Paralympic swimmer Ellen Keane on a mission to normalise disability

Ellen Keane (right) won bronze in Women's 100m Breaststroke SB8 at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games (Photo by AFLO SPORT)

Most athletes return from their first Olympic or Paralympic Games beaming with pride. 

But for Ellen Keane this was not the case, writes Alice Reeves-Turner.

Keane, who was born with an undeveloped lower left arm, became the youngest ever athlete to represent Ireland at a Paralympic Games when she competed at Beijing 2008 aged just 13, but the Irish swimmer's insecurities left her unable to be proud of being a Paralympian. 

She went on to make three finals at London 2012 and win a bronze medal at Rio 2016 but despite her success in the pool, the 24-year-old struggled, wanting to hide her arm under long-sleeved tops throughout her teenage years. 

But Keane has now learned to love her body and wants to use her platform to help others accept their disabilities. 

“When I came home from the 2008 Olympics, I went through the phrase of being really insecure about my arm and my body, so I wasn’t actually proud of being a Paralympian,” she said. 

“Being associated with the Paralympics people would be like “Oh you’re a Paralympian - what's wrong with you?” and I was trying really hard to hide the fact that I was disabled.

“The only place I felt safe was in the water. When I was out of the water, I was really aware of people staring at me. 

“There was nobody like me in the media or on magazines so when people saw me, they stared and for a 13-year-old girl it was a lot. People are insecure when they’re going through teenage years, it’s hard enough as it is without being disabled.

“Society’s perception of people with disabilities is slowly changing but it’s only going to change if people with disabilities themselves are willing to put themselves out there. 

“The day I started to tell my story I got so many messages from people with disabilities. 

“To know that even just to change one person’s life, that they don’t go through what I went through, is hugely important to me”

The Rio bronze medallist is one of Team Ireland’s best medal hopes for Tokyo 2020, but the Games are seriously in doubt due to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Keane admitted the uncertainty surrounding the Games is frustrating, saying it is hard to keep focused without a definite end goal in sight. 

But whether the Games take place this summer or later on, Keane knows she will have to work harder than ever to stand on the podium again. 

“I’ve been on a Paralympic podium once before, it would be an absolute shame to not aim for another one,” she added. 

“In Rio 2016 the margins were so small. I remember one of the finals I was in I made the final in the 100m butterfly and my time was 1.09.97 or something and the next girl was behind me by 0.01 of a second.

“The margins are so fine, so it's really, really exciting. It's great for the sport but it's making it a whole lot harder for me.

"I’ve just got to control what I’m able to control, push myself, try and a personal best and swim as fast as I possibly can. If I do that, and it makes a podium then I’ll be delighted.”