Ellen Keane is one of the most engaging sports stars we have in Ireland and she has been selected as the sole Irish participant on the latest Sky Sports Scholarship Programme, following in the footsteps of Katie Taylor.
The programme runs for three years, bringing her up to 2020 when she will look to add another Paralympics Swimming Medal to the bronze she won in Rio last year.
Sport for Business caught up with Ellen at Sky’s offices in Dublin recently to ask what difference the scholarship programme would make and how she went about securing it…
Have you met Katie Taylor?
I’ve never spoken to her. I’ve met so many Olympians but never yet Katie. Maybe one day.
How did you get on the Sky programme?
One night I was browsing twitter and I follow one of their scholars from the previous round. She had tweeted out the application form so I clicked on it and I thought ‘this is class, I should go for this.’
I had two options, I could do a video or a written report and I’m not great at the reports so I did a video and from the 500 people who applied I got called to do an interview in London.
I also knew that at least one other Irish athlete got the call and he is great so I thought oh no, he’s now the opposition.
We had our interviews the same day and I was texting him to see how it had gone. I was so nervous. My interview was at 3pm and I got a flight at 8am so I wouldn’t miss out. I thought it went well but I didn’t hear for ages and you begin to doubt yourself. I had convinced myself that I hadn’t got it then I got an email which told me I had and I was just so delighted.
A lot of people would assume that a sports star like you would have no self doubt, that’s something you’d leave in the locker..?
Yeah but you’re also up against others who are also really confident. At the end of the day they are looking for people that are right for the programme.
You’re on the course, then, training for the Euros in Dublin next year, going on to Tokyo and studying for your degree. How will this help you to juggle all those demands?
They are keen on what they want but also understanding that you have a training programme.
When we did the video and photography this morning they came to the Aquatic Centre and worked around me. I just swam and they were in the water, on the poolside and all around but very unobtrusive so that really helps to get stuff doine without it becoming a real challenge to other things.
One of the parts of the scholarship is assignments. I’ve just done my first which is one about refelection and that’s going to help as a person as well as an athlete.
Are you good at that stuff of managing time?
I am and I amn’t. I can be really on top of things one week and then the next it can be I haven’t done anything I’m supposed to have.
You’ve spoken about your disability and how it really affected you as a child, wanting to cover up your arm. Then you decided to take up swimming. was that a ‘to hell with this moment’?
It’s not nice being a kid and having eyes staring at you and you’re kind of made out to be a freak. In the pool though I wan’t aware of my arm at all. You are just focused on a goal. Whenb I was in the water and around on the poolside that was when I was at my happiest.
As I got older I got more comfortable with my clothes on! Npw if I have my sleeve rolled down it’s probably just because I’m cold.
Kids still don’t really understand though. That’s a big challenge for schools, teachers, parents and all of us to educate them that people can be different but that’s not scary. It has to be done carefully though as things you say to a kid can really stick with them.
That’s the thing I’m always most conscious of, what to say when I’m asked about my arm.
I don’t mind but I’m so conscious to say the right thing. I wouldn’t want to brush it off or even by light hearted and say I lost it in a shark attack.
The one thing I’m thinking at the moment is saying I didn’t eat enough vegetables, and maybe that would help them to eat healthier.
It’s a broad based thing though. Schools need to educate batter about it being OK to be different.
(Ellen was born without part of her left arm below her elbow.)
The Paralympics and London in particular did do so much to raise awareness. Are you conscious of the importance of that?
Obviously, as an elite athlete for me, the end goal is to be the best and to win a medal. I want to do my country proud but I want my country to be proud of me as well. To understand the effort I have put in.
With Dublin 2018 there is a real opportunity to get that message across again and that’s important to me.
You have a relationship with Allianz and now Sky, you’re like the Bernard Brogan of Paralympics and everyone wants you. Do you find that comfortable?
It’s never been about me. I used to be insecure about my arm and I found a refuge in sport. I want people to understand that;’s an option for them as well. Paralympic sport was a lifesaver for me. It gave me the platform to become the confident person I am today. It has given me so much and I want to give something back.
In DIT, how have you found combining study and sport.
They have been great and Sinead McNulty in particular has been so supportive. I’ve been able to split my final year in two so my colleagues are doing four modules and I do two. At the moment I’m doing financial accounting for the business side and a cooking module where I get to play around and be imaginative in the kitchen.
I chose culinary arts because I always liked baking and thought maybe one day I might open a bakery. Not sure now because chefs are like sports people they put so much in and are so dedicated. I don’t know if I’d be ready to jump straight into that but who knows.
As part of the course we went in to a session in Chapter One and that was great. They were telling us about new developments in the way to prepare food and serve wine and I thought that was great. I even won a little competition to name a gas they had used as part of the preparation.
I put my hand up straight away because I always like to win and the prize was an Irish coffee, which was great but I don’t drink so I gave it to a friend.
Have you spoken to Derval O’Rourke who has made that transition from elite athlete to well known ‘foodie’?
No, but I’d love to. I’ve got her books and I think they’re great. Hopefully someday.
Ellen has made a habit of achieving those someday ambitions. From competing at her first Paralympics in Beijing at the age of 13 to beating off stiff opposition to get on the Sky programme. I have no doubt that when she says someday that means it will happen.