Catch up with Taverners ambassador Ellie Simmonds
The Long Room caught up with Paralympic swimming sensation Ellie Simmonds in December. Here's what she had to say on all things Taverners, disability sport and the prospects of competing at Rio 2016.
Explain how you began life as a Lord’s Taverners ambassador and why you wanted to be involved…
I’ve been involved for quite a few years now, I began taking part in Taverners events after coming home from Beijing.
It all started after meeting [former Lady Taverners president] Rachel Heyhoe Flint, and it just went on from there. It’s great to work with them.
The opportunities they give, not just to young disabled people but people of all ages and abilities, to get out there, to take part in sports activities and other events which they probably wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise – it’s a great cause.
It’s such an honour to be involved and to give something back. I love working with young kids and I’m passionate that kids should be involved in sport, and its important to give them the opportunity to be more active instead of sitting at home on the computer or in front of the TV all day and not doing any exercise. Exercise and being active is a vital thing for everyday life.
The Taverners’ goal is to give young people with disabilities a sporting chance, how influential can sport be in the lives of those who might believe they can’t take part in physical activity?
It gives you so much positivity and self-belief, you make tons of friends doing it and it keeps you fit. There are so many good things about sport and it’s important to help kids get involved in any way they can.
I think the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympics were very influential in that respect, the Games gave these guys with low self-esteem, people who probably felt a bit left out and that they couldn’t get out and play sport or do any physical activity, it gave them belief.
They saw other people with disabilities performing as athletes at the Paralympics and winning medals, I think it inspired people to go out there and do the same thing, it made them realise there are so many sports out there for everyone, no matter what disability you might have.
Sport can be a great source of empowerment, and as athletes we pay a big role in giving back to the public after such a successful home Olympics and Paralympics.
Being one of the poster athletes of London 2012, you’ve been influential in raising the profile of disability sport, has the Paralympics’ success in London had an effect on the amount of sporting activities on offer for youngsters with disabilities in the UK?
I think there have always been a lot of opportunities out there for people with disabilities to get involved in sport, but the Paralympics definitely gave their profile a boost in the UK.
What the Games did was showcase the sports and activities available to kids and their parents, showing them that there are things out there to try out and get involved in.
It made them realise that having a disability shouldn’t necessarily hold you back from taking part. The people I’ve spoken to after the Games have said it definitely helped their self-belief.
How has competing in sport helped you?
It’s helped me keep myself fit and the opportunities I’ve had through my sport have been amazing. I’ve been to so many different countries and met so many people, I’ve made so many friends out of it and it’s really boosted my self-esteem. I think a growing competiveness is a very healthy thing to have too.
You’ve broken records and won medals aplenty since your breakthrough in Beijing, it’s easy to forget that you’re still only 18-years-old! Has there been much time for a ‘normal life’ outside your career as an athlete?
Yeah definitely, I try to make sure there is. I’m an athlete but I’m also a student too, and I’ve got to be a normal teenager, so it’s nice to be able to have everything.
I’m very lucky to have my athletics career and an education and still have time to do things like go shopping with my friends.
The Paralympics were such an inspiring event and it drew record crowds for the competition in London, has the TV coverage and the publicity of the Games helped erase this divide between abled-bodied people and people with disabilities?
Yes I think so, I think it has really helped. The coverage on Channel 4 gave such a positive view on the Paralympics and disabled people, and it definitely showed the public that we’re just normal people really, that we’re not that different.
To see all those thousands of people at the stadiums and arenas, it showed that they really wanted to come and watch and support us. Most of the events were sold out, it was incredible and it showed that people didn’t really see us differently to ‘able-bodied’ athletes. The Paralympics as a whole had such amazing support from the public and I don’t think we, as a nation, would have been able to achieve what we did without that.
What about your training regime, what kind of commitment does it take to be a successful athlete?
It’s a huge commitment. I’ve just moved to Loughborough and I train eight times a week, about 16 hours in the pool.
I was with my coach Billy Pye in Swansea for seven years – since I was 11 –, that’s where a prepared for both the Beijing and London Paralympics. I lived in Swansea with my mum and travelled home in west midlands at the weekend.
After London I felt I needed a new chapter, a new challenge, so I sat down with my family and thought Loughborough would be a good place to try out - I went over there for a trial and I loved it.
I was there in my preparation for the world championships and it was great. It’s much closer to home too, it’s not as far to drive, I live here independently and I go to college here.
The training is different too, I do more gym sessions and I train here with a group of able-bodied swimmers, which is great for my motivation!
The world championships in August were great for me too, I won two golds, a bronze and came away with a world record, I couldn't have asked for it to go any better.
Is there added pressure for you to perform after your success in the Paralympics and world championships?
It definitely does increase the pressure, I know that every time I get into the pool people expect me to win and to get gold medals.
But I cope with it well, it drives me forward and knowing that people are out there watching and cheering me on makes me want to go out there and show them what I can do. I just try and use that extra bit of stress in a positive way.
Did you have any role models when you were growing up? Did you always have an ambition to compete on an international level?
Yes I did, I watched the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens and saw Nyree Kindred [nee Lewis – two-time Paralympic gold medalist] competing in my S6 classification.
She was amazing and watching her inspired me to want to go to the Paralympics – and four years later I was at my first in Beijing, so it all went well!
But you also need your family for support and to take you to competitions, they were all very supportive.
It’s come full-circle now - young people feeling inspired to take up sport after watching you and your Team GB teammates in London.
Yes it’s nice, when I was younger I looked up to Nyree and was inspired by her performances and her journey, so hopefully what I’m doing, and the rest of the GB team – as well as competitors from other nations too - will help inspire the next generation and raise the awareness of Paralympic sport in general.
So what’s next for you – have you set your sights on the next Paralympics yet?
Yes I’d love to go to Rio 2016, that’s my main target now and hopefully I’ll hit the qualifying times that I need and get selected for the team.
I’m so excited for Brazil, I think the next few years are going to fly by and it’ll be a great carnival atmosphere there.
Every Games is different, Beijing was incredible with their celebrations, the amazing buildings and venues and London was really good as it was a home games, the crowd was just on another level. I think Rio will be totally different but it’ll be exciting to go to a different country and experience a new culture.
Everybody says that London was the best Paralympics so far, so hopefully Rio will keep the momentum going and take it further forward.
In the coming weeks we'll also be hearing from Radio 1 DJ/Taverners cricketer Greg James on why he got involved with the charity and his experiences with the Taverners XI.