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Ellie Simmonds: Why swimmer ‘hated’ her sport and almost quit before aiming for medal glory at Tokyo Paralympics

She’s one of Britain’s most famous Paralympians but Ellie Simmonds admits she used to hate the sport that made her name.

The five-time Paralympic swimming champion will compete at her fourth Games in Tokyo on Thursday after more than a decade in the spotlight.

But in the build-up to this year’s delayed Games, the 26-year-old revealed she almost quit because of her ordeal at Rio 2016.

“I hated Rio and I hated everything about it,” she told Sky Sports News.

Simmonds, who is 4ft tall due to the bone growth disorder achondroplasia, was one of several athletes subjected to a “climate of fear” in the British Para-swimming team.

An independent investigation in 2017 looked into complaints of bullying from 13 swimmers and found they faced “unacceptable behaviours”, with one senior coach using “abusive and derogatory language” towards athletes.

British Swimming issued an apology but the impact on Simmonds was severe.

She said the experience meant she “just hated swimming” and she spoke to her parents about quitting the sport ahead of Rio 2016.

Despite winning gold and bronze medals at the Games, she can’t bare to watch any replays.

“I don’t watch my Rio races back,” Simmonds told the Guardian.

“I’ll look at my London 2012 races a lot. But not Rio.

“It was the staff. There were some not very nice people in the team.”

• Dealing with different countries’ attitudes to disability

Simmonds spent a year away from swimming after Rio and went travelling, mostly on her own.

During her trips abroad, she had to deal with cultures less used to meeting people with her condition.

“In China they don’t mind getting their cameras out, but I try to go with the flow,” she told The Times.

“In countries where there is not so much disability visible on the streets, they want to know who you are and what you are doing.”

Simmonds told the newspaper that before her year off she thought swimming was “life or death”, but now if a session isn’t going well she realises “these things happen”.

Born in Walsall on 11 November 1994, Simmonds – the youngest of five siblings – moved to Swansea when she was 11 along with her mother so she could train with the GB squad.

At the age of 12 she reportedly underwent surgery in which four metal plates were used to straighten her legs.

But she says she has “never been bullied” about her condition.

“I’m just small. I can do everything everyone else can do,” she told the Guardian in 2017.

“If I wasn’t small I wouldn’t have gone to the Paralympics. My philosophy is that there is no point in being sad or hating who you are. I just embrace every day as it comes and try to live the best I can.”

• A Paralympic champion aged 13 and London 2012 ‘career highlight’

Simmonds’ talent in the pool saw her selected for the Beijing Paralympics in 2008 aged just 13.

She became the second youngest Paralympian in British history to win a medal as she secured two golds in the 100m and 400m freestyle events.

Her achievements saw her named BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year in 2008, and she became the youngest person ever to receive an MBE in 2009.

Four years after her Beijing success, Simmonds was one of Britain’s leading Paralympic stars going into the 2012 London Games – and she didn’t disappoint.

Under immense pressure in front of the home crowd, she won two golds in the 400m freestyle and 200m individual medley, a silver in the 100m freestyle and a bronze medal in the 50m freestyle, as well as breaking two world records.

“The highlight of my career was London 2012,” she later told Sky Sports News.

Simmonds was awarded an OBE in the 2013 New Years Honours List, before attention turned to the Rio 2016 Games.

• More medal success in Rio and tears over delayed Tokyo Games

Despite her difficulties with the coaching team, the swimmer defended her 200m individual medley title, breaking down in tears after collecting her gold medal.

She also secured a bronze medal in 400m freestyle.

As she prepared for the Tokyo Paralympics, Simmonds returned to her old coach Billy Pye, a former miner, who had been working in China before the Rio Games.

But after learning that the Games had been postponed because of the COVID pandemic, she says she burst into tears.

“When I found out the news that the Games had been postponed until next year I cried,” she told Sky Sports News.

“The Games are every four years and when you train in January, you’re in full focus, you’re ready to compete. When it goes like that, it’s tough.”

She revealed she spent lockdown re-reading Harry Potter books and watching Peaky Blinders and Luther.

She has spoken about wanting to be a primary school teacher after she retires as an athlete, and claims Strictly Come Dancing is the only reality TV show she would appear on.

• Britain’s flag-bearer in Tokyo and competing as an ‘older woman’

With her attention now solely on achieving success in Tokyo, Simmonds was chosen as a flag-bearer for Great Britain at the opening ceremony.

She is bidding for a third successive Paralympic title in 200m individual medley on Thursday, before she competes in the 100m breaststroke and 400m freestyle.

But Simmonds faces a tough task in Thursday’s race, with 19-year-old fellow Briton Maisie Summers-Newton – who also has achondroplasia – the favourite to win.

Despite her vast experience and hefty haul of medals, Simmonds says the burden of competing at elite level is greater than ever.

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“As an older woman now, I feel the pressure more, I feel all those different aspects, I’m more aware of that,” she said.

“Whereas as a 13-year-old, as a 17-year-old, you just do swimming, you’re just doing it as sport where you don’t really think of all the outside bits.

“I’m more aware of those types of challenges now and I work with the psychologist really well.

“For me, these Games are just about going out there, racing, enjoying it, doing the best I can and just being happy and soaking it all in.”

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