‘Sport opens a lot of doors and gives opportunities’

In association with Virgin Money Giving, the 100% not-for-profit fundraising website, The Mixed Zone has helped produce a series of video documentaries in which two leading sportswomen have the opportunity to sit down and quiz each other about their careers. In the third programme, to be aired by Virgin Money Giving today, gold medal-winning Paralympians Kadeena Cox and Ellie Simmonds relive their memorable moments from Rio as well as their shared love of The Great British Bake Off. The Mixed Zone’s Eleanore Kelly listens in to their recipes for success

It is an unremarkable scene. In a café at a Leisure Centre, somewhere near Stoke-on-Trent, sits a girl sipping a hot chocolate while tapping on her phone. Around her, people indulge in post-workout gossip and cappuccinos. You wonder if they have any idea that this lone occupant of a corner table is one of the greatest sportswomen on the planet. Less than a month has passed since Kadeena Cox wrote herself into the history books as the first British Paralympian to win gold medals in two sports – athletics and cycling – at one Games in nearly three decades.

The dwellers of this little café certainly silence their conversations when another legendary sportswomen graces their presence. It was, after all, none other than Paralympic swimmer Ellie Simmonds. The 21-year-old pocket rocket is perhaps one of the best known Paralympic champions, winning her first gold medal at the age of 13 in Beijing. This was followed by two golds in London and another two in Rio this year. Ellie may have smashed both the 400 and 200-metre records, but cites meeting The Queen to be awarded an OBE as her proudest moment.

img_4802The effervescent Ellie bounds in exuding spirit but apologising for being late. “We were held up with Sainsbury’s,” says mum Val. Spotting raised eyebrows, Ellie explains that it wasn’t for the weekly shop, but in her role as an “Active Kid’s ambassador” for the supermarket chain; she had been opening a cookery centre at a primary school in Staffordshire. She showed the kids how to make a favourite recipe: Oaty Banana Mini Muffins. “I love making cakes,” she adds.

At the mention of baking a huge grin spreads across Kadeena’s face. There’s an immediate connection between them. Not just sport, but baking as well. The girls become animated as they compare notes about The Great British Bake Off, which Ellie has been a contestant on. “I was gutted to miss the final because we were out in Rio. I’ve been so busy I still haven’t managed to watch it on catch-up,” Kadeena says, revealing that she has been up and down the country to attend media engagements. “It’s been crazy. They don’t prepare you for this,” she says jovially. Ellie nods. “No, they don’t. This is what you’ve got to learn,” says the Paralympian veteran.

“The last time I saw you was in Rio and you were a little bit merry,” teases Kadeena, referring to Ellie’s active participation in the Paralympics celebrations. Ellie laughs along, then asks Kadeena how she found her first Paralympic experience. “It was amazing,” Kadeena beams. “We went out there and things had been played down, so expectations were low. But it really shone and was more amazing than I could have imagined.”

Kadeena tells Ellie how strange she finds it when people stop her in the street. “I’m like, how do you know my name?” She makes it clear that she sees fame for herself as a reflection of the growing eminence of disability sport. “The fact that people have actually watched us and know who we are, and what we’ve done, is an amazing thing.”

image5A love of sport blossomed early for both girls. Ellie was in the pool from the age of five and swimming competitively by eight. Soon after she was selected for a talent programme and in 2006 found herself at the trials for the World Championships. “I was 12 at the time and hit the qualifying time needed to get chosen. Next thing I knew I was swimming nine times a week, being a full-time athlete as well as going to school.”

Ellie was born with achondroplasia, meaning her limbs did not grow to full length. She never viewed this as a challenge. “I don’t think of myself as being different. I’m just small and I’m proud to be who I am. I can’t reach a few things, and it’s harder to walk because of my little legs, but it doesn’t stop me doing what I want to do.”

For 25-year-old Kadeena, the journey has involved triumph and tragedy. An active girl from infancy, she recalls a happy time when, at the age of four, she would go to dance school with her sisters, and a natural but friendly competitiveness developed between them. “It was fun going with my sisters. I always wanted to be better than them in everything.” She excelled in a number of sports at school before turning her attentions to athletics when she was talent-spotted at the age of 14. In her late teens and early twenties, she was driven by the desire to be make it to the Olympics alongside becoming a physiotherapist. Kadeena devoted all her time to training, competing and studying and frequently finished on the podium at major events.

In May 2014, as she trained towards her Olympic goal, Kadeena suffered a stroke. She was just 23. Two months of rehabilitation followed and she was back on the track soon after. In September that year, Kadeena was plagued with acute pain down her right side. After extensive tests, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The acute muscle spasms, loss of control and severe fatigue have left her in a wheelchair.

“It was tough. I thought my life as a sportswoman had been stripped away from me,” she says. Being a physiotherapist, initially her scientific understanding of the condition distressed her. “I had been on a neurological placement four weeks before and seen people with severe MS having their self-care done for them, not being able to walk, being on catheters. I saw the life of a seriously disabled person and the thought of losing my independence as a 23-year-old girl. It threw me and I couldn’t deal with it to begin with.”

image7“Will she be able to run again?” her mother asked the doctors. As soon as Kadeena was told she would, she set about planning her road to Rio from her hospital bed. “The athletics was tricky at first. I couldn’t deal with being so much slower.” Taking on cycling as a second sport provided both physical and mental rehabilitation. “There wasn’t that focus on times and I had the excitement of doing something I hadn’t done before.” She explains that her body finds it easier to be in the flexed position required for the bike and she can control her muscles much better than when she is standing or running. But her future in sport is unknown and she makes no mention of sporting goals. “I try not to think too far ahead,” she says ruefully. That is as much as she will offer on the subject.

There are plans and dreams, though. A fascination in neurological conditions and a determination to help, has fuelled plans to set up a physiotherapy clinic for children with neurological conditions, integrating sport into her practice. She explains that physio can be a painful and unpleasant necessity for sufferers. “If I could incorporate sport with the physio it would help them physically, and the sport could set them up for life. Being around people with better social skills would help, and potentially they could get into para sport. It may be small, but it could make a massive difference to someone who’s struggling,” she explains.

Kadeena has an empathy for the human condition which belies her youth. One of seven children, she understands what it means to share and care. Her father is a pastor and on our return drive to the station she reveals that a Christian belief has helped her greatly through life. Particularly now, when she needs faith more than anything. To illustrate that, she says that had she made it to the Olympics as a runner, a podium finish was unlikely. “As a Paralympian, I’ve won two. I feel lucky to have had that opportunity.”

For Ellie, with a physical condition that is stable, life may be easier to plan ahead. Yet she does not take her talent for granted and is just as philosophical about her sporting future. “I take every year as it comes. I’m looking towards the World Championships next year, but right now I’m enjoying the break and the success of Rio. If I get to the point where I don’t enjoy the sport that is the time to hang up the goggles.”

Ellie is also from a large family: she has three sisters and one brother. “I’m the baby of the family. There is 20 years between us, but we are all really close,” she says. When swimming became more serious, Simmonds left with her mum to live three hours from home to train with the GB squad in Swansea. It was tough. She says: “I was only 11 and we went home once a week.” Both Kadeena and Ellie were well supported by their families in Rio. “It’s nice having that home support,” says Ellie, “that little hug when you need it or to bring you back to reality.”

Reality is evident in her career plans beyond sport. A primary school teacher is one option. “I love working with kids and visiting schools, and that’s where I could give back.” Ellie was the London 2012 poster girl and also enjoys her involvement with the media. “Sport opens a lot of doors and gives opportunities,” she says.

As Ellie says goodbye, she gives us all a hug. It’s unexpected but it turns out to be infectious. As I hug Kadeena goodbye at the station, it reminds me what sport does. It does open doors and it breaks down barriers. And it leaves you with that warm, joyous feeling that makes you want to hug someone.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Eleanore Kelly is a multi-media journalist who competed in three-day eventing at elite level. She runs an equestrian business in Hampshire and still has a burning ambition to compete around Badminton. At present her role as an assistant producer for the BBC has to suffice. Eleanore’s latest articles.

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