In the dictionary, courage is defined as ‘the ability to do something that frightens you’. That being the case, Paralympian Ellen Keane is a dictionary definition of courage!
An Allianz ambassador, Ellen stars in the first of the new Allianz Courage Chronicles video series. Filmed at Dollymount Strand, Clontarf Baths and the National Aquatic Centre, Ellen is seen coming to terms with the pressure to perform which results from being thrust into the spotlight at such a young age. One of Ireland’s most recognisable athletes, the video tells the story of how she chose courage over fear and went on to become a role model to anyone struggling with self-confidence.
As a child, missing the lower part of her left arm didn’t cost her a second thought. With supportive parents behind her, she jumped into the pool and discovered an incredible aptitude for swimming.
She became Ireland’s youngest Paralympian in 2008 when, at just 13-years-old, she swam in Beijing. It was around this time that she also started to notice people noticing her. On holidays in America, grown-ups stared at her and at school some classmates and teachers made her feel awkward with unwanted comments about her arm.
“I started to feel insecure,” explains the 25-year-old from Dublin’s Clontarf, in an exclusive interview to mark the launch of the Allianz Courage Chronicles Series. “There are things when you are a kid; you might be unsure about; your hair, you might be unsure about your skin, you might be insecure about your weight and things like that. But you can do things to change them whereas I was never going to have a hand and I was afraid that I was never, ever going to find someone that was going to accept me or that I was unworthy of love.”
“I was afraid I’d only be known as the girl with one arm and I would try so hard to hide that; even if it was 100 degrees outside I would be in a coat or I would be in a jumper and I got so good at hiding it.”
It was through swimming that Ellen gained confidence, and from confidence came courage. When she was in the pool, she didn’t have to worry about anything other than going fast and she knew no one was looking at her as anything other than an elite athlete. The focus was on the ability, not the disability.
When swimmers are in the pool, Ellen says they don’t “have time to be worrying about your body or your arm or any of that”.
She continued: “So when I was doing that I gained confidence and if I can stand up on a block in front of 18,000 people knowing that something like 3 billion people or something mad were watching on the telly - if I can do that then why can’t I do that in my social circle and why can’t I do that in a crowd of people?
“So swimming made me realize that I do have courage, and it’s my choice to have courage and no matter how afraid you are of something it is always your choice. You are choosing to be afraid or you are choosing to face your fears and when you chose to face your fears, that courage that you get gives you confidence to realise that nothing is as bad as it seems.”
Ellen uses her position as one of Ireland’s best-known and most successful sportspeople to try to instil in others, confidence and courage, particularly young people with disabilities. It’s one of her favourite parts of being a public figure and high-performance athlete.
While Beijing was a breeze for her, a massive learning experience with no expectations, London 2012 was something different. There was pressure coming from all sides, including from herself, and doubts started to crowd her thoughts.
She didn’t achieve anything close to her targets and those doubts lingered in her mind through to the Rio 2016 Paralympics. In her first race, a heat in her preferred 200m individual medley, she didn’t live up to her own high standards.
“Everyone was disappointed, and everyone felt let-down and I was very hard on myself but then I kind of took a step back and focused on the process,” she explained. “Everything in your life is a choice, so you can choose to dwell on the mistakes that you have made or you can look forward to the future and focus on what you can do to make it better.”
She focused on the future and made it better, a brilliant breaststroke bronze medal following a few days later in the Rio aquatic centre. She says with a smile: “I won my medal so that was a nice little confidence boost as well.”
Like hundreds of other athletes, Ellen was preparing for the Tokyo 2020 Games, only to see it postponed in the face of the current global pandemic. Thankfully, she now has the confidence and courage to move on from that and concentrate on the rescheduled 2021 date.
And even if that doesn’t happen, it won’t knock her off her stride.
“If Tokyo happens, I will be ready,” she said. “But if it doesn’t happen then that’s not my end goal so in my brain I am focusing on Paris 2024 now, because if the games do get postponed or cancelled I don’t want to be caught up in the emotion of that when I could be focusing on Paris.”