With sports fans worldwide gasping for live events at the moment, it’s no wonder that star Irish Paralympian Ellen Keane expects next year’s Games in Tokyo to be the biggest ever.
Like so many other major sporting events, the 2020 Paralympic Games fell victim to the current COVID-19 pandemic and are due to be held at the end of next summer, leaving Keane and the rest of her Team Ireland comrades to readjust their plans.
For the 25-year-old, it’s an adjustment she’s happy to make. She first became a Paralympian at 13 years of age and Tokyo will be Keane’s fourth Games. With time, comes wisdom and she’s grateful to have another year to get herself in the best shape possible.
“When I was [in Beijing at 13] and looking forward to going, it was just an exciting thing that was happening whereas when I was in Rio, Nicole Turner was 14 at the time and I was 21 and I was watching her. I was nervous and stressed out about the Games but she was just so chilled. It’s just mad that kids are able to do something so big and not let it phase them and I think that’s what happened to me in Beijing.
“When you’re that young, you’ve got there off talent, you haven’t got there off years or hard work so when you’re older, you know and appreciate the amount of hours that go into training so it means that little bit more.
“I think with the Games being postponed now, it gives you that bit more appreciation for the sport that you do and knowing that you have another year to prepare and get yourself in the best shape of your life to perform in front of the world…”
“The slogan for the Tokyo Games is ‘united by emotion’ and I think that’s exactly what everyone is experiencing at the moment so it’s going to be a big celebration of what the human body and human life can endure next year.
“How Ireland is coping with the current pandemic makes you that little bit more proud to be Irish and I can’t wait to wear the Irish colours again.”
Coverage and interest in Paralympic sports in Ireland has grown enormously in the past number of years and it always peaks when the Games roll around. Having secured a bronze medal in the final of the SB8 100m Breaststroke in Rio in 2016, Keane is one of Team Ireland’s top medal hopefuls in Tokyo and has become an ambassador for her sport since her podium finish four years ago.
It’s a responsibility she thrives in, proving to the world that people with disabilities can achieve anything. With more coverage comes more understanding and appreciation for that fact and Keane is hopeful that the upcoming Games can serve to inspire more young people.
“I think everyone also has learned a lot more about people with disabilities and how nothing can get in their way, if they want to do something, they’re going to do it. I think people are enjoying Paralympic sport that little bit more because they understand it. The coverage is there and it’s helping people understand it that little bit more. Now that Tokyo has another year, not just the Olympics but the Paralympics, there’s going to be a lot more talk about it.
“It’s really exciting for the future generation of athletes because the fact that more people are able to see it, more kids with disabilities are able to see it, I get contacted every so often about kids who want to try or kids who are inspired now because they’ve seen an advertisement I might be on or they just know more Paralympics. So it’s an exciting time.
“The more people in Ireland that cover it or talk about it, they’re giving the Irish paralympic team a brighter future.”
With the Games now 16 months away, it’s back to basics for Keane. For the time being, she is separated from any body of water by the 2km restrictions and so has had to make some major changes to her training plan.
“It’s mad, the longest I’ve gone out of the pool is three weeks because usually at the end of the swim season, all we get off is three weeks. I’m now going longer than that and it’s just so weird for me because my whole life is swimming.”
“I have a lot of energy and I’m hyper all the time. Even when I’m doing a little bit of exercise, I’m really excited to do it. My coach wants me to do low [intensity] stuff to protect our immune system so, if you get sick, you’re not able to see a doctor right now.
“That’s why we’re trying to stick with low-intensity. Even when I’m cycling, I might be listening to a little bit of music and get a bit excited and want to go a bit faster. I have to catch myself when I find that happening. I’ve toned down how much I’m eating as well because I’m not doing four hours in the pool per day so I don’t need as much food.”
The current pandemic has also left her isolated from her family. Her roommate’s recent return from Manchester saw them both having to self-isolate as a precautionary measure. Yet Keane’s family still found a way to celebrate her 25th birthday.
“So we had two weeks [of] not being able to leave the house or be in contact with anyone. It was my birthday as well during those two weeks so my family did like a drive-by and my Dad rolled down the window of the car and had ‘Happy Birthday’ blaring out which was very embarrassing for me and my neighbours.
“I didn’t know it was coming. I was so embarrassed, I wanted it to stop it was awful,” she laughed.
Ellen Keane is a Toyota ambassador and a World & European Medallist Paralympian swimmer. Toyota is an official partner to Paralympics Ireland and worldwide mobility partner to the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Toyota’s team of five Irish athletes; Ellen Keane, Jason Smyth, Nicole Turner, Noelle Lenihan and Patrick Monahan will all feature in their “Start Your Impossible” campaign as they prepare for the Tokyo Games in 2021. Visit www.Toyota.ie for more information on Start your Impossible.