The Weekly Read: An interview with Irish Paralympic swimmer Ellen Keane
Sinead Farrelly spoke to double world bronze medalist Ellen Keane on her hopes to compete in Rio next year and her experiences of the DIT Athlete Support Programme.
One of the newest introductions to the DIT Athlete Support Programme is swimmer Ellen Keane. Despite her young age of only 19, she has already competed in two Paralympics and is a double world bronze medallist.
Ellen has been classed as an amputee since birth. She began swimming at the age of two and began competing when she was nine. Impressively, just four years later she competed in the Paralympics in Beijing aged just 13.
The most recent competition that Ellen competed in was the European Championships last year. However, they did not entirely go to plan as Ellen sat her Leaving Cert a month before which heavily impacted upon her preparation for the competition, but she says that she is relishing taking on this year’s upcoming world competition.
“The Europeans were hard as I had the Leaving Cert just a month before and so everything was all happening at once, but I still swam really well and I was still happy with how I performed. I now have so much more time to dedicate to training though so I’m really looking forward to the worlds,” she said.
The first year culinary entrepreneurship student currently competes in both SB8 butterfly and the SB8 breaststroke, however has recently had her classification challenged by the swimming boards and may have to change category in this year’s upcoming world competition.
As her left arm has now grown, she may be just a bare quarter of a centimetre too long for the SB8 category, her preferred category, and may have to move to S9 in the future. In Paralympic events there is a grading system based on levels of disability with S1 being the most disabled and S10 being the least.
When she was measured at Europeans, the officials measured Ellen’s arm incorrectly and she had to appeal it but the appeal was rejected first time round. Her family however, pursued the matter and they went through an online court case so as to prove that the measurements were done wrong.
Ellen has since been placed back on review and she will next be classified in March ahead of the June competition and she admits that it is difficult to play the waiting game until then.
“See that’s the thing, for breast stroke there is no S10 classification so everyone shifts down and my left arm has to be a quarter of the measurement of my other arm, but it was less than a quarter of a centimetre too long and I got re-classified just before Europeans and I found that really impacted on me because, had I been in my normal class, I would have come third but I came fourth in the harder division," she explained.
“It’s just been a really difficult process, the whole thing has been so emotionally draining because I am always going to be in that a little bit of the margin and it is so difficult watching everyone in the SB8 when I should be in SB8 and I am in SB9.
“I also have to wait until March to be reclassified and this is really having an impact on my training for world’s because if I have to change to the more difficult category I may not compete as I am not going to win a medal as an SB9. This is really annoying though because it was the breaststroke that I qualified for Beijing with, it’s my baby at this stage and I would prefer to compete, but I also need to win that medal.”
The world championships will prove to be vital for Ellen as a first or second place finish would secure her a spot in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio. If you finish outside of the top two each country must then wait to see how many slots they will be allocated, so Ellen says that her main focus right now is on that top two finish.
One of the new changes that DIT have made to their Athlete Support Programme for this year is the introduction of an academic mentor for every sport scholar. DIT also have a very strong and supporting disability office for all students within the college who have a disability. Ellen says that everyone in DIT have all been very accommodating with regards to helping her plan her assignments around her swimming schedule.
“The disability office has been really helpful l, I had my exams before Christmas and I had my own room so I found that really helpful. I have a scribe as well so if I need someone to help me they can do that for me. I also find it really good that my sports scholarship gives me a mentor for that extra bit of help as well. It’s difficult [to fit college around swimming]because I train from 5 until 7 every night so I just have to tell my lecturer that I have to leave early and they’re generally okay with it," she said.
“I was also planning on next year, because it is the Olympics, of maybe deferring the second half of the year and I was talking to my mentor and my tutor about it but I have the month off [over Christmas] and I don’t think I will be deferring because college is also a really good distraction and helps to keep me active and busy. The lecturers have all been really helpful, I had a competition in Manchester in November and we also had a practical assessment worth 70% of our grade that day that I was flying out, so I explained it to my lecturer and she allowed me to go first so I could leave straight after.”
DIT have always made a point of being an all-inclusive college and their attitude towards sport is no different. Speaking at the sport scholarship awards ceremony last December DIT sports officer Niamh O’Callaghan described that ethos of DIT; “That’s the whole ethos of the programme, as long as your sport is recognised by the Irish Sports Council and you are playing at the highest levels then you can apply for a scholarship.
“We don’t have focal sports in DIT, the strength of our programme is that we recognise all sports. We would have up to 26 sports that are being supported in any one year and it would be across a range of academic disciplines as well.”