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Paralympian Ellen Keane has opened up about some of the insecurities she had to overcome as a child and a teenager growing up with a disability.
Having competed at her first Paralympic Games in Beijing at the age of 13, Keane is now known all over Ireland and abroad as one of the country’s top prospects in para-swimming.
While she has now embraced the role of ambassador for the sport, it wasn’t always easy for the Clontarf native to accept herself. Having been born without part of her left arm below her elbow, she became more and more aware of her differences as she went into her teenage years and thus began a battle with her insecurities.
“All kids really care about is being happy and having fun. They don’t see the difference in people and they don’t see the difference in themselves.
“It was only when I was a teenager that I began to notice it. It’s a shame, it’s a shame that we all go through this.
“It was harder for me than most people because I couldn’t change. People might be insecure about their hair colour or their weight or things they think they can work on whereas I can never change that I have got one arm.”
In a news series ‘Courage Chronicles’, Allianz, proud sponsors of Paralympics Ireland, are delving into the lives of some of Ireland’s most successful Para-athletes to discover what held them back in their early careers and how they had the courage to overcome those hurdles.
For Keane, the hurdles came outside of the pool, away from the bubble of competition. In fact, sport was the one area of her life where she felt most comfortable.
“The thing about sport is when you’re in it, you’re in it, you don’t care what’s going on around you, you don’t care about other people or any of that. I just cared about swimming or racing hard.
“It was actually only when I achieved something that someone might comment and say something like, ‘Oh she went to the Paralympics, I thought the Paralympics were for people with disabilities’ and I’d try and hide it or shy away from it and that’s what I found daunting.
“I didn’t want attention on me outside of the pool.”
The three-time Paralympian has had a major change in her mindset since those early days. Now she seeks to bring attention to her arm and her profile, not for any self-indulgent reasons, far from it. Instead, Keane is on a mission to help young children with similar disabilities to feel confident and comfortable in their own bodies.
“Because there was no one like me in the media or representing what I look like, I just became more of an object to be stared at because it was something that people had never seen before.
“That’s why it’s so important to me to be in the media or use my profile as much as I can because if I can change just one kid’s life or make them feel a little bit more confident in their body than I was at their age, then I have done my job.”
It took a long time for Keane to overcome her insecurities, there was no overnight solution. It was a process that saw her battle her way through some of the toughest times in her life. But the 25-year-old eventually found the courage to come out the other side.
“I did shy away from it, I hid my arm, I became really insecure and it was a really hard time in my life. It was only really because of sport that I realised I’m actually capable of being happy in my body. Why can’t I be happy in my body outside of the pool?
“That’s where it took a bit of courage to choose to embrace my arm.
“I used to hide my arm in sleeves and it took till I was in college and until I was 19 to be like, ‘I’m not going to wear my coat today and pretend that it’s a completely normal thing for me to do.’
“But when I did that, I realised that the whole world didn’t revolve around me and my arm and people really don’t care that much. So when I did that, I got the confidence to do it every day and then it just became my norm.”
Keane now revels in the stories of young children with disabilities accepting their differences.
“The nicest thing about it is that I get it from kids with disabilities, but I also get it from kids without disabilities so it’s really nice to know that I’m not just having an effect on people specifically like me.
“I would get a lot of messages on Instagram from parents of kids with arms similar to mine and videos of them doing my little arm pose. I love seeing that, I think that’s really special.”
Speaking at the launch of Allianz’s Courage Chronicles video series is Allianz brand ambassador and Paralympic bronze medallist Ellen Keane.
Allianz Ireland have been proud sponsors of Paralympics Ireland since 2010 and is committed to promoting diversity and inclusion across the sporting community.