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‘I had to figure out how I fit into society and it’s still a struggle for me and a lot of people’

Paralympic gold-medal winner Ellen Keane is about to launch herself into the deep end by taking part in Dancing With The Stars. The swimmer says she’s doing the show to represent people with disabilities and gain the confidence she never had as a teenager — all with the added bonus of meeting Nicky Byrne 

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Ellen Keane photographed by Nina Val

Ellen Keane photographed by Nina Val

"I hate being looked at or being the centre of attention, so it’s forcing me to go there and I hope I’ll get more confident as I go on." Photo: Nina Val

"I hate being looked at or being the centre of attention, so it’s forcing me to go there and I hope I’ll get more confident as I go on." Photo: Nina Val

"It makes me sad to think that’s who I was for such a long time" Photo: Nina Val

"It makes me sad to think that’s who I was for such a long time" Photo: Nina Val

"Covid-19 was my silver lining. It gave me that extra year to work on my mental game." Photo: Nina Val

"Covid-19 was my silver lining. It gave me that extra year to work on my mental game." Photo: Nina Val

"I had to choose between dancing and swimming when I was 11. Maybe it’ll go full circle, and I’ll go back dancing." Photo: Nina Val

"I had to choose between dancing and swimming when I was 11. Maybe it’ll go full circle, and I’ll go back dancing." Photo: Nina Val

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Ellen Keane photographed by Nina Val

As the TV cameras lingered on Ellen Keane’s face right after she won gold for Ireland in the women’s 100m breaststroke at the Tokyo Paralympics last summer, they seemed to be waiting for the money shot. But there were no triumphant air punches or ecstatic tears from the 26-year-old. Instead, Keane remained calm and composed as she bobbed breathlessly in the pool; nodding to herself before her inscrutable features softened into a knowing smile.

“When I won, it wasn’t relief but more like, I’m so at peace with myself. I always knew I could do it and then I’d done it. It made sense. I was so convinced I could do it, it wasn’t a shock,” she says. “In my head I’d gone over that day so many times, it felt so normal and I was so relaxed. Then, it finally happened.”

In The Hero’s Journey, the late mythologist Joseph Campbell talks about the need to slay our dragons before we are truly transformed. That day in the pool, as Keane realised a dream she’d spent almost every waking hour of the past 13 years trying to achieve, her personal dragon was laid to waste.

“It was always my head and my negativity that let me down over the years, ever since I was small, when I first noticed people staring at me,” says Keane, who was born with an undeveloped left arm and swims competitively as an amputee. “I’d trained myself to be negative, so I had to unlearn all those negative thoughts. It wasn’t nerves but I’d spent so many years not believing in myself that it was so hard to switch that on with racing, even though I knew, deep down, I could win the gold medal.”

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"Covid-19 was my silver lining. It gave me that extra year to work on my mental game." Photo: Nina Val

"Covid-19 was my silver lining. It gave me that extra year to work on my mental game." Photo: Nina Val

"Covid-19 was my silver lining. It gave me that extra year to work on my mental game." Photo: Nina Val

Bright and bubbly, Keane is speaking to me over Zoom from the sitting room of the home she shares with her boyfriend, Gavin Maguire, in Dublin’s East Wall, as her sausage dog, Denny, tears around in the background. She recounts how, when Covid-19 hit and the world stopped in March 2020, she was forced out of the pool — and into her head.

“Covid-19 was my silver lining. It gave me that extra year to work on my mental game. I had time to reflect on what I’ve done and been through.”

So what did she do? “I gave myself credit and recognised all my hard work — Irish people are terrible at doing that, but it’s so important. During Covid-19 and lockdown, I was out of the pool and I could see the bad thoughts pop in. Once I recognised that, I gave myself a pep talk and started the next day fresh. This doubt in my head tells me I’m not worthy or confident, so I change the narrative when I notice a negative thought come in.

“I’ve been swimming go-go-go since I was a kid, but then I took a breather and could reflect on everything I’ve done. Before I went to Tokyo, I asked my boyfriend, Gav, to leave for two weeks — making those types of tough decisions gave me confidence and self-belief, too. After, I was so confident and relaxed going to Tokyo.”

Keane pulled on her first pair of armbands aged two and by 13 had made sporting history when she competed in the Beijing Paralympics as Ireland’s youngest ever athlete at a Paralympic or Olympic Games. There, she came sixth in the women’s 100m breaststroke against elite athletes twice her age. After making three finals in London four years later, she won her first Paralympic medal, a bronze, in Rio in 2016. At last year’s Games, she added another bronze as well as that all-important gold to her medal haul.

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Now, just a few months on, Keane’s ready to launch herself into the deep end once again. Next Sunday night, she swaps her swimsuit for a glitzy gown and will step out under the glitterball to compete in Dancing With The Stars (DWTS). One of 12 contestants, she will be competing against the likes of Gráinne Seoige, Nicolas Roche, Erica Cody and Aengus Mac Grianna. “I want to challenge myself, meet people, have fun — have dry hair while doing it!”

Despite her laughter, Keane admits she’s never felt so far out of her comfort zone. There’s another dragon to be faced. “I spent so long trying to avoid people staring at me. When you get glammed up and you’re looking well, people look. And when I see people doing that, it makes me really uncomfortable again, so it’s easier not to make an effort.

“I hate being looked at or being the centre of attention, so it’s forcing me to go there and I hope I’ll get more confident as I go on. When I’m getting my pictures done, I’m so awkward. One day we had to stand in front of the camera and dance by ourselves and I felt so uncomfortable. That’s why I wanted to push myself to do this. I have to tell myself I deserve to have fun. For me, Dancing With the Stars is as an opportunity to get some of that confidence I didn’t develop in my teenage years.”

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"I hate being looked at or being the centre of attention, so it’s forcing me to go there and I hope I’ll get more confident as I go on." Photo: Nina Val

"I hate being looked at or being the centre of attention, so it’s forcing me to go there and I hope I’ll get more confident as I go on." Photo: Nina Val

"I hate being looked at or being the centre of attention, so it’s forcing me to go there and I hope I’ll get more confident as I go on." Photo: Nina Val

Keane grew up the youngest of four in Dublin’s Clontarf. During her moving TEDx Talk in 2017, she revealed how, as a child, she wrote endless letters to Santa and the Tooth Fairy begging for two hands. Later, as a self-conscious teenager, she never left the house without long sleeves to hide her arm. She even perfected a way of standing that obscured her arm from view. 

Locked up in the “disability closet”, as she calls it, the only place she felt free was the swimming pool. “Swimming was an obsession and the water was my escape and my safe haven. It was the only place I felt truly happy. That’s why I really believe sport is so important. Swimming was always the driving force that kept me going. That’s the power of sport. It can build you into a good person and give you so much confidence, so I hope kids get back into it after the pandemic. It helps you recognise your strengths and weaknesses so you can work on them without the pressure of society looking at you. It was my safe place — home.”

In those days, Keane was getting out of bed at 4.10am to be poolside for training at 4.45am, five days a week, as well as sessions in the evenings, and from 6am to 9am at the weekends. From age eight, she was travelling the world for competitions and, at 15, she moved to the UK on her own to take up a swimming scholarship. Once she turned 18, she moved into her own apartment in Dublin. Independence was important to her.

“As soon as I finished school I moved out, because I needed to know I could do stuff myself and I didn’t want to rely any more on my parents. I got homesick living away from home but I got obsessed with the radio and I still fan-girl over radio personalities. I’d have Spin FM on all the time — my piece of home.

“I wanted to give them their lives back, too,” she adds of her parents, Eddie and Laura, who she credits for her astounding work ethic. “My dad was one of 17 from Offaly who moved to Dublin, and he’s always worked so hard for us. He was a service rep for Heineken and Mam was a hairdresser, then did child-minding and was a housewife.”

Keane herself chose to study a culinary arts degree at DIT. Joining the course was a pivotal moment — that was the day she decided it was time to roll up her sleeves. Ever since, she’s dubbed her shorter arm “my lucky fin”.

“It makes me sad to think that’s who I was for such a long time. I forget now that I am confident, although the truth is that I’m not at all when I’m not talking about swimming. I spent so much time in swimsuits, with no make-up or glam and wet hair, so when I do get glam, I get a bit insecure. I can talk to sports people but normal people with everyday jobs, I struggle because I don’t know what to talk about other than sport.”

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"It makes me sad to think that’s who I was for such a long time" Photo: Nina Val

"It makes me sad to think that’s who I was for such a long time" Photo: Nina Val

"It makes me sad to think that’s who I was for such a long time" Photo: Nina Val

Despite her gold-medal success on the global stage, she says her default is to “shrink” and “feel unworthy” when people look at her. Facing that personal fear is part of her reasoning for doing DWTS. The other is representation; Keane is passionate about advocating for people with disabilities, a torch lit after she gave her TEDx talk. In the past, she has insisted on being called a Paralympian, not an Olympian, and has said championing people with disabilities is as important to her as representing her country.

“My job is to swim but I’ve to step up because a lot of people with disabilities don’t have a voice,” she says. “I don’t know what it’s like to be blind or be in a wheelchair but it’s my duty to talk about it. I do feel the responsibility as a role model and I try to be, as I recognise my privilege. When I was so vulnerable and open in my TEDx Talk, it hit me how important that is — there are so many filters and lies and trying to make everything look perfect, but by being vulnerable you give people permission to be vulnerable and that can have an incredible effect, whatever people are struggling with.”

DWTS provides a new platform to begin these conversations. “I’m the first person with a disability who is going to be on the show, so I want to talk about these issues. I had to figure out how I fit into society and it’s still a struggle for me and a lot of people. That’s why I choose to use my platform. Any people struggling with self-identity — I want to do the show as it’s so important to represent my community.

“People talk to me and I’m like, ‘Don’t tiptoe around it, you can say I have no arm.’ I can tell sometimes people talk around it, but I want them to know they can say it. I try to put people at ease.”

When Keane was 14, she first started texting a boy called Sam, who would become her first boyfriend. The night before their first date, she sat up all night crying, terrified that when he saw her arm, he’d think she was “a freak” and run a mile. So, she texted him and told him, straight up.

“Why would that bother me?” came his reply.

“[In later years] when I was single and on the dating apps, it was always that same dilemma of whether to include a photo of my arm. Do I not? Do I make it a thing? At the end of the day, you want people to get to know you first. You have to come out of the disabled closet to face your disability. I think I just included full body photos of my arm. If they liked my face, then they could see my arm. Some people were like, ‘Oh, you’re such an inspiration’. I’m thinking, ‘Why? For existing?’”

Dating apps are a thing of the past since she met Maguire, an international table tennis player and Paralympic coach. He’s on the couch while she chats at the table during our interview, and she jokingly scolds him for eavesdropping. “How can I talk about you if you’re listening? Put your earphones on properly,” she says, laughing.

“Gav’s niece is a fan of mine and he messaged me on Twitter asking could I meet his niece. I looked at his profile, wondering was he a weirdo or into sport. We met in January before the pandemic and I moved into his family home in April before we moved here. I was living in a house in Finglas with two guys and a girl but they were non-athletes and I struggled. When I moved in with him, he understood my lifestyle — that’s so important as sport needs to be prioritised. Then, a few months later, I got Denny. It’s been quite the year. 

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"I had to choose between dancing and swimming when I was 11. Maybe it’ll go full circle, and I’ll go back dancing." Photo: Nina Val

"I had to choose between dancing and swimming when I was 11. Maybe it’ll go full circle, and I’ll go back dancing." Photo: Nina Val

"I had to choose between dancing and swimming when I was 11. Maybe it’ll go full circle, and I’ll go back dancing." Photo: Nina Val

The couple’s neighbours in East Wall gave Keane a homecoming she’ll never forget on her return from Tokyo. “I only moved in July 2020, but when I came back, all the neighbours had decorated the whole place and the kids had made signs. It was late at night when I came home and it was so emotional seeing everything. Then driving around Clontarf and seeing everyone out cheering and people I didn’t know crying. I soaked it all up — that will never happen again.”

After our interview, she’ll be going to the pool. She still swims most days, with the gym every other day. “You need to keep the feel of the water so I still have a base. I thought Tokyo would be my last Paralympics but now I think I still want to keep going and try defend my title and go as far as I can.”

In the meantime, there’s a new challenge to train for — 4pm-8pm dance lessons are now part of her routine. It’s a little-known fact that, before she devoted herself completely to swimming aged 11, Keane was mad about hip-hop and even performed competitively. “I came in feeling a bit cocky as I know I’m athletic and I loved hip-hop since I was four,” she says of DWTS training, “but it’s so hard. And then, learning a whole new skill, and ballroom and Latin is nothing like hip-hop. I haven’t a clue. The professionals make it look so easy and when I saw them, I was blown away.”

As a grown-up, she’s frequented another famous Irish dance floor. “I’m all about the bop,” she says, smiling. “I went to see DWTS a few years ago and was so obsessed with the sparkles and the outfits and the competition. I love the sparkle and whenever I have my downtime, post-competition, I love to have a bop. People my age try to avoid Coppers but that’s the first place I go. My friends give out that I want to go to Coppers all the time. But really, with training, I can only go twice a year and that’s the one place I go that’s consistent and it’s accessible for my friends in wheelchairs.”

It’s a train of thought that hits a nerve. “That makes me so angry and hits a switch in me. Why should we have to plan our night out a week in advance to make sure we can get into a place? If businesses put a wheelchair emoji on their [social media] pages, it’d make it so easy. It’s so hard to find out if a place is accessible online. People are so quick and eager to say they’re pet-friendly, but what about whether wheelchairs can come in? Buildings are protected more than people’s dignity in this country. It has to change.”

As important as representing people with disabilities will be on DWTS, it’s not a case of all work and no play for Keane. “It took me 13 years’ hard work to win my gold medal, so now I’ve done it I think I deserve to enjoy myself a little. I had to choose between dancing and swimming when I was 11. Maybe it’ll go full circle, and I’ll go back dancing.”

And if she doesn’t end up adding the glitterball to her trophy cabinet, there’s always Coppers. “Any Westlife song, I’m up bopping away. I’ve got my tickets for their concert next year… ” Keane stops as though the reality of DWTS has just dawned on her, then, fanning her face, she squeals: “Oh god! How am I going to deal with speaking to Nicky Byrne every week? I’ll have to look him in the eye. I met him once but I got totally tongue-tied.”

Dancing With The Stars begins on RTE One on January 9

Photography by: Nina Val; Make-up by: Glen Edward McGuinness; Instagram: @the_queer_wan With thanks to: Marino Institute of Education, Griffith Avenue, Dublin 9, see mie.ie


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