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Paralympian Ellie Cole is on her way to Rio

25 May 2016

Ellie Cole1

Sitting down to watch the events in Rio this September? Look out for the World Champion and World Record Paralympic swimmer Ellie Cole (above) in her green and gold. She knows what it is to be the underdog and loves it.

Paralympian swimmer Ellie Cole is surprised to hear she is a great cook. From a short aside in her official media bio – which, by the way, states she “likes cooking” – Ellie has found journalists referring to her abilities as being something akin to those of a Master Chef candidate.

This 24 year-old has much to boast about, but her matter of fact nature makes her quick to point out that “liking cooking and being ‘a great cook’ don’t go hand in hand, unfortunately.”

Ellie has swum competitively for Australia since she was 14. She holds world records in the S9 100m freestyle and backstroke events. She has an OAM for achievement and services to Australian sport and coach’s young swimmers to help support herself in her Rio bid. In 2015, Ellie was voted Cosmopolitan Magazine’s Sports Woman of the Year in its Fun Fearless Female Women of the Year Awards. She was up against soccer’s Kyah Simon; netball’s Caitlin Bassett; Rugby Seven Emilee Cherry; canoeist Jessica Fox.

Ellie is also Campaign Patron for Kick Sarcoma: The Sarah-Grace Sarcoma Foundation.

It all makes the cooking accolade so unnecessary.

“I didn’t learn to cook when I was at home,” says Ellie, even though the family had a café in which her mother cooked.

“Cooking happened after I left home and especially now I live independently, but I picked up a wide range of skills through my mum and, because food is my greatest living expense, it made good financial sense to do it.”

Ellie finds cooking therapeutic. The smells trigger memories for her, as well as all sorts of emotions, it would seem.

Just a few weeks ago, she tells me, her housemate offered to cook dinner.

“I was racing and she asked me if there was anything special I wanted to eat?

“I said fried rice. When I was little I got to choose what I wanted for dinner once a month and it was always fried rice.”

At the dinner table that night after the race, Ellie found herself taking her first bite of the rice and crying. She was transported back to her childhood, her family, her home, “being a kid again”.

Her housemate, who had no idea what was going on for Ellie, looked on in horror: “Is it that bad,” she asked?

“It was anything but. It was perfect. It tasted exactly how it used to taste, and I told her so,” says Ellie.

Since moving to Sydney, Ellie has had to find ways to support her in her Rio bid. Castle Hill RSL Club has become a ‘sponsor’ and that, she acknowledges, has been a deal maker. She also works coaching young swimmers.

“I’m good with money and saving but I came into my Rio bid having just paid for two shoulder reconstructions. My housemate has been a great financial mentor and I’ve learned even more about saving and budgeting with her. I used to eat lunch out. It’s an expense I don’t have to wear.”

Swimming, you see, gobbles up kilojoules. Ellie tells me, “it [swimming] uses every single muscle and, in a single training session, a swimmer can churn through eight to 10 kilometres, burning something like 8000 kilojoules.”

The daily intake of an average person is 8000 kilojoules.

That’s a lot of cereal.

Born in Victoria in 1991, Ellie has an older sister and brother. She also has a twin sister she beat into the world by a full six minutes. Her family lived in a log cabin until she was five years old when they moved to the Mornington Peninsula.

Diagnosed with cancer when she was two years old, the story goes that her mum was changing her and found a bump behind her right knee and thought she’d been bitten by a spider: “I wasn’t showing any other symptoms and the hospital wanted mum to bring me in for further examination.”

Within a few weeks the family were told that Ellie had a sarcoma, an aggressive cancer which is unresponsive to chemotherapy.

Ellie did undergo various new chemo options. Everyone hoping she might be the breakthrough child, but, she tells me in her matter of fact way: “I wasn’t.”

Eventually, the decision was made to amputate Ellie’s leg. She was three years old.

“I still don’t know much about the cancer and am only just starting to ask questions now. I know I was one of the first people to have a prosthetic leg fitted while I was in theatre and, apparently, when I came out of surgery didn’t seem to notice anything had changed,” she laughs.

A couple of days later, however, when the hospital realised they had put the wrong foot on the leg and sent a specialist to change it, Ellie remembers watching as they took her foot off and thinking: “well, that’s different”.

Eight weeks later, Ellie began swimming as part of her rehabilitation. Swimming was to teach her how to coordinate a body with three not four limbs.

“I swam in circles for a bit but actually I’m a natural,” she says, going on to explain how genetics have blessed her: “I have very flexible shoulders, a big foot - I can’t say big feet - and very big hands. My mum was a swimmer and my brother and sister also swam. My dad is very athletic.

“Having a disability, I see the doubts cast by others around my ability to do something. That hasn’t meant I have to take those doubts on and live them. The fact that I can be a world record holder and a Paralympian champion has made me realise that other people’s doubts aren’t mine. I don’t have to listen to them.

“I don’t see myself as less capable, and, as a woman, I don’t see myself as being in anyway different to men or any less capable. I think being part of one minority has given me confidence in another. I like being the underdog. Minorities are so inspiring.”

Following her success at the London Games in 2012, Ellie almost gave swimming away.

Miserable and weighed down by the thought of 12 swimming sessions a week on top of the shoulder reconstructions, Ellie made the decision to change her training program.

“I reduced my swim load by about 70 percent; increased my strength and fitness work in the gym, and I’m faster than before London,” she explains.

The new program has not gone unnoticed by others but the proof of its effectiveness is ‘in the pudding’, as they say.

“I’ve been swimming at an elite level for a long time,” says Ellie. “My technique and experience are there. Now what I need to work on is my fitness and my strength work and that can come from something that doesn’t put the same stresses on my shoulders.

“I also have a social life, can do my university work, and coach. It’s more than many athletes can do.

“Life balance has made me so happy, and I’ve discovered when you’re happy, your productivity goes through the roof.”