Ellen Keane was selected as the Pundit Arena Sportswoman of the Month for April.
Life doesn’t stop for 23-year-old Clontarf native Ellen Keane.
The impressive bronze Paralympic medalist currently has the unenviable task of balancing life as a high-performance swimmer, a student in her final year at DIT and a spokeswoman for promoting various campaigns including her sport, positive body image and her disability.
Nevertheless, it’s water off a duck’s back. When she answers the phone, Keane exudes an air of positivity and someone who has everything under control.
As recently as last month, Keane has returned from North America with a pretty good haul of a silver and two bronze medals from the latest leg of the Para-Swimming World Series in Indianapolis. She reveals that the competition was all about racing under difficult circumstances which are associated with long-distance travel so as to best prepare her for bigger challenges in the future.
“It was really good [Indianapolis],” Keane said. “Unfortunately, we were only there for a day before we started racing so we didn’t have a lot of time to recover. The goal was to race tired and be able to cope with that and be able to push on and deal with uncomfortable circumstances.”
Although it was difficult at the beginning, the 23-year-old impressively swam faster than she did at the Irish Nationals towards the end of the competition.
“The week before nationals, I actually swam faster in the 200IM and then with the breaststroke. I swam very similar times and towards the end of Indianapolis I actually swam faster than I did at Nationals so I was really happy with that, it was really good.”
As she explains, Indianapolis was also an experiment in terms of figuring out the best times to rest, eat and recover. With the European Champions taking place in August at Dublin’s National Aquatic Centre, where Keane is aiming to participate in the backstroke, breaststroke, the medley and the butterfly, she won’t have to deal with those circumstances but such is the determination to continue to perform at the highest level in the future, it was an invaluable lesson.
“For Tokyo 2020, it’s going to involve a lot of travelling so that’s what we’re trying to do at the moment. We’re trying to travel as much as we can so we can get the experience and we can get used to it and we know what works and what doesn’t.
“That was kind of the beginning of the experiment – when to sleep on the plane, when not to sleep on the plane, what to do when we land, trying to acclimatise as quickly as possible. It worked in my favour going over but when I actually came back from Indianapolis, I was so tired!”
The Paralympics in Tokyo in 2020 is definitely a goal for Keane and there’s little doubt she will want to secure another medal like she did in Rio in 2016. However, she admits that it’s not necessarily the dream of a podium finish which inspires her, rather it is to challenge herself by beating her own personal bests rather than worrying about what other competitors are doing.
“It’s not about medals for me. Obviously, I would love to win a medal. It’s more about beating myself, getting personal bests. Whenever I get close to my PB, I’m delighted. so it’s always about a challenge to myself to see how fast I can go because that’s all you can really control. You can’t control what everyone else is doing.”
However, the memories of Rio still provide some extra motivation for her when Tokyo arrives as Keane reveals there is one competitor, in particular, she wants to best.
“The girl who actually won gold in Rio, I have beaten her my whole life and it was kind of only in the last two years and in the build-up to Rio that she started to beat me, so recently I’m like ‘No, I have to change that!’ So that’s what I’m kind of working on at the moment!”
It’s fascinating and awe-inspiring to see how much Keane has achieved in her career to date. It all started at a young age when her parents brought her to swimming lessons along with her siblings. Her love for swimming, as she explains, came from the fact that she wasn’t treated any differently due to her disability.
“When I was born, my parents didn’t want to treat me any differently because I was born without an arm. So I did my lessons in the pool with my brothers, my sister – I was treated the same.
“My lessons were over so I was like ‘grand, start off to swim again’ and my Dad got in contact with this woman who at the time her daughter was swimming in the Paralympics, she had the same arm as me and she just invited me along to a competition in Lisburn which is an annual disability competition.”
From then on, Keane was hooked and she joined an able-bodied swimming club and that experience was key to her pursuing her dream of being a Paralympic athlete.
“I joined an able-bodied club. I swam against able-swimmers but I wasn’t treated any differently. I think that was the most important part of it all, I wasn’t pushed to the side or challenged less because I wasn’t as fast, I was challenged just as much.
“I think that’s the most important thing that coaches need to do when they have anyone that is a little bit different.”
From there on, the Clontarf native continued to defy expectations and she became Ireland’s youngest ever athlete when she swam in the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games at the tender age of 13. Competing at such a high level at a young age comes with its own challenges, none so more than for Keane’s parents who she admits played a major role in getting her to where she is today.
“As a swimmer, you get up at all times of the morning, so my Mam and my Dad would have brought me swimming, getting up at ten past four in the morning to bring me training and they did that three or four times a week up until I learned how to drive.
“When I started college I decided that I wanted to move out of home because I felt like I needed to take it on because it wasn’t fair…”
Although Keane is very much an independent young adult, she does admit there are times when she needs some home comforts.
“I’m in college as well and it’s so hard to juggle bringing yourself to training, studying and feeding yourself so sometimes I just text my mam and I’m like ‘can you feed me?!’ So I can just go home and be fed!”
Keane is in the final year of her degree in Culinary Entrepreneurship but securing a career in that area is not on the agenda for the moment. Representing Ireland at the highest level is the aim right now, in addition to removing the stigma and misunderstanding around her sport and disability in general.
“I think I would park it for a while. At the moment swimming is the main focus and you can’t really swim at the level I’m at and have a full-time job. I’m very involved in promoting positive body image and I’m trying to promote Paralympics and I’m trying to get more people involved and more people understanding.
“That in itself is a full-time job! I want to try working at that and see how far I can go with that. Whenever that stops being a high priority, once people finally understand the difference between the Olympics, the Paralympics and the Special Olympics then I can know I can move on with my life!”
Tickets for the Para Swimming Allianz European Championships are on sale now. You can get yours here.