Paralympian Ellen Keane Talks Challenge, Commitment, and the Courage Behind It All

by Ailbhe MacMahon | 6 min read

March 29th, 2019

Blue chlorinated water gently lapped the pool edge, its surface cut by reams of bobbing lane dividers. Born the youngest of four, Ellen Keane had been brought along to local swim classes with her older brothers and sister. Lingering in the side-lines with her dad, she was nervous.

Intermittently, lines of children placed one arm ahead of the other as they learned the forward crawl motion. The other kids, including her siblings, thrashed in the water, their limbs beginning to adapt to the repetitive motion. Unlike the others, Ellen was born missing the lower half of her left arm. It was something that caused insecurities for her early on in life.

Moments like this are defining. One of the most daunting days of Ellen's life was not one where she dove headfirst to win the medal of her dreams. It was a day long before that.

Having noticed that people were staring at her from the age of six, she began wearing long sleeves. But one day, she made the courageous decision to abandon them, instead choosing a sleeve that showed her arm as it truly was. You could say it was that moment of courage to come out of hiding that led her on the path to becoming a champion swimmer.

The farthest thing from hiding under the disguise of sleeves is to get into a swimsuit and swim in front of a thousand people. Her journey to that point and her courage was inspirational as part of this new campaign for Allianz.

That day by the poolside, Ellen took the plunge and got into the water. Amongst her able-bodied peers in the turquoise lanes, she was treated no differently. There, all that mattered was your determination — something Ellen had in abundance.

Last August, Ellen competed at the 2018 Allianz Para European Swimming Championships in Dublin. Securing her goggles, adjusting her swim straps, her body arched in anticipation of her dive. Poised, Ellen Keane was the picture of courage. Stroke by stroke, that courage turned to triumph as she propelled her way towards her first gold medal.

The Makings of a Paralympian

Though her sibling’s interest in the aquatic sport dwindled, Ellen had discovered a knack for moving through the water with speed and strength. It was only when she competed in her first competition aged ten, however, that she realised that her aptitude for swimming may actually be a talent of substance.

Her dad got in touch with the mother of a Paralympian who had the same arm impairment as Ellen. Invited to an annual disability competition in Lisburn, she was initiated into the fast-paced world of para sport. That year, the Clontarf native walked out of the gala with four silver medals to her name.

Ellen was hooked. After that, she joined an able-bodied club and competed faster and harder than anyone. Ellen faced that risk head-on and cut through it with a silken backwards stroke. “It wasn't really anything that I was expecting, but I realised that I loved competing and I loved the control that gave me.”

Another thing swimming brought Ellen was a sense of belonging. For the first time in her life, she was interacting with people who had the same disability as her. “I'd never really met anyone like me before. Suddenly, I was meeting all these people who had the same arm impairment as me — it was really cool.”

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Arriving at the Beijing Paralympics, that feeling of community was further heightened. “I wasn't treated differently, because I was just another athlete. All of us athletes were there for the exact same reason.” Over the course of the games, she was surrounded by like-minded people who inhabited the same world of fitness and fearlessness as she did. “That’s what the Paralympics is all about. It is a completely different world, not a world you live in day to day.”

At the time, Ellen was thirteen. In the past, her arm impairment had been the one part of herself that she sought to conceal. Growing up, she would stand sideways to draw the eye away from it. Bulky clothing was worn as a distraction. 

One day, she took in her reflection in the mirror as she got dressed. An athlete stood before her. Ellen left the house in a short-sleeved t-shirt that day, her arm no longer hidden beneath swathes of fabric. She decided if the world was going to stare, she’d give them something to stare at.

Going from Strength to Strength

Placing sixth in the 100m breaststroke, Ellen was Ireland’s youngest ever athlete to compete when she swam in the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games. After her time in China, the return to normality came with a shock.

Ellen’s life was divided in two. There was Ellen the Paralympian, representing Ireland at an international level and trumping global competitors in the chlorinated lanes of the pool. And there was Ellen the teenager, who had another year of secondary school ahead of her, with algebraic equations and the Modh Coinníollach to learn.

“It was hard to adjust to normal life.” At peak training periods, Ellen would rise at 4.15am to make it to the poolside for 4.45am. She would do laps for two hours before strapping on her school bag and heading to class. After the final bell rang, she would then return to the water to fit in another two hours of pool time.

Homework was done in the fleeting moments between, during free classes or in the moonlit hours after her swimming commitments had been met. How did she get it all done? “Being a sportsperson teaches you that there are twenty four hours in a day. If you plan those hours well, you can use them right.”

This extraordinary courage to continue pursuing her goal was the product of well-honed life skills. “Swimming has taught me how to schedule, how to plan, how to communicate.”

2012 London Paralympic Games, making three finals. At twenty one, she went to the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games, where she ascended the podium to claim the bronze medal in the 100m Breaststroke final for Ireland. Her life has been mapped by achievement after achievement. At seventeen, she competed in the 2012 London Paralympic games, making three finals.

Forging a Path for Others

Now, aged twenty three, Ellen is a final year student of the Dublin Institute of Technology, where she is studying Culinary Entrepreneurship. Once she has a degree under her belt, she plans on becoming a broadcaster.

It is a career aspiration established with others in mind, founded by Ellen’s signature sense of courage. “The reason why I became so insecure about my arm is because there was nobody in the media like me. There was nobody for me to relate to. I would like to go into media because I want to be seen.”

Over the course of her career as a sportswoman, Ellen has worked hard, has achieved, and has inspired. “Sometimes I meet girls or boys with one arm or some other disability, and they thank me. It's nice to know I’m making a difference.”

Everyday instances incentivise her drive for change. “Kids stare at us in the pool changing room. But, kids stare at everything — even at the able-bodied girls. However, some of the mums overreact because we're disabled, and they make it very obvious. They’ll give out to their kids, telling them to stop staring.”

She pauses to reflect: “It makes it so much worse. We need to get better at that.” Ellen Keane is bent on making a change, and she has the courage necessary to make it happen.

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There was a magical moment when shooting the advert, when Ellen and the girl playing her younger self, Tate Willis, met for the first time. We had not realised how much of a significant moment this was for the young actor. At an age when most young people are just trying to fit in, having one arm makes that even more of a challenge. Tate is facing her own challenge living with her arm impairment. For Tate to meet Ellen, who has achieved so much, offered Tate as opportunity to see what can be achieved through courage and determination.

The motto of the Beijing Games was ‘one world, one dream.’ When Ellen turned eighteen, she had the words tattooed on her back. At times obscured by water, the tattoo appears and disappears as she races through the lanes.

Just like that ink, Ellen’s sense of courage seems to leave a permanent mark.

About the author

bio image for Ailbhe MacMahon
Ailbhe MacMahon

Ailbhe is a journalist from Harold’s Cross, Dublin. She currently lives and works in London.