«JE think when you are in this massive bubble, when you are in the village, sometimes you don’t look at the handicaps of the people. You just look at them as human beings and who they are. You forget that they have a disability and it’s only when you step back and talk to them… that you realize the stories they have. It’s one thing that’s amazing about the Paralympic Games.
Ellie Simmonds talks about the global sporting event she has become synonymous with. A Paralympic star since her debut at the age of 13, when she won the double gold in the pool in Beijing, by the time they arrived in London four years later, Simmonds was the face of the Games . After winning two more gold medals at home, Simmonds was confirmed – like it or not – as an icon of disabled sport when he broke through in mainstream society. Rio 2016 brought more gold, but so did the pain, and now, finally, comes Tokyo.
“I think it is fair that the Games move forward,” Simmonds says of the issue that has been on everyone’s lips for 18 months, and one that the successful hosting of the Olympic Games this summer has failed to address. answered only in part. The risks of Covid facing athletes with disabilities are greater than those facing Olympians, for example. “There are going to be a lot of modifications, they are going to try to make it as safe as possible. But we know that [the Games] brings people together. We had it in 2012 in London with a whole country and this competition, this year, will bring everyone together [worldwide]. Many people have lost their lives, people have lost their loved ones, and a little sport can bring passion and togetherness. It is important [Tokyo] arrive.
Simmonds’ advocacy for the Paralympic Games, and what he can do his best, is not forced. It certainly couldn’t be otherwise, given that her personal story is so closely tied to the event she attended every four years for half of her life. But that doesn’t mean she’s ready to gloss over the tough parts.
“I found it a lot more difficult as I got older,” she says of the expectation of being a Paralympic icon. “Coming to London I was still quite young and yes I felt the pressure but it was in a different way. Now the sport is advancing, it is getting a lot more competitive and I’m a lot older. It’s hard to stay on top. There’s a cheesy saying that isn’t there: it’s easy to get to the top but once there it’s harder to stay there, and I’m fully aware of that.
“I think there are definitely times when I feel the expectations on my shoulders and I think it’s because even before I run people expect me to get a gold medal and This is not the case. When [athletes] do well for the British public to side with them and [then] they want them to start over, don’t they. But it’s sport at the end of the day; you go out and you go up against seven other people in the final and you never know what they’re gonna do. There could be a person like me who turns 13, unknown, and comes away with two gold medals. So that’s good, but it can get to me sometimes and I find it difficult for sure. But I have a great support system around me to help me out.
These expectations will only be one of the particularly demanding challenges posed by these pandemic Paralympic Games. As a result, Simmonds says she hasn’t set any goals for Tokyo. “I’m just going to go out there and compete and give it my all because we had four months in 2020 when we were out of the pool and I couldn’t train,” she says. The fact that “everything is unknown” is something she finds “quite difficult because I like to be in control normally”.
A low point in Simmonds’ career was 2016, Rio a dark push to give it all. Real damage had been inflicted by a culture of intimidation among some of British Swimming’s coaches, the evidence of which only came to light in the years that followed. But those painful 12 months also provided a springboard. In 2017, Simmonds took a hiatus from sports and traveled the world. Along the way, she says, she developed a new kind of confidence in herself as a person.
“I think what I’m most proud of away from the pool is being good on my own,” she says. “What 2017 brought me is that I have confidence in myself. I agree to travel, meet people, see the world with my own eyes. The world is such an amazing place and it makes me want to travel but also to see how many amazing people there are out there. Having the maturity to talk to people, the confidence to talk to different people is what I love and hope to do this summer.
There have been other lessons from his absence, such as the ability to “step back,” a lesson that was only reinforced by the pandemic. “Sitting down for a bit of people watching and just taking that time is what I’ve learned this year. Sometimes when I was a kid I used to have FOMO [fear of missing out] so now I know it’s good to sit for 10 minutes and read a book or have time. It’s OK. “
Suspicion remains that there won’t be much time for calm and thoughtfulness in Tokyo over the next two weeks or so as Simmonds looks to retain and reclaim his title in the S6 class of the 200m Individual Medley. one in the 400m freestyle. His parents, who have been an ever-present support in his career to this day, will be denied their place at the Games because of Covid. Simmonds says his luxury item on this desert island will be a Polaroid.
“They’ve always been there, even at local competitions, they’ve always been successful and being in the crowd somewhere and they’re like my comfort blanket in a way,” she says of her parents, Val and Steve. “I will miss these Games very much. I’ve been playing sports for so long now, I’m fine. “
Ellie Simmonds is a member of the Speedo team.