Paralympian Ellen Keane: "Representation matters, people will see my body and they'll get used to it" 2 months ago

Paralympian Ellen Keane: "Representation matters, people will see my body and they'll get used to it"

Ellen Keane chose to be confident.

A soon-to-be four time Paralympian, the Dublin swimmer is no stranger to competing on the world stage.

Advertisement

At 13 years old, she was Ireland's youngest ever athlete to take part in the games in Beijing. Since then, she has won multiple medals, made the Paralympics podium, and represented her country - and people with disabilities - many, many times.

But confidence didn't always come easy to Ellen. It was something she had to learn, and to choose.

"I knew it was possible for me to be happier," she tells Her. "I thought if I just fake it I'll start to believe it too. It was a tumbleweed effect, when I started not caring about what people thought of my arm, my confidence in every other area of my life really improved."

Born without part of her left arm she now calls her 'Lucky Fin,' Ellen struggled with self esteem in her younger years. Now, her confidence is palpable. It's in her Instagram posts, in her passion and of course, in her performance in the water.

"I struggled a lot with my disability as a teen, I was really insecure about it," she says, "Once I decided to love my arm I wanted other people with disabilities to embrace their insecurities too.

"Disability is a taboo and it's the same with underarms, people don't want to talk about those things. But I'm a swimmer, I always have my arm pits out, my arm is always up."  

Advertisement
via Stephen McCarthy for Sportsfile

An ambassador for Dove's Arms Up campaign, Ellen is proud of her body image. Insecurity, she says, has the power to control your life - which is why she made the decision to embrace her differences.

And her confidence is catching. Over the years, the 26-year-old has received countless messages from people praising her for posting about her disability, and from fellow athletes she admires thanking her for being so positive.

"There's one athlete I look up to and think is amazing and they came to me and said 'because of you I show off my disability now' and I was like, 'okay I'm fan-girling,'" she says.

"It's mad to think some of the strongest people in the world have insecurities too, but if we decide to embrace it and not let it dampen our lives one day, the next day will be easier and soon it won't even bother you."

Advertisement

Ellen's content online is for her, but it's also for her younger followers - those who might be struggling with their own disability or body image, and don't quite know how to move forward. Earlier this year, she posted a Reel making fun of the trolls who had commented on her arm. It was to educate, but also to show how little those words should matter.

"I was thinking that if there's kids who aren't as good at handing these situations or being bullied at school, they might see it and be able to laugh it off. Maybe they'll be better at not taking it to heart," she says.

"These are things I feared people thought about me as a kid, things that always held me back from being happy. It's so silly to think there's people sitting at home writing mean things about a girl with one arm."

Advertisement

Swimming is Ellen's entire world. Diving in when she was just two years old, the water is all she's ever known. As a child she didn't enjoy taking swimming lessons - in fact, she says she was glad when they were over.

"When I finished I was like 'thank god I never have to do that again,'" she says, "but then obviously I did and I got here. It has been my whole life, since I was a baby.

"It's weird because when I was 13 the Paralympics didn't seem like a big deal. In 2016 in Rio, there was a 14-year-old girl on my team and she was so chill, she wasn't nervous at all, and that was how I was at that age. It's only when you're older you're like, oh my god this is a big deal."

Advertisement

Ellen's training regime is, of course, extensive, but an athlete of her calibre doesn't just need to be physically ready, they need to be mentally prepared too. Nerves are part and parcel when it comes to competing on a world stage, but Ellen sees such feelings as a good thing, not a bad one.

"Nerves mean that something is important to you," she says, "it's a little bit of adrenaline, it'll give you a boost. In the lead up to races I do visualisations. Tokyo is coming up and I'm thinking about that race every day, so when I get there I'm not panicked, I know exactly what I'm doing. I've done it 100 times already in my head."

Ellen wants to be known as a Paralympian, not an Olympian. She wants to represent other people with disabilities, not just her country. Where Ireland has made good progress in some aspects of society, people living with disabilities can sometimes be an afterthought - especially when it comes to awareness.

Change, Ellen says, has to start from the bottom up. "It has to come from kids because kids can be scared of people with disabilities if they're not exposed to them," she says. "Educating young people can make all the difference in the world.

"It's not one size fits all and that's what we're taught in this country, we need to be better at thinking outside the box. It needs to be an automatic reaction."

She points to Ireland's recent embrace of outdoor dining as proof that the country is largely still inaccessible for people with disabilities. "So many paths have become inaccessible, the ignorance is sad to see," she says.

"A person in a wheelchair shouldn't show up to a restaurant and have to wait while it's made accessible for them, it should be already.

"Representation matters, it can make such a huge difference. People will see my body and they'll get used to it, and someone who is like me will see themselves too. I've only seen that in the past because of the Paralympics, but not all people with a disability are involved in sports. Where are they supposed to see themselves?"