16 May 2014
Taking her position in the pool in the final of the 100-metre backstroke (S9) at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, Australia’s Ellie Cole was ready.
Next to Cole in lane three was her hero and fierce rival, multiple Paralympic gold medallist Natalie du Toit from South Africa.
This was a great sporting rivalry, with du Toit edging out Cole in two events at the previous Paralympic Games in Beijing. But Cole’s determination had intensified since then. She was going to change the results in London.
This time, she would achieve her childhood goal.
As the fastest qualifier for the event Cole had everything to gain but even more to lose.
Time to focus; the race that would change her sporting career was about to begin.
For a split second you could hear a pin drop. Then the buzzer sounded and the crowd cheered. The race was underway and from the outset Cole looked unbeatable.
As she touched the wall first to secure victory, jubilation and a sense of relief — the kind only a fellow gold medallist could understand — swept over her.
She had done it. She had won gold.
Beating the odds
It seems fitting that Cole arranges to meet me at a swimming pool. The pool was my local training ground as an amateur swimmer growing up in Sydney’s north-west, and Cole now works there as a swimming instructor. The connection is immediate.
There’s no beating around the bush with Cole and we jump straight into talking about the c-word: can’t.
It’s a word the swimmer is familiar with. The four-time gold medallist is no stranger to beating the odds, personally or professionally.
At the age of two, Cole was diagnosed with sarcoma — a rare form of cancer which in her case could not be treated with chemotherapy or radiation. In order to save her life, her parents made the tough decision to amputate her right leg.
But Cole hasn’t allowed much stop her on way to the top. It’s a point she makes very clear.
‘That was a big obstacle growing up, just the word can’t,’ says Cole. ‘Obviously growing up with one leg did have its difficult moments. But in saying that I had a very supportive family, especially my twin sister, who raised me to believe that I was a normal person.’
From a very young age, it was clear that Cole was a fighter.
‘I’ve had a bit of an attitude from when I was little that I have a right to be normal and just because I’m missing a limb doesn’t mean anything. So growing up with a disability was hard sometimes but it’s the angle that you look at it.’
Achieving the dream
Cole started swimming at a young age as part of her rehabilitation following her leg amputation and didn’t always dream to become an elite swimmer.
She tells me that it was in her late primary school years that she began to realise she could compete professionally, and was encouraged by a school teacher to enter a Paralympic event.
Cole won the race and was later selected for the national team.
‘I never thought the Paralympics. When I was younger, I just wanted to keep doing personal bests,’ says Cole.
‘I was always racing against Paralympians. My biggest idol was Amanda Drennan, who I used to race against a lot. At one stage I was really just training to beat her.’
Cole didn’t stop there.
Next in her sights was winning a Paralympic medal. She achieved this in Beijing, swimming away with silver in the 100-metre butterfly and bronze in the 100-metre backstroke and 400-metre freestyle.
But it wasn’t enough for the ambitious Cole.
‘I wanted to beat [the] world number one, which at the time was Natalie du Toit. I trained for about six years and finally beat her in [the 100-metre backstroke in] London,’ recalls Cole, who went on to win three more gold medals at the Games.
‘So it took a long time but I got there.’
Cole is adamant that one of the factors contributing to levelling the playing field between male and female athletes is getting the public interested in women’s sport.
‘I think for females to get ahead in their sport, they’ve also got to do that little bit extra than the men,’ she reflects.
‘It’s similar to how I started with having a disability. I started from behind and I had to catch up.
‘It’s the same thing with women; we’ve not only got to match the men — we’ve actually got to be better.’
After her success in Beijing, Cole said that she would retire from the sport she loves so much. She didn’t.
Then after London the word was raised again. She didn’t.
Cole is still here — and she tells me she has a lot left to achieve in swimming before she hangs up her costume for good.
‘I would like to win in Rio but that’s not my main goal,’ she reveals. ‘My main goal is to be the first person under a minute for the 100-metre freestyle.
‘I said that in an interview just as a side comment. I’ve backed myself into a corner and now I have to do it!’
Cole’s first step towards achieving that goal will be making a full recovery from a double shoulder reconstruction.
‘I’ve been putting off getting back into the pool but once I set that goal, I have a focus to work towards rather than swimming for no reason.’
As Cole’s swimming students take their places by the pool, we wrap up our conversation.
Cole tells me that at the moment nothing is set in stone. She’s juggling training, work and university, so she’s taking things week-by-week and will re-evaluate at the end of this semester.
One thing is certain, though, she’s determined to make sure we’ve not yet seen the best of Ellie Cole: the fighter.