me than there would be in dancing. But I still love dancing.” According to friends, she can still perform the ‘worm’.

At the tender age of ten, she did her first drugs tests and, within three years, had made her Paralympic debut in Beijing, where she finished sixth in the 100m breaststroke final. But it hasn’t been a linear journey from Beijing to Tokyo, where she finally stepped onto the number-one spot on the podium.

During her teenage years, she developed low self-esteem and hid her arm beneath sleeves. In one memorable interview, she explained how it felt when people started to stare at her.

“I never noticed that I was different to anyone else until I began to notice how much people stare. Seriously, it’s not cool to gawk at a 10-year-old kid for being different when you’re an adult.

“I developed extreme anxiety when I was out in public and even in school. I was terrified to be stared at, to be rejected for being different. It created this idea in my head that society would think I was a freak. It wasn’t until I started college that I had the confidence to go out in public sleeveless.

“Swimming gave me this confidence as there was nowhere to hide, so I had to try and transfer this confidence to everyday life. The first time I went without sleeves was the scariest day of my life, but it was so liberating. I haven’t looked back since.”

Keane’s outlook concerning her disability is very different now; when she goes to have her nails done now, she checks in advance if she can get it at half price.

Since graduating from college, she has been a full-time swimmer under the tutelage of former Paralympic swimming gold medallist Dave Malone. She focused on being in peak condition for the Tokyo Games.

A recipient of the Lord Mayor Award for her contribution to Irish society, she has also been named one of the most influential women in Irish sport.

The only downside to her victory in Tokyo was that her parents, Laura and Eddie, were not in Japan to witness it. The latter’s colourful costumes have featured at swimming galas in all corners of the globe over the last decade.

The latest love in her life is Denny, her beloved dachshund, who has his own Instagram account. But Ellen’s work in Japan is not over yet. She will be swimming in the SM9 200m individual medley next Wednesday.

But in the words of the Sawdoctors’ hit tune, ‘To win just one would be enough’. Ellen Keane has found her sporting nirvana.

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