Duncan White meets the swimmer and the former coal-miner who are on course to make a splash in London
Going into my first final in Beijing, the nerves hit me so bad. I was 13 and it was my first final of the Paralympics, in the Individual Medley. I turned to Billy and said: ‘Why am here? I don’t want to do it’ and burst out crying. He was great and told me to just go and enjoy it.
I finished fifth and, to be honest, I was disappointed. I hadn’t done as well as I’d wanted. Back in my room I really thought hard. I knew the nerves had affected me. The next day was the 100m freestyle.
I just wanted to go out and show them what I could do.
In the heats I qualified second, I swam a personal best and in the final I was determined to get a medal. I didn’t mind which colour. In the last 25m we were all in a line and I just put my head down and went for it.
The next thing I know, I’d touched. It took me a while to recognise where I was. Then my team-mate Nathalie told me I was first and I said ‘really?’ and she said ‘yes’ and I burst out crying. I cried because I’d trained so hard going into it and suddenly I had this thing I had dreamed of, a gold medal. I just let it all out.
I then gave that embarrassing interview when I burst into tears on television. I didn’t see it until ages afterwards. I was so embarrassed when I saw it. We had no idea what it was like back home. In the few months after, it really hit home how big it was. I didn’t realise how many people had been watching it.
I first started swimming when I was five, when my mum took me to swimming lessons. We went to quite a few places but none of them suited me. Finally, she took me to a club called Boldmere in Sutton Coldfield, where my older sister used to swim. It was there that I really took to it.
As I worked my way up through the stages I had to work harder and harder so that I could stick with my friends. When I was eight I got selected for the club to compete for them and that’s when my competitive edge came through. I didn’t actually race in a disability swimming meet until I was nearly 10 years old and things just went from there.
I needed Billy to take me to the next level, though. Boldmere was a great club but I was training with people younger than me and getting frustrated.
I swim in the S6 category and Billy is a designated coach for that, so I started training with him in the holidays and half-terms from early 2006. Our relationship grew out of those sessions and then, after the World Championships, in South Africa, my parents and I realised something had to change, so we moved to Swansea so I could work with Billy full-time.
He’s both tough and relaxed. Some coaches just think about your ability, but Billy thinks of your personal life as well. If I’ve had a bad day it can affect my training and he’s aware of that. I’ve been revising for my GCSEs and he understands my commitments with school. I train nine times a week, in two-hour sessions, including Saturdays. In the week I have to do two hours of gym as well. It’s hectic because I have to fit in school.
Some days you have to motivate yourself. You come in and it’s hard. It can be quite boring but I’m lucky in that I’ve got a good training partner in Matt [Whorwood] and we keep ourselves entertained.
I am having my first proper holiday for a long time in August but when I get back it will be hard work. I know if I do the work I will be in a good position for London. I know there’s going to be a lot of pressure on me but I thrive on that.
I don’t remember much of the build-up to Beijing. I wish I could go back and take it all in because it was quite a blur. I’d like to have taken more photos – the Paralympic village was amazing. You are on such a high you don’t take much in.
That will be different in London, I hope. Having Paralympics as your home games is such a big thing. What I’m really excited about is that all my friends, who couldn’t come to Beijing to watch me, will be able to come down next year.
In Beijing, the Chinese athletes got the support, so I hope in London we’ll have all the British fans shouting for us. That will be a buzz.
Billy Pye – Coach
Before the Individual Medley final in Beijing we both shed a few tears. It was very emotional. I just told her to go in and try to enjoy it. That night, after finishing fifth in that race, her eyes just changed. It was at that point that I knew we were on for a good 100m freestyle the next day. Not that I expected her to win it…
The two months post-Beijing were the most difficult of my life. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy it, but I was spending 16 hours a day on the phone. We weren’t training – it was supposed to be our downtime – but I was busier than ever.
I had started coaching swimming part-time when I was working as a coal-miner at the St John’s pit in Maesteg. I was only a breaststroker myself – I was small and the others were big so I got slaughtered. I always said you have to be big to excel in this sport — I think Eleanor’s put that myth to bed.
I worked as a miner for 16 years then left for university and qualified as a primary schoolteacher. I did that for six months but then packed it in – I realised my life had to be in swimming.
Coal-mining and swimming coaching are not as different as you might think. Working here is working at the coal face.
I honestly believe that disability swimmers are a lot tougher than able-bodied swimmers. I’ve seen able-bodied swimmers who moan, look for excuses when things are not going well. But with disabled swimmers, when you find something not good enough, they just want to put it right.
I first started working with Eleanor when she was coming across to Swansea during school holidays for training. It was when I watched her at the World Championships, in South Africa, in 2006 that I realised she had a real talent. It helped that I was not her designated coach at the time. I could just sit back and get a good picture. Eleanor was targeting London but watching her, I thought it could come sooner.
There was doubt in other people’s minds going into the Beijing trials. She was competing with Nyree Lewis, the world-record holder for the 400m. At the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens Eleanor had watched Nyree and told her parents: ‘That’s what I want to do.’
There was no doubt in my mind that she could beat Nyree, but 95 per cent of people in the sport thought it was impossible. Not only did Eleanor win but she broke the record too.
She has that competitive edge. I’ve spoken to her mum, Val, at length about this and it has always been there, that will to be the best.
It can be hard to get through the long aerobic sessions – even as a coach. For the swimmers it can be quite boring. Having a good training partner can make it more acceptable. She and Matt bounce off each other. The chat between you gets you through it.
You have to balance it out. You cannot just be a swimming coach, you have to be a psychologist and a human being too. You have to weigh everything up. The biggest forté is patience. If things are not going to plan you don’t worry about it; come back tomorrow and put it right.
I think there are three key things that make Eleanor exceptional. The first is the way she manages her life and her time. To be the best in the world you have to bring the rest of your life into line with being a high-performance athlete. With her school work Eleanor does that.
The second is her innate ability to pace herself. If we are training and doing eight sets of 50m and I want the split to be 41 seconds, she gets it exactly right every time. That’s an art. And the third thing? She hates coming second.
Ellie Simmonds is competing in the 200m IM race at the BT Paralympic World Cup on Saturday at Manchester Aquatics Centre. Tickets are on sale at www.btparalympicworldcup.comTags: Billy Pye, disability swimmers, Ellie Simmonds, Paralympic World Cup, Paralympics