Things you might not expect a global swimming champion to say, number one: “The worst thing about spending so much time in the pool is being wet all the time,” sighs four-time Paralympic gold medallist Ellie Simmonds. “It’s half an hour since morning training ended and my hair’s still wet.”
Things you might not expect a global swimming champion to say, number two: “Since I was really young I’ve had a fear of swimming in open water. If I was at the seaside, I would stay very near the shore, so I could keep my feet on the bottom. People think I should be confident in the water because of being a competitive swimmer, but a pool is such a controlled environment. The ocean is so huge, and not being able to see what’s beneath you is scary – there could be anything down there – and the waves are so big.”
So when the 21-year-old was given the chance to swim alongside dolphins in their natural environment off Mozambique, the idea was a thrill, but it came with some serious challenges – not least that it would all be happening in front of cameras for an ITV documentary. She underwent training to overcome her fears, and the footage of Ellie gliding underwater alongside the dolphins is enchanting.
Swimming with dolphins
“It was such an incredible experience – up there with the gold medals,” she grins happily. “I’ll tell my grandkids about it. It’s so exhilarating and tranquil in the vastness of the ocean. Dolphins are so majestic, especially in the wild, where they should be. It’s so hard to describe it – your own bit of heaven.”
She was especially intrigued beforehand to learn of research suggesting that dolphins can sense some forms of human trauma, as well as pregnancy, and also disability.
“I could definitely sense that in them,” says Simmonds, who has Achondroplasia dwarfism. “It’s a comforting thought, that they think about being careful around people. They’re such intelligent creatures.”
Her experiences in Mozambique were a huge contrast to Simmonds’s usual life in the water, as she prepares to compete in five events at Rio. Her training involves two hours in the pool morning and evening, covering 28 miles a week, and a 90-minute gym session for strength and core conditioning every other day.
Ready for Rio
Such has been her regime for more than a decade. Born in Walsall, she started swimming at five and by age ten was talent-spotted for a British Swimming programme. She was 13 when she captured her first two Paralympic golds at the Beijing Games of 2008. She was – and remains – the youngest winner of the BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year and the youngest recipient of an MBE, at the age of 14. At London 2012 she added another two golds to her haul, by which time she was among the most recognised Paralympians on the planet.
But even the most dedicated champion needs her downtime, and Simmonds’s key relaxation is baking for friends.
“Favourite cake? Tough question,” muses Simmonds, who has taken part in Sport Relief Bake Off. “Lemon drizzle. Or Madeira. Or carrot. I just made an apple and caramel loaf, and some chocolate orange shortcake, but I only had a bit of the loaf, and then gave all the rest to my friends. Baking is really therapeutic. I love it.”
As for Rio, she says firmly that she has no medal target, or any concerns about the Zika virus. It’s typical of the positive mindset she has always fostered, since she watched Welshwoman Nyree Kindred win the S6 100m backstroke gold at the Athens Paralympics of 2004 and knew that she wanted to go to the Games, too. Rio will be her third, and she isn’t done yet.
“I definitely want to go to a few more Paralympics, but I take each year as it comes,” she says. “I’ve no particular career thoughts for when I stop competing, although I really love working with children – I make a lot of visits to schools, and it’s so much fun talking to the kids. I’d love children of my own, although I’ve things I want to achieve before that. I just want to grasp every moment and not wish it away.
“It’s tough – sometimes I want to stay in bed longer, and chugging up and down the pool isn’t always great – but people with regular jobs have days like that, too. I’m so glad of the opportunities I have – red carpets, fashion shows, meeting incredible people, making this documentary. There is no downside.
“The Paralympics have changed attitudes hugely. We’re seen as professional athletes now, whereas before we were seen as part-timers. We train as hard as the Olympians. It’s every bit as shattering for me if I lose or don’t perform to my optimum. I’m a very competitive person. If I don’t do as well as I can, I get very angry with myself. I always want to be on top.”
Rio, you have been warned.
Ellie Simmonds: Swimming with Dolphins is on ITV at 7pm tonight