London Paralympics, 2012
Four years ago, Ellie Simmonds stood on the podium at the Beijing Paralympics, crying with delight as they hung the second of two gold medals around her neck. “It was the most emotional moment ever,” says the 17-year-old. “It was like it wasn’t me there, but someone else and I was looking at them and thinking how well they’d done. I never expected to go to the Beijing Games, let alone win any sort of medal.”
Simmonds was just 13 when she won double gold in the 100m and 400m freestyle events, in the S6 class (she has achondroplasia, or dwarfism). She was the youngest competitor there. “I hadn’t been swimming competitively for long. In fact, I didn’t really set my heart on competing in the Paralympics until the Athens Games in 2004 when I watched Nyree Lewis win, but I was only nine then. It’s amazing to think that by the time the next Games came along, I was winning gold,” she says.
She looks incredible in the water. She dives in and moves smoothly, as if she’s gliding effortlessly, but at such a speed that a group of Chinese athletes training next to her stop what they’re doing and watch in admiration. “Mermaid,” one shouts, as she stops at the end of the session. “Little mermaid.”
Simmonds started swimming at the age of five. Her parents wanted to give their daughter confidence in the water. But it didn’t take long before she had other ideas. “I loved it from the start because I felt I could swim as well as other people and before long, I was swimming faster. I started going to classes and worked my way up through the levels.
Her memories of Beijing are quite sketchy. She describes it as being “a massive blur, just a really big exciting blur.” But she does remember her first impressions of the pool. “Oh, amazing. It was this big amazing thing. I can remember seeing it for the first time and thinking it was the most exciting thing I’d ever seen.”
The British Paralympic team came second in the medals table in 2008, with 101 medals. When they arrived home, Simmonds discovered she was a star. “I was called into the Blue Peter studios and handed a gold Blue Peter badge, then I got the MBE (at 14, she became the youngest person ever to receive one). The phone just rang and rang and didn’t stop ringing.”
Now, it’s time for her to head for the Paralympics again. “But this time I’m going to concentrate and take it all in,” she says. “Hopefully I’ll be more aware of what’s happening around me, and be able to enjoy it all.” Certainly the pool won’t come as a terrifying shock. She became the first swimmer to break a world record there in March when she broke her own previous best time by over half a second. “I’m really excited about the Games. I’ve been training 20 hours a week for four years for this; my friends and family are all coming to watch because many didn’t make it to Beijing – it’s beyond exciting. I just can’t wait.”
“Everyone [in the Paralympic swimming squad] is passionate about what they do and desperate to do well for Britain. The Paralympics has grown so much and means more to people than ever,” she says.