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Racing to beat Rio

Paralympian Ellie Cole plans to beat her own best times in the pool.

I decided to stand on the block and only think about what I was going to do, not what my competitors were going to do.

Ask Paralympian swimming champion Ellie Cole OAM what her goals are for the 2018 Commonwealth Games and she doesn’t mention medals. She already has plenty of them, including six from last year’s Rio Paralympic Games. Instead, her focus is a personal one.

“I would love to race faster than I did in Rio,” says the backstroke and freestyle champion. “I’ll be 26 at the Commonwealth Games and that’s pretty old for a swimmer, but I want to show I’m on the way to Tokyo [for the 2020 Paralympics].”

Ellie says a double shoulder reconstruction after the 2012 London Paralympics has completely changed her attitude to racing. Before the reconstruction, she focused on her competitors; but after a year out of the pool, to recover from surgery, there were so many new faces that she took a different approach.

“I really had to look into myself,” says Ellie. “I decided to stand on the block and only think about what I was going to do, not what my competitors were going to do. That’s changed everything for me.”

The reconstruction almost ended Ellie’s career, but a speech by retired swimming legend Petria Thomas, who won a gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics, a year after a shoulder reconstruction, was pivotal. Ellie also credits a complaining young swimmer she was coaching for reigniting her love for the sport. “I said to him ‘you’re really lucky you can even swim – I’ve got a prosthetic leg and two arms in slings’,” she says. “It made me realise I’d taken my whole career for granted.”

Ellie started swimming when she was three years old, eight weeks after her right leg was amputated due to a rare sarcoma cancer tumour that wrapped around the nerves. What started as rehabilitation soon became a passion and, at 14, Ellie was the youngest Australian team member for the 2006 IPC World Swimming Championships.

Over the past decade, she’s been one of Australia’s most successful Paralympians, winning 15 medals at three Paralympic Games and receiving an OAM (Medal of the Order of Australia) in 2014 for services to Australian sport. She held the world record in her signature event, the 100 metres backstroke, for two years, until British swimmer Alice Tai broke it in late April this year.

Now, she’s pushing herself as hard as ever, preparing for next April’s Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast. At 5am every day except Sunday, she’s in the pool, training for two hours, followed by an hour’s weight training four times a week. Three afternoons a week, she does another swim session.

In July, Ellie moved from Sydney to the Sunshine Coast, following her coach and mentor Nathan Doyle, who relocated earlier this year. She’s a member of the University of the Sunshine Coast’s Paralympic swim squad and has a fully funded scholarship to study the subjects of her choice. When Flourish interviewed her, Ellie – who already has a degree in health science from the Australian Catholic University – was weighing up her options.

“I’ve always been interested in paramedicine, but I might not be able to do it, depending on the physical requirements,” she says.

She’s hoping that NDIS funding for a new $130,000 microprocessor prosthetic leg may help her achieve that ambition.

She’s also patron of the Sarah-Grace Sarcoma Foundation, which raises funds for research into sarcoma, “the forgotten cancer”. According to the foundation, sarcoma receives less than 1 per cent of research funds but accounts for 20 per cent of all childhood and young adult cancers.

As for how she motivates herself to jump into a pool most days at 5am, Ellie says para-athletes have a different outlook on life. “One of the great things about Paralympic athletes is that a lot of us have had major accidents or illnesses, so we are all just so grateful to get up in the morning.”

Already, Ellie has her eye on her post-2020 sporting career and wheelchair basketball is a likely bet. Ellie took up the sport in 2013 and was in the Victorian team for two years before refocusing on swimming. While living on the Sunshine Coast, she’s keeping her hand in by training one night a week with the University of the Sunshine Coast’s team. “Anything to get back to the Olympic Village,” she laughs.

Words: Lucinda Schmidt

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