Australians love an underdog. The idea of defying all odds, never giving up hope and proving doubters wrong inspire hope and courage for our own battles.
Being coined ‘a sporting nation’ Australia crave sporting heroes who rise from the ashes and show us that defeat is only a state of mind and anything is possible.
One of these sporting heroes, is six-time Paralympic gold medallist, Ellie Cole.
At the age of three, Ellie was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer which ultimately led to the loss of her leg. A large battle for one so young, but even as a toddler Ellie began showing glimpses of her strength and determination.
When Ellie started swimming as a form of rehab post-surgery, doctors expected it to take at least a year to learn how to swim.
It took her two weeks.
As she grew, Ellie began competing against able-bodied kids, but was always slower due to having one leg.
She recalls the day her swimming coach decided her squad were ready to have their flippers altered as they were getting faster but when Ellie presented her flipper to her coach he told her that he didn’t think she was ready.
“It’s always been a personal mission of mine to reinvent the wheel on how people perceive others with a disability,” she said.
“When I was diagnosed with cancer, my parents were worried about the life I would experience with a disability.
“They thought the worst about bullying, accessibility issues, relationships, career aspirations and always feeling like I wouldn’t be living to my full potential.”
Fast forward several years, now with 27 different coloured medals Ellie proved once again, on a much larger scale, what she can do with the doubt and low expectations of those around her.
The anxiety her parents felt about Ellie not being able to live up to her full potential have been well and truly put to rest. For Ellie, life is not about limitations, it’s about travelling, swimming really fast and “getting the best parking a girl could ask for.”
But after a successful haul at the 2012 London Paralympics she was dealt a potentially career-ending blow; a double shoulder reconstruction
Surgery and 12 months of rehabilitation were no guarantee that Ellie would be able to swim at a competitive level again, even she had her doubts, but just as she did as a child, Ellie silenced naysayers with a strong comeback.
It was her return to the pool at the 2015 IPC Swimming World Championships that she took home gold, silver and bronze medals and broke world records. She continued her record-breaking success at the 2016 Australian Swimming Championships and the Rio Paralympics, most recently adding another silver and bronze to her collection after the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
She is a true trailblazer for the growth and promotion of Paralympic sport, growing up in a time when there were no real para-athletes to look up to. Ellie confessed that until she was about 12, she didn’t know about Para-sport and her sporting heroes were the Olympic Swimmers of the Sydney 2000 Olympics era.
Luckily for today’s generation, kids both disabled and able have women like Ellie to look up to. Acting as a youth ambassador and motivational speaker she shares.
“Now young disabled kids are seeing people just like them on the TV… I’ve even had completely able-bodied kids tell me that they want to be Paralympians when they grow up.”
During the 2018 Commonwealth Games, the main theme was “One Team,” meaning there was no differentiation between the para-athletes and the able-bodied athletes.
Champion Olympic Swimmer Emily Seebohm was quoted as saying, “We are one team, there is no difference between us and the Para-athletes.”
Ellie expressed just how much that quote meant to her personally and how important it is for disabled children and people to hear.
“Seebohm is one of the best swimmers in the world, and for us to know that we have her full backing, fills me with some pretty good feelings about the future,” she said.
“I’m just looking forward to the day when young kids can read a letter from their National Sporting Organisations and not have to feel any different about themselves.”
As a country, Australia is still in its infancy when it comes to growing and supporting para-sport, but with game-changers like Ellie Cole leading the way, the future of para-sport looks bright.
Originally published for The Women’s Game