“I think when you’re in that massive bubble, when you’re in the village, sometimes you don’t look at people’s disabilities. You just look at them as human beings and who they are. You forget they have a disability and it’s not until you take a step back and you talk to them … that you realise the stories they have. That’s one thing that’s incredible about the Paralympics.”
Ellie Simmonds is talking about the global sporting event with which she has become synonymous. A Paralympic star since her debut at the age of 13, when she won double gold in the pool in Beijing, by the time they came around to London four years later Simmonds was the face of the Games. After winning another two gold medals on home turf, Simmonds was confirmed – whether she liked it or not – as an icon of disabled sport as it broke through to mainstream society. Rio 2016 brought more gold, but pain too, and now, at last, comes Tokyo.
“I do think it’s right that the Games go ahead,” says Simmonds of the question that has been on everyone’s lips for the past 18 months, and one only partly answered by a successful staging of the Olympics this summer. The risks from Covid faced by disabled athletes are greater than those faced by Olympians, for one. “There’s going to be a lot of alterations, they are going to try and make it as safe as they can. But we know that [the Games] brings people together. We had it in 2012 in London with an entire country and this competition, this year, is going to bring everyone together [worldwide]. A lot of people have lost their lives, people have lost their loved ones and a bit of sport can bring passion and togetherness. It’s important [Tokyo] does happen.”
Simmonds’s advocacy for the Paralympics, and what it can achieve at its best, is unforced. It surely couldn’t be any other way, given her own personal story is so intertwined with the event she has participated in every four years for half her life. But that doesn’t mean she is willing to gloss over the challenging parts.
“I found it a lot harder as I’ve got older,” she says of dealing with the expectation of being a Paralympic icon. “Going into London I was still quite young and, yeah, I felt the pressure but it was in a different way. Now the sport’s moving forward it’s getting a lot more competitive and I’m a lot older. It’s hard to stay at the top. There’s a cheesy saying isn’t there: it’s easy to get to the top but once you’re 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 race people expect me to get a gold medal and it’s not the case. When [athletes] do well the British public get behind them and [then] they want them to do it well again, don’t they. But it is sport at the end of the day; you go out and you compete against seven other people in the final and you never know what they’re going to do. There could be a person like me who comes in when they’re 13, unknown, and comes away with two gold medals. So it is good, but it can sometimes get to me and I do find it hard for sure. But I’ve got a great support system around me to help me.”
Those expectations will be just one of a particularly demanding set of challenges laid down by this pandemic Paralympics. As a result, Simmonds says she has not set herself any targets for Tokyo. “I’m just going to go out there and compete and give it everything because we had four months in 2020 when we were out of the pool and I couldn’t train,” she says. The fact that “it’s all unknown” is something she finds “quite hard because I like to normally be in control”.
A low point in Simmonds’s career was 2016, Rio a grim push to give her all. Real damage had been inflicted by a culture of bullying amongst some of the coaching staff at British Swimming, evidence of which only came to light in the years afterwards. But those painful 12 months also provided a springboard. In 2017 Simmonds took a break from the sport and travelled the world. Along the way, she says, she developed a new type of confidence, one in herself as a person.
“I think what I’m most proud of about myself away from the pool, is being OK on my own,” she says. “What 2017 brought to me was that I have confidence. I’m OK travelling, meeting people, seeing the world with my own eyes. The world is such an incredible place and it gives me a buzz 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, that’s what I love and what I’ll hopefully do this summer.”
There were other learnings from her time away, like the ability to “take a step back”, a lesson that has only been reinforced by the pandemic. “Sitting back people-watching for a bit and just taking that time, that’s what I’ve learned this year. Sometimes when I was a kid I used to get FOMO [fear of missing out] whereas now I know it’s OK to just sit for 10 minutes and read a book or have that you time. It’s OK.”
The suspicion remains there won’t be much time for quiet and reflection in Tokyo over the next two weeks or so as Simmonds looks to retain her title in the 200m individual medley S6 class and reclaim one in the 400m freestyle. Her parents, who have been an ever present support in her career to date, will be denied their place at the Games because of Covid. Simmonds says her luxury item on this desert island will be a Polaroid of them.
“They’ve always been there even at local competitions they’ve always come through and being in the crowd somewhere and they’re like my comfort blanket in a sense,” she says of her parents, Val and Steve. “I’m going to miss them hugely this Games. I’ve now been in the sport for so long though, I’m all right.”