Sport: it’s a moment of adrenaline and suspense, not just for those competing, but for the world that watches them. It’s a moment of rivalry, but also of unity, as strangers are brought together in a common cause and hope: to see their team win, their athletes bring home the prize. If sport is a unifying experience, then the Olympics are its ultimate expression – a place where we can celebrate each other’s achievements, nation competes peacefully against nation, and merit alone can earn the opportunity to push oneself to personal bests in front of a global audience.
The first modern Olympic Games were held in 1896, fittingly in Athens, Greece. At the time, only 14 nations were included. The event grew in size, and so grew increasingly inclusive of the world’s athletes, but it was 1960 that saw the event become truly open with the holding of the first Paralympic Games. Similar Games had previously been held exclusively for army veterans, but Rome 1960 saw them open up to any athlete with disabilities who qualified to compete.
Endeavour Magazine had the honour of catching up with Team GB’s Ellie Robinson, the prolific 15-year-old who brought home Gold and Bronze in Rio 2016’s Paralympic swimming – 50m butterfly S6 and 100m freestyle S6, respectively. Turning 16 this month, Ellie’s athletic career has skyrocketed at an incredible pace, earning her not only Paralympic wins, but world records (set when she was only 13), recognition from the BBC, and even an MBE.
Ellie joined Northampton Swimming Club in 2012, at 11 years of age, and began competitive swimming with them in 2013. She has previously modestly said that before she began competing, she’d been told that she “might be alright” at swimming. So, what prompted Ellie to take swimming to a competitive level and to push it as far as she did?
Her inspiration came at the 2012 London Paralympics. Fortuitously, Ellie had tickets to the watch the Paralympic swimming event (does anyone else remember how hard it was to get tickets?), and it was there that she saw Ellie Simmonds bring home one of her two 2012 Golds. Like Robinson, Simmonds was born with a form of dwarfism – in Simmonds’ case, achondroplasia, and in Robinson’s case the extremely rare Cartilage Hair Hypoplasia. Robinson knew about Simmonds before London because of this connection, but seeing her compete and achieve the Gold sparked something in her. Simmonds became her idol, and in just four years, would be her teammate.
“Watching Ellie compete allowed me to get a taste of what being an athlete was all about – in particular, the emotion an athlete goes through in a race,” Ellie tells us. “However, I later discovered that what I witnessed was only the tip of the iceberg!”
A meteoric rise from spectator to Paralympic champion comes at a cost; between sport and schoolwork, Ellie’s goals have required dedication and unwavering discipline. “She can’t always do what a normal teenager does,” her coach, Andy Sharpe, told press at the Paralympic Games. “But then, she would not have done what she did [in Rio] if she was a normal teenager.” We asked Ellie what a typical day looks like for her: She wakes at 04:00, ready to hit the pool from 05:00 – 07:00. School begins at 08.30 until 15:00 in the afternoon, and then from 16:30 until 19:00 she’s back in the pool. Home time isn’t until 19:30, when she has to fit in her homework before bed. That’s a 14-hour work day, with homework waiting at the end of it! This is the reality behind the glamour of success; those in the sporting spotlight haven’t walked there – they’ve carved out that golden moment through focus and unshakable drive, even when the road grows tedious or the goal seems far away.
“My main piece of advice is that every athlete has a plateau year or maybe longer, but you need to remember to keep working hard. The longer the wait, the greater the rewards.”
As if she wasn’t already juggling enough, Ellie is currently taking her GCSEs. “I decided that this season was going to be academically focused, and my school and swimming club have worked well together. My school have allowed me extra time to complete my homework, and my swimming club coach has supported me through a reduced training timetable during my exams.”
Ellie’s incredible tenacity and drive has, thankfully, also been supported by a fantastic team of family, friends and professionals who are as passionate about her success as she is. “I’ve had a lot of support from my parents (emotional), my coach (technical and motivational), British Swimming (technical, psychological, physical and nutritional), and my friends and team mates. We are also really lucky to be supported by National Lottery funding, which is so important to every athlete’s programme.”
However, even with all the support in the world, the strength to do what Ellie achieved has to come from within. Her parents, Hannah and Will Robinson, have always made it their mission to encourage Ellie without applying pressure on her to succeed – as they’ve said, she’s already able to put that pressure on herself. When training began, Tokyo 2020 was the goal, but when she qualified for Rio 2016, Ellie resolved to give it her all: “Because I was new and young, there was hardly any pressure on me. Being an athlete, I liked to put that pressure on myself to get the best performance I could out of me. I wanted to gain experience in Rio for my future self.”
The road hasn’t been easy, and there have been unexpected hurdles for Ellie along the way. As well as being born with Cartilage Hair Hypoplasia, she was diagnosed with Perthes disease at 11, a hip disorder that occurs in childhood. The diagnosis came only a few months after her resolve to train, and it had her out of the pool and on crutches for six months. For most 11-year olds, the story of her swimming career would have ended here, but Ellie was determined. Inspired by Simmonds, she got back in the pool, despite still being in a great deal of pain as she had to re-learn her independence as a swimmer.
The effects of those six months were psychological as well as physical: “I had to rebuild my self-confidence, as I had become very reliant upon my parents’ support. Luckily my swimming career escalated quickly and I matured far quicker than I expected.” Learning to turn hurdles into fuel was a tough lesson as a young age, and it’s what allowed Ellie to push as far as she has; “My greatest challenge has been the key to my success, and that was finding my independence. I had suffered from separation anxiety as a result of the Perthes disease, and this is something that goes unmentioned, but when I went to Rio I overcame these challenges.”
After the heavy push to Rio and the surprising heights of her successes, the transition back to ordinary life must have been a culture shock for the young swimmer, and to begin it all over again for Tokyo, a daunting prospect. However, on 14th December 2016, a new recognition reminded Ellie what it had all been about:
“The preparation for Tokyo is all part of a four-year cycle, something that I have yet to experience as an elite athlete.”
“The BBC Young Sports Personality award was announced three months after Rio when I was back at school working hard to catch up on missed GCSE work. Having been so focused on Rio, getting back in the pool was quite hard, so the award was great to remind me what all the hard work was for.”
Perhaps the most surprising and significant accolade for Ellie, though, was her presentation of an MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) and reception from the Royal Family. “Receiving an MBE at 15 opened my eyes to the respect that Paralympic sport has gained and how highly valued it is in our country. It helped me to put into perspective how great the Rio achievement was. Meeting the Royal Family was quite surreal!”
As it has been since the start, Tokyo remains the goal for Ellie, but with such successes already, have her plans changed? As always, she remains driven yet grounded, showing a maturity beyond her years despite her sudden global attention:
“It’s difficult to plan career ideas around sport, because one day you could be World No. 1 and the next day you could be injured. I’d like to say I have a rough idea, and I’ll be starting my A Levels in September. Each year is the next step towards Tokyo, and I will work with my coach on new goals and processes.”
We hope we’ll see Ellie qualify for Tokyo 2020 – she’s already winning golds in the competitions on that path. However, whether it’s in the Paralympics, other swimming arenas, or whatever else she decides to set her mind to, Ellie Robinson is clearly one to watch.