Strong Feeds Strong by Ellie Cole

The best things in life are unexpected. Sometimes these curveballs can blindside us. Sometimes they can teach us a beautiful lesson about our own inner-strength.  

 My twin and I were born as textbook babies. 5pm on a Thursday night, ten fingers, ten toes and two legs! Our parents were loving and planned for us to live a happy and healthy life.

That plan was put on hold when I was diagnosed with cancer three years later and had my leg taken away. That wasn’t part of their plan. They had to learn to expect the unexpected, to learn that sometimes plans change. 

 As soon as I was old enough, my plan was to become the best Paralympic swimmer in the world. I trained day in, day out. I was told that I wouldn’t be any good – I had a leg missing after all. 

 Fast forward to today!

It has been almost four years now since I was sitting in a gloomy back room of the Australian Institute of Sport thinking that I didn’t belong there. The AIS was a centre of excellence for an athlete; a place where the strong came to get stronger. Instead I was physically and mentally weak. I was at the three month mark post my double shoulder reconstruction and the cards weren’t falling my way. This wasn’t part of my plan. 

 I  felt like I was kidding myself when I was accepted to join the Australian swim team on an intensive week of training. Why? I wasn’t even back in the pool whilst my team-mates looked exactly how I used to feel; strong, powerful, unstoppable, unbroken. 

I sat there, desperately trying to hold on to what I once was and trying keep my head above water, literally. With both arms in slings, I couldn’t even look at the pool without remembering the cold, raw and painful experiences I had endured throughout my injuries. 

A year earlier a surgeon told me that I would never swim competitively again. A year before that I was standing on the gold medal podium at the London 2012 Games. How did this even happen? In that moment, it dawned on me that my next step would be to sign on the dotted line at the bottom of my retirement papers. I was done. 

24hours later, and mid-way through camp, we waited for our guest speaker to arrive. I heard the door open and looked up to see my childhood hero walk through the door. Twelve years after winning gold, Petria Thomas still walked with an air of confidence. Everyone, including me, knew that Petria was plagued with three shoulder reconstructions throughout her swimming career. For over an hour, Petria told us of her journey back to the pool, her display of inner strength and her commitment to make it through the dark. I hung on to every word including one important piece of information that I had never known. 

Petria won Olympic gold only one year after her shoulders were reconstructed. One year of hard work and a mountain of inner strength was all that it took. It was what I needed to hear and all of a sudden, I was back.  

In that room, Petria taught me what  inner strength is all about; knowing that you are good enough, brave enough, and strong enough to deal with any curveball that life may throw. 

Life is a journey and at every turn, our courage will be tested. In that moment, I chose hard work and I chose strength and all of a sudden, once again my plans had changed. 

Two years later I was standing back in a place where I never thought I would stand again: on the medal podium in Rio, celebrating two gold, three silver and a bronze medal. Not bad for a girl who was ready to give up.

Race Day - Rio by Ellie Cole

At the Paralympic Games, the first time that you walk in to the competition venue is pretty special. Its quiet. Very quiet. The stadium lights are on but the stands are empty. Its almost eerie. You walk in, look around and know that this is it. You could walk away from this with something amazing.

As the days go on, the nerves begin to build and over the coming days you will brush shoulders with the best swimmers in the world. Most of them you know well, having swum against them for years. However, the Paralympics throw up the occasional new contender. A young pup that is hungry to win. They might look wide-eyed and oblivious on the outside, but on the inside they are walking around with a fire in their belly and would love nothing more than to destroy you in the pool.

I watched Paralympic champions growing up on TV. Everybody knows that I will forever be Natalie Du Toits biggest fan. When you see the Games on TV as a little kid, you almost imagine the athletes have super powers and know something about sport that you don’t.

Ill let you in on a little secret: its exactly the same race as when you were a little boy or girl. Its just faster. Stronger. Competitive. Practiced. 

The athletes that are at the Games are the ones that get themselves out of bed, watch their diet, get to bed early, wake up early and don’t stop until the Games are finally upon them. They are the survivors. They have not only survived their own trials, but out of thousands who started their sports, the Paralympians and Olympians kept at it longer when most had given up. We aren’t the worlds most genetically gifted specimens that are walking the planet, we just had the hunger and drive to keep going.

So, standing behind the blocks in Rio, I have found that I feel so separate to what I think a Paralympic swimmer and champion should be. I have always felt like that. Its just me standing there. I feel the same nerves that I did in my first swimming race when I was an 11 year old girl. I have the same expectations; I want to win. This time though, Ill make sure that my goggles don’t fall off.

The worst part of competition day is waiting at the warm-up pool. You do your once over body check and stretch out the muscles that are still waking up. You see other swimmers heading off for their race, and a little later can hear the crowd roar them home. Some walk back Paralympic champions. Some walk back with their head in their hands. That stuff can really make your stomach churn.

Now, it was time to get ready for the 400m Freestyle - an event that I am not confident in. But when you have raced for over a decade you know the pain that you are in for.

In the call room, you look around at your competitors. Some of them are familiar faces. Some are staring straight ahead, some of them look at the floor, some are excited and jumpy. You can feel the nerves in the room. I get myself mentally ready for the pain train.

I sat there with my cap and goggles in my hand and kept telling myself : 'Yes, it will hurt. Yes, it will be agony. But, the pain will stop when you touch the wall. Just ignore your body when its screaming. It doesn’t understand what you are trying to do. Don’t be afraid. You will not die. YOU WILL NOT DIE'.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. 

I watched Brendan Hall walk out for his 400m. He is the King but never acts that way. I watch him on the TV win his gold medal and hope that I can follow suit. 

Walking out onto pool deck is a special moment. The first thing that I do is find my family and give them a wave, then turn my head to find my team. They know how it feels to be down there.

Standing on the blocks, the crowd goes deathly silent. Its the same eerie silence that you feel when you walk into the competition venue for the first time. When you hear the siren, you just act on instinct. Its difficult to keep yourself composed for the first few strokes. You want to get going - theres a long way to go though. The first 200 meters was cruisy. Roll the shoulders over, stay relaxed. I knew that my biggest threat for the gold was one of these young pups who were looking to destroy me. I kept my eye on her with every tumble turn. Every turn, she was there. I would gradually build my speed to try and shake her off but she was trailing off my toes. The pain was slowly building with every stroke. It takes everything to keep your technique together. Keep your strokes long, your body position high in the water.

The feeling of agony I just mentioned? That hit me pretty hard at the 350m mark. I turned at the wall and saw Nuria was just slightly behind me. One last push to try and lose her. 50 meters to go. I kept my eye on her for the stretch back home. She was gaining on me. She was coming up fast. My muscles were screaming. Everything was hurting. My arms hurt. My head was throbbing and the lungs were burning. I think even my ear lobes were hurting. We were head to head and I was in physical agony. But you have to ignore that. This is a Paralympic final after all. 

‘I have worked this hard for 375 meters, I am not going to give up’.

Time to bring out the big guns. Don't breathe for the last 15 meters. Just get to the wall as fast as you can. Go, go, go. 

Touching the wall on the last stroke I instantly went into the unknown. The pain stopped. I had no energy to turn around. I was trying to return oxygen back into my body as quickly as I could. I glanced up at my team mates in the crowd and saw that none of them were on their feet. I knew in that moment that I hadn’t won.

This young pup had destroyed me in 0.02 of a second. She wasn’t just a wide-eyed and oblivious girl after all. She was going to be good. Really, really good! She just proved herself on the world stage - the Games newest gold medallist. 

I looked over to her and saw in her eyes how happy she was. She couldn't believe it. It was the same feeling that I had four years prior when I had won my first Paralympic gold medal.

You can’t beat that feeling.

I realized quickly that Nuria Marquez Soto was something special. In four or eight years time, when she is dominating in the pool, I can look back and say that I was part of her first gold medal race.

Now, how often do you get the say that? I am now Nuria Marquez Sotos biggest fan. 

I am up again tomorrow for the Womens 100m Freestyle. The light never goes out. Go Aussies!

One Week To Go by Ellie Cole

Rio is now getting a bit too close for comfort.

The Australian Paralympic Swim Team have now been training in the United States for the last ten days. As an athlete, ten days in a hotel can make you a little stir-crazy. Having to cope with jetlag, pre-competition nerves and the extra amount of energy from taper can be difficult at the best of times. You would expect tension, short fuses and irrationality. You don’t see or feel these reactions when you are training in such a committed and uplifting team. We are all working towards a common goal – to perfect the things that can’t be perfected. We collectively want to make Australia proud of its National Swim Team.

We all know that the Olympic Games is the predecessor to the Paralympic Games. Its surreal to watch the Olympics beforehand, knowing that we will be walking into the very same stadium in just six weeks time.

Like all other Paralympians, I found myself wondering what the next few weeks of training would bring.  Would we be ready in time? There is never enough time to prepare – time is the enemy. There are just too many things to make perfect. Still, we all seem to chase it down anyway.

Results, results, results. That’s what it all comes down to.

Over our swimming career we are taught to focus on the process rather than the results that we are ultimately chasing. We hear the word ‘process’ so often that sometimes we mumble it in our sleep. This tactic has been designed to keep us grounded before we perform. If we start thinking about the results too much we can find ourselves consumed by fear and the sensation of being overwhelmed. We can start letting doubtful thoughts creep into our minds that serve no purpose but to let the game get the better of us.

There is a catch though -we aren’t human if we don’t think about winning. We can’t afford to be thinking about this behind the blocks. Instead, we have to practice the ability to completely trust our body to deliver the performance. We spend all that time being coached, coached, coached. But behind the blocks we have to let go of that and trust that we will act on instinct.

When it comes down to it, the thing that really matters to an athlete is:

Did I give it everything?

This doesn’t just apply to race day, but in every little decision that you have made before that moment.

This generally puts athletes into two different camps when they walk away from their Games experience.

1.     I did everything that I could.

2.     I messed up. I wasted my shot.

Im walking away from Rio in the first camp.

 

 

The Countdown by Ellie Cole

Its hard to believe its almost here. We are nearing just 40 days until the Opening Ceremony for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. 

For those of you that follow the Olympic and Paralympic swimmers on Instagram, we all seem to be about countdowns. Every morning we wake up before the sun does and we turn off our alarm. We either feel one of two things in that moment: fear or excitement. Fear that the Games have become one day closer than they were before we went to sleep. We can also feel excitement for the same reason. Sometimes its both. Sometimes we just want to go back to sleep. Im sure you know what that feels like. 

Either way, regardless of what we are feeling its time to get out of bed. It doesn't matter how cold it is outside or how much our bodies are hurting, the show must go on. 

The drive to the pool is always an interesting one. It takes me 20 minutes to drive to training. As the Games are approaching us in a speed that doesn't seem realistic, I usually think about Rio. What will happen? What will I be feeling when I stand up on the blocks? The nerves usually hit me then and I have to remember to keep breathing. I am driving a car after all. Not the most ideal time to pass out. 

But you always wonder how you will walk away from a Paralympic Games. Will you be happy with your performances? Will you be disappointed and always carry around this deep regret? Either way, you can walk away knowing that you were amongst the best in the world at something. Thats pretty cool. 

I always try walk into training with a big smile on my face. My enthusiasm usually annoys some of the swimmers (usually the ones that are napping in the pathway) but it puts me in a good mood. Sometimes that smile that I walk in with can quickly turn to horror as I read the session on the white board. My coach, Nathan Doyle, always tells me 'You'll be right. This will be good for you' when he sees this look on my face. As much as I hate to agree, he's usually right. 

Training over the years has taught me one thing: there is no point holding back. It is a waste of time to hold yourself back if you woke up at 4am and dove into a cold pool. That was already hard enough, you might as well make the most of it while you're in there.  

This morning was a pretty difficult set. We swam over three kilometres of pull at different paces for our main set. After the pull set, Coach Doyle told us to put our paddles on for a sprint set. 

I was thinking: 'He's joking, right? How am I meant to sprint when I can't even feel my arms?!'. 

I voiced this to Coach Doyle, who of course, was not joking. Not even in the slightest bit. He told me 'You'll be right. This will be good for you'. He was right, of course. 

Anyway, I better go and eat some food. Its time to replenish those arms for another training session tonight.

If you have any questions or want to share any photos, you are more than welcome to hit me up on Instagram : @elliecoleswim