Women's Sport: Ellen Keane on training for her fourth Paralympics


Before the Tokyo 2020 was delayed due to the coronavirus, Ellen Keane's training for the Tokyo Paralympics was going well.

Speaking to GiveMeSport before the pandemic hit, the Irish swimmer who won bronze at Rio 2016 for 100m breaststroke, told GiveMeSport Women that she was itching to get racing in preparation for her fourth Paralympics.

Since then the world has been turned upside down but despite the year's delay, Keane told The Irish Times that she is still motivated for next year. She said: “I think 2021 will be an even greater celebration of all that, and even though it might be my fourth Olympics, right now the whole world is united by emotion, which is the motto of these Games.

"I want to be there. If anything I’m even more motivated now, take a bit of a timeout yes, reflect on things, and then come back stronger for 2021.”

With such determination, no doubt Keane's training routine will return in full force when it is possible and we find our new normal. So what does training and Paralympic preparation look like for Keane?

No one day is the same, Keane explains, but she does train twice daily, whether that's two swims a day or a mixture of gym sessions and swims.

When she is out of the pool, life is "all about kind of recovery and making sure you're eating enough and doing a little bit of rehab and prehab," she adds. Come weekends, Keane might swim on Saturday mornings but otherwise, she says: "I come home, eat loads of food, and then go to sleep and don't set an alarm." 

Rio was Keane's third Paralympics and having won her bronze medal has changed what it's like preparing for Tokyo. Keane reflects: "It's a lot less pressure because I have the medal now, I'm a Paralympic medalist. That was always my goal in life."

The experience of winning has defined her Tokyo goals, too, explains Keane: "When I won the medal in Rio I actually didn't have a swim that I was proud of because I didn't get a PB and I felt like I had made a few errors. For me going into Tokyo now, I just want to swim a race to do myself proud whether or not that makes a podium."

Keane would prefer that includes a podium finish, but she is pragmatic, too: "Paralympic sport has made such a leap forward in the past few years, anything can happen – if everyone had a perfect race on the same day, you don't know who's going to make the podium, so for me, I just want to finish the race and know that I did myself proud."

Since the Rio Games, the Paralympic swimming classification system has changed, something that has been controversial as reclassifications can significantly impact the fields of competitors. 

Keane has been critical of the move in the past, but she is practical about not letting the changes within the sport impact her personal preparation. Keane reflects: "Classification is something that's out of my control, so what is in my control is looking after my sleep, looking after my nutrition, and my training. I'm trying not to focus on what I can't control and just make sure that I'm doing everything that I am doing right."

Something that helped her adopt this approach is her sponsorship and support from the Sky Sports Scholars programme. Keane explains: "It was really about the belief of having Sky backing me – it's such a big company and for such a big company to want to sponsor you and believe in you, it gives you that little bit of extra boost that maybe I needed."

With classification specifically, Keane explains her mentor helped her adjust her outlook: "Originally I did have the mindset of wanting to win a gold medal and when things with classification changed that was something that became an unrealistic goal for me, and I found it devastating.

"But they helped me to change my perspective, to try and get a performance out of myself that I'm proud of and then anything else that happens on the day is out of my control, but you never know if an opportunity will arise, so be prepared for when the opportunity does arise."

Keane was born without her left arm below the elbow and since her success in the pool – she has also been world number one and European champion – she has heard from others who look up to her and the difference it makes seeing greater representation of Paralympians. 

Her biggest piece of advice that she would give people who want to follow in her wake is to find a coach who understands you. She explains how she swam at an able-bodied club, and while one coach didn't adapt the sessions to suit Keane, she found another who did.

She says: "Now I have a coach who wants me to train in a specific training zone so he'll adapt it so that I'm in the same zone as everyone else, but the times might be a little bit different. You need to find a coach who is going to see you as an athlete, not as someone with a disability and who is going to focus on your goals just as much as focusing on everyone else's goals."

The date might have changed, but we are still as excited as ever to see Keane and her fellow athletes take to the pool in Tokyo.

Sky Sports Scholars was launched in 2011 and has helped 35 athletes with financial support, personal development, mentoring, work experience and more.

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