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Opinion: 'Sometimes it just takes a little moment of courage to change your life forever'

‘One day I realised I didn’t want to hide my arm anymore. I didn’t want to be ashamed of my body. I wanted to embrace it,’ writes Paralympian Ellen Keane.

Ellen Keane

WHEN I WAS born my parents didn’t know I was going to be disabled – and they always treated me the same as everyone else.

I learned to swim with my brothers and sister in the local pool. I loved swimming and l lost myself in the water.

I was born missing the lower half of my left arm – something I found difficult to come to terms with once I noticed how much people stared at me.

However, swimming was my escape. I became so focused on the sport and it helped shape me into the resilient person I am today.

I started to wear long sleeves to hide my arm as I was ashamed and embarrassed by all the staring and I didn’t want to stand out.

Then one day I realised I didn’t want to hide my arm anymore. I didn’t want to be ashamed of my body. I wanted to embrace it. If people were going to stare, I would give them something to stare at. My first step was to stop wearing long sleeves.

That small moment of courage would change everything for me.

Another important moment in my life was when my dad got in touch with the mother of a Paralympian with the same impairment as me. I was invited to an annual disability competition, where I was initiated into the fast-paced world of para-sport.

At my first event, I won four silver medals which gave me the confidence and courage needed to push on and pursue a career as a para-athlete.

After my first taste of success, I was hooked. I joined a regular able-bodied swimming club and trained just as hard as anyone. I loved competing and I loved the control it gave me.

For the first time in my life, I was interacting with people who had the same disability as me at the para events that I was competing at.

I’d never really met anyone like me before and suddenly I was meeting people just like me all over the world.

Paralympics

At the Beijing Paralympics in 2008, I got a real sense of community. I was only 13 at the time, but I wasn’t treated any differently. I was just another athlete.

We were all there for the exact same reason, to compete as hard as we could. That’s what the Paralympics is all about.

That year I came sixth in the 100m breaststroke and became Ireland’s youngest-ever athlete to compete at the Paralympic Games.

After my time in China, the return to normality was a bit of a shock. My life was now divided in two. There was my life as a Paralympian, representing Ireland at an international level, and there was my life as a teenager in secondary school.

Afterwards, it was hard to adjust to normal life, as at peak training periods I would rise at 4.15am to make it to the poolside for 4.45am.

I would train for two hours before getting my school bag and heading to class. After the final bell rang, I would return to the water for another two hours of training.

But swimming has taught me how to schedule, how to plan and how to communicate. It has also given me the courage and fearlessness to be proud of my own body.

At 17, I competed in the 2012 London Paralympic games, making three finals. At 21, I went to the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games, where I won a bronze medal in the 100m breaststroke final for Ireland.

I could see that I was improving year on year, which is what every athlete strives for. It all culminated in me winning my European gold medal in 2018.

Last August, I competed at the 2018 Allianz Para European Swimming Championships in Dublin, where I won my first gold medal at the highest level on home ground. This was an important moment in my career. 

Now, aged 23, I am a final year student at TU Dublin, where I am studying Culinary Entrepreneurship. Once I have my degree, I want to become a broadcaster.

One of the reasons I became so insecure about my arm is because there was nobody in the media like me. I want to be seen and be someone others can relate to.

Since filming my first moment of courage for Allianz’s We Cover Courage campaign, I have met lots of girls and boys facing these challenges – and they thank me.

It is amazing, and humbling, to see these kids take their little moments of courage and start to build to something life-changing.

Ellen Keane is a Paralympic Swimmer and Allianz Ireland Brand Ambassador. 

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Ellen Keane

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