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.