Ellie Simmonds: “I push my body to the limit each day, it’s quite an addiction”

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Ellie Simmonds has just returned from Tokyo. She has been training in Japan, “getting ready for the jetlag and for the summer”, where she will be competing in her fourth Paralympic Games for swimming. She tells me that Japan “was absolutely incredible. I’d truly recommend it. It was so cool seeing the culture, the Japanese people… Coming from London and what we know in Britain and then experiencing something else, helps to know what we’re going in for. Normally before a Games or a competition, if it’s in a different country, we go and experience it, to get used to it before it happens.”

You might think Simmonds is “used to it” by now. For an athlete, let alone a 25 year old, Simmonds has certainly had an astonishingly successful career. She has already won 9 medals, broken 2 world records, competed in her first Paralympics whilst being Team GB’s youngest athlete, was the youngest person ever to receive an MBE, to which she now has an OBE, and, in 2008, she won the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year.

Simmonds learnt to swim at 5 years old. “I’m the youngest of 5, so I remember sitting at the side lines, watching my siblings learn to swim. Then it was my turn to be safe in the water. From that point on, swimming became more of a social and competitive side. When I was young, I hated being bored. I always liked to be doing something every single day. So swimming just took over. I wanted to get my 20m badge, 50m badge, all the badges really. Once I completed all my badges, I started swimming competitively, and more and more for my club. So that’s how it really started, just learning to swim.”

“You get addicted to that feeling. When the session goes well, you get a real natural high from it”

Simmonds, when she was younger, loved swimming “because socially, I was with my friends all the time, just being free, doing exercise, away from school. Also, since I was good at it, I started realising that I’m alright, I can do it.” Yet, now what Simmonds enjoys, “after Beijing, London and Rio, I think it’s the opportunities that it gives you. I would never have been to a Paralympics if I wasn’t a swimmer, and I never would have met the people I’ve met or done what I’ve experienced without swimming. I love what I do. I push my body to the limit each day. It’s quite an addiction. You get addicted to that feeling, when the session goes well, you get a real natural high from it afterwards. So it’s changed from when I was younger to now as I’m older.”

Simmonds trains nine times a week in the pool, with each session lasting two hours. She also does three gym sessions “for about an hour and a half”, along with a weekly yoga class. What does Simmonds think about when she swims? “It varies. For my morning sessions, I actually think about what I’m going to do in the day and what jobs I’ve got to do. Your mind goes weird. Or you imagine things happening. But then key sessions I’m focused on my swimming, so I’m counting my strokes, how many lengths have I got left? I’m pushing my body, can I go faster? Can I kick? Competition time, I’m thinking of the feeling of winning, imagining my race happening. It’s a variety of different thoughts. I always find though, when I’m stressed, if I go for a nice, gentle swim, it really clears my mind because it’s the time where I can think. It’s that time where I can sort out what my stresses are.”

What is Simmonds’ strategy for when she is stressed and nervous before a race? “I try and keep calm. I look to my coach; we talk about what my nerves are like, the race, and other things to get my mind away from overthinking. It could be a variety of things. Leading up to a competition, I listen to music, watch things on TV, Netflix, get into a good series, or a good book.”

“My body is not a machine, it’s not a robot”

It’s surprising that Simmonds has time for much relaxation, with such a strict regime. “In the evenings, I try to return from training and just get away from sport or emails. I try to be a normal person as much as I can.”

Simmonds has “luckily enough, in [her] career, never been injured, so touch wood it doesn’t happen.” When Simmonds is not performing well, she motivates herself by “realising that, especially in training days, my body is not a machine, it’s not a robot and there are some days where I’m going to wake up and it’s not good. And I’ve just got to accept that, and look at things I can do well instead of thinking about my time or how fast I’m going. I look at maybe working at my skills. It’s hard when you’re not motivated or when you’re not feeling great. It’s hard to try and get out of that slump, but you always know that some days, when not feeling great, you’ve got to get out of that. There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. This week I’m not feeling great but maybe next week I’ll be feeling better. I try to look at little things each day that have gone well. When my best friend and I are feeling low, we always say three things that we’re grateful for. It could be something small, like it’s nice weather outside, I had a good coffee today. When you’re not feeling great, look at the little things to make yourself feel better.”

“There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. This week I’m not feeling great but maybe next week I’ll be feeling better”

What does Simmonds eat on training and match days? Lately, before training, Simmonds has “a big glass of coffee, a protein bar or banana.” Afterwards, she has “oats, with chai seeds, mixed berries and yoghurt. Lunch is normally toast with avocadoes, spinach, eggs and beetroot. Then I may have a snack of apple and peanut butter. Tonight I’ll have chickpea korma I made with some rice. I try and have a balanced , with as much protein as I can, and just eat healthy food really. Though I do treat myself. But, come competition time, I normally stick to what I know.”

Simmonds instantly knows what the hardest challenge of being a swimmer is. “The sleep, the early mornings. This morning I was up at 4.30. I try and get as much sleep as I can, but there are days when you are super tired and it’s not great hours. I try to be in bed by 9, asleep by 9.30. But I’m a 25 year old, do you know what I mean? It’s hard to be a normal person outside, and get enough rest and sleep. The sacrifices that I have to make to be the best that I can be, are quite hard.”

“The sacrifices that I have to make to be the best that I can be, are quite hard”

Simmonds, for many, is one of the best Paralympic swimmers in the world. How does it feel for her to know she’s achieved her goals? “Day to day, I don’t really think about it. Maybe when I retire in the future, I’ll look back and think, wow, I’ve achieved all that. But at the moment, when you’re in it, you’re always thinking about the next goal. So I don’t really remember much about London or Rio, because I’m always thinking, gosh this year I have Tokyo. It’s maybe not till I’ve finished, where I look back… But it feels nice, I think sometimes it hits me that I’ve achieved my dream and I’m going into hopefully my fourth games. When I was a kid I just wanted to get a gold and go to a Paralympics, but to think I’ve gone to four and I’ve got nine medals. It doesn’t hit you, because you’re so in it, in the zone.”

Does Simmonds have any specific aims for the upcoming Paralympics? “At the moment, it’s all about trials for the Paralympics. We have a qualification standard and event in April time, where we will get given a time that we have to hit. And then hopefully, we’ll get picked to go to the Games. So for now, that’s my aim. I just want to hit the time I’ve got to do and get picked for the Games. Once I’m on the team, that’s when I’ll revaluate my aims and objectives.”

Is their someone who inspires Simmonds most? “I think everyone is amazing sports wise. You don’t see what they do behind closed doors, the likes of Serena Williams, Jess Ennis, the Women’s Football Team or American Football team. There is no single person that I want to be. I just get inspired all the time. But when I was younger, I watched the Athens 2004 Paralympics, I was about eight or nine. And I watched a lady called Nyree Lewis, she was a disability swimmer, and she got a gold medal. I remember as a kid asking, how old do you have to be to go to the Paralympics? How does she do that? That was when I was really saying, Oh man, I really want to go to a Paralympics, I want to get a gold medal.”

Does Simmonds agree with the New York Times article: ‘Paralympic Athletes’ Least Favourite Word: Inspiration’? Does it frustrate her that the word might detract from her accomplishment, might brand her as different? “I know what you mean, I think we’re starting to break down the barriers now. What we’re trying to come across for Paralympic athletes is that we’re the same as abled bodied athletes. We are athletes. We’ve just got disabilities aswell. A few people maybe get insulted or whatever they feel about being an inspiration, because they don’t want to be a sob story. But I think there are different ways in which you can inspire people. Like when you inspire kids to achieve their dreams in whatever they do, that’s quite heart-warming, that’s what you want to go out to do. But if you’re inspiring people because it’s a sob story and they feel sorry for you, then that’s not right.”

“We are athletes. We’ve just got disabilities as well”

Simmonds feels equally as passionate about equality of the sexes in sport. “Women should be treated the same as men. You should view women’s accomplishments in the same way you view a man’s. They’re just as amazing as men or men are just as amazing as women, it’s about all being treated equally and the same.”

With all the success Simmonds has had and all the awards she has received, she is in the public eye a lot more now. Has that been difficult to deal with? “Living in London, makes it’s alright. You don’t really get stopped because it’s a very multicultural city, people are just doing their daily business. There’s quite a lot of famous people out and about. When I go home to my parents house in Aldrich, where I was born and where I’m from, sometimes it does get hard if I get recognised because I just want to be normal. I just want to be doing my day to day stuff, instead of people coming up to me and saying, ‘well done’, and all this. But it comes with the sport and what I do, so you jut have to try and take it with a pinch of salt.”

What are Simmonds interests outside of swimming? “I love travelling. I’m really a fan of travelling and exploring. I love ocean conservation, swimming in the sea and doing loads of things with animals. Seeing the world, meeting people and doing social things. I’m just trying to be a normal 25 year old.”

Has Simmonds thought beyond the Paralympics, what she might want to do in the future? “I’m unsure what my situation will be after Tokyo, but I think in the future I’d love to teach children abroad. Maybe I’ll teach English internationally. That’s what I’d like to do.”

Until then, Simmonds will be enjoying the little moments, before Tokyo beckons her to the pool once again.

Images: Ellie Simmonds

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