By Brodie Cowburn Photos Supplied
Ellie Cole was just 16 years old when she waved goodbye to her Frankston High School classmates and jetted off to the Beijing Paralympics.
By the time she returned her whole life had changed, and she was a three-time Paralympic medal winner. She was treated like a star by her classmates, a time she recalls with both fondness and a hint of embarrassment.
“I still remember the pride the school had,” the star swimmer told Peninsula Essence. “There were posters all over the place, and I’m a bit modest so I didn’t handle the attention that well. I asked them to take them down when I got back!”
During her time at Frankston High School, Ellie received a Debbie Flintoff-King award for the most outstanding sporting achievement three years in a row; she was also nominated for the Junior Paralympian of the Year award. Before Frankston High Ellie attended Mount Eliza North Primary school.
“I was really fortunate to go to a very understanding school. I was in a team with other school athletes who were struggling with their workload, but my teachers were really great,” she said. “When I came home with my two bronzes and a silver all my schoolmates thought it was pretty cool, and they wore my medals around. Everyone was super proud and I still keep in touch with those friends now.”
More than a decade has passed since she competed in Beijing. During that time her trophy cabinet has grown considerably, and now features six Paralympic gold medals.
Ellie is currently working hard to stay fit for the 2020 Paralympic Games, which thanks to the bizarre nature of this year, will take place in 2021. She is no stranger to adapting to difficult circumstances though, and has taken the delay in her stride.
“It’s been pretty difficult preparing; we had to push back everything for 12 months. So for this year we are trying to stay fit, but I think that athletes going through this coronavirus period can learn a lot and teach something to kids,” she said.
“Everything is now back to a relative sense of normalcy, but we did have to get really creative with our training programs, including having Zoom training sessions.”
In the 12 years that have passed since Beijing, Ellie says that the perception of the Paralympics has improved. “It’s become a lot more professional,” she said. “Now I can train for the Paralympics full time without having to have a full-time job.”
“A lot of people also didn’t understand what the Paralympics really were, but we really saw a jump in interest in Australia after the Commonwealth Games. Now I train with two Olympians, and they’re all really interested in how I do things.”
Through the Optus Olympics Unleashed program, Ellie recently returned to her old high school for a Zoom session with sports students. She knows all about overcoming adversity, having lost her leg at a young age after being diagnosed with a rare tumour, a sarcoma, that was wrapped around the nerves. After unsuccessful attempts to treat her cancer with chemotherapy, her right leg was amputated above the knee. Eight weeks after the surgery, as part of her rehabilitation, Ellie’s mother enrolled her in swimming lessons. The instructors expected her to take up to a year to learn how to swim in a straight line, but it took her two weeks. She is happy to share her tale of resilience with the students that have done it so tough this year.
“It’s really important to stay connected at the moment,” she said about struggling young people this year. “From my experience of going through life and being really adaptive, I know it forces people into making changes. It makes people feel uncomfortable. But, it makes everybody into top people.”
Amongst her other accolades, Ellie was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in the 2014 Australia Day Honours “for service to sport as a Gold Medallist at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.” In November 2015, she was awarded Cosmopolitan Magazine’s 2015 Sportswoman of the Year.