The Game Changers

Ellie Simmonds: Making impact beyond the pool

October 31, 2023 Sue Anstiss Season 15 Episode 2
Ellie Simmonds: Making impact beyond the pool
The Game Changers
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The Game Changers
Ellie Simmonds: Making impact beyond the pool
Oct 31, 2023 Season 15 Episode 2
Sue Anstiss

Our guest in this episode is Ellie Simmonds, one of the world’s most celebrated Paralympians. A five-time Paralympic Champion and 14-time World Champion, Ellie shot to fame when she won her first Paralympic medals aged just 13, at the Beijing Paralympic Games. 

After two gold medals there in 2008, Ellie went even better at London 2012. As the poster girl for the home games, she won 4 medals, including two Golds, and broke a further two World records. This success in London helped make Ellie the most recognised Paralympic athlete in Great Britain, if not the world. Rio 2016 saw Ellie once again top of the podium, winning another Gold and setting a new world record in the Individual Medley. 

Ellie retired from the pool in 2021 after her fourth Paralympics Games in Tokyo, finishing her career with an incredible 5 Paralympic gold medals, 14 World titles, 10 European titles and countless World records broken along the way. 

Ellie continues to work with a variety of charities including the Dwarf Sports Association, WaterAid, the Scouts and I AM WATER.

In recent years it’s been fabulous to see Ellie’s work in the media. Along with making powerful documentaries, Ellie’s been a guest on some of the country’s most popular shows including Celebrity Googlebox, celebrity Masterchef – which she won – and her appearance on BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing last year which cemented her status as one of the nation’s most well-loved personalities.

Thank you to Sport England who support The Game Changers Podcast through a National Lottery award.

Thank you to Sport England who support The Game Changers Podcast with a National Lottery award.

Find out more about The Game Changers podcast here:

Hosted by Sue Anstiss
Produced by Sam Walker, What Goes On Media

A Fearless Women production

Show Notes Transcript

Our guest in this episode is Ellie Simmonds, one of the world’s most celebrated Paralympians. A five-time Paralympic Champion and 14-time World Champion, Ellie shot to fame when she won her first Paralympic medals aged just 13, at the Beijing Paralympic Games. 

After two gold medals there in 2008, Ellie went even better at London 2012. As the poster girl for the home games, she won 4 medals, including two Golds, and broke a further two World records. This success in London helped make Ellie the most recognised Paralympic athlete in Great Britain, if not the world. Rio 2016 saw Ellie once again top of the podium, winning another Gold and setting a new world record in the Individual Medley. 

Ellie retired from the pool in 2021 after her fourth Paralympics Games in Tokyo, finishing her career with an incredible 5 Paralympic gold medals, 14 World titles, 10 European titles and countless World records broken along the way. 

Ellie continues to work with a variety of charities including the Dwarf Sports Association, WaterAid, the Scouts and I AM WATER.

In recent years it’s been fabulous to see Ellie’s work in the media. Along with making powerful documentaries, Ellie’s been a guest on some of the country’s most popular shows including Celebrity Googlebox, celebrity Masterchef – which she won – and her appearance on BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing last year which cemented her status as one of the nation’s most well-loved personalities.

Thank you to Sport England who support The Game Changers Podcast through a National Lottery award.

Thank you to Sport England who support The Game Changers Podcast with a National Lottery award.

Find out more about The Game Changers podcast here:

Hosted by Sue Anstiss
Produced by Sam Walker, What Goes On Media

A Fearless Women production

Ellie Simmonds: Making impact beyond the pool

Sue Anstiss 00:14

Hello and welcome to the Game Changers. I'm Sue Anstiss, and this is the podcast where you'll hear from trailblazing women in sport exploring their stories as we consider wider issues around equality in sport and beyond. I'd like to start with a big thank you to our partner, Sport England, who support the Game Changers with a national lottery award. 

My guest today is Ellie Simmons, one of the world's most celebrated Paralympians. A five-time Paralympic champion and 14-time world champion, Ellie shot to fame when she won her first Paralympic medals aged just 13 at the Beijing Paralympic Games. After two gold medals there in 2008, Ellie went even better at London 2012. As a poster girl for the home games, she won four medals, including two golds, and broke two world records. The success in London helped Ellie become one of the most recognised Paralympic athletes in Great Britain, if not the world. 

Rio 2016 saw Ellie once again,  top of the podium, winning another gold and setting a new world record in the individual medley. Ellie retired from the pool in 2021 after her fourth Paralympic Games in Tokyo, finishing her career with an incredible five Paralympic golds, 14 world titles, 10 European titles and countless world records broken along the way. 

Ellie continues to work with a variety of charities, including the Dwarf Sports Association, WaterAid, the Scouts and I Am Water. In recent years, it has been fabulous to see Ellie's work in the media. Along with making powerful documentaries, Ellie has been a guest  on some of the country's most popular shows, including Celebrity Gogglebox, Celebrity Masterchef, which she won, and her appearance on BBC Strictly Come Dancing last year, which cemented her status as one of the nation's most well-loved personalities. 

So, Ellie, I'd like to start, if I can, with the work that you're doing now, and especially around the ocean. I know that ocean conservation has been a passion of yours for many, many years, so can you tell us how that interest started in the first place? 


Ellie Simmonds 02:24

Yeah, I think, for me, I love water, not just because it's been my sport and my life for so so many years. I learnt to swim at the age of five and then, with what I've gone and done,  the Paralympics and World Championships and smelling the chlorine every single day,  bar Sunday sometimes if I could get off me but, yeah, for me, I was loved water, but there was always a bit of that fear of the ocean. I think a lot of people are a bit scared of the ocean. I think it's always portrayed in a quite a negative way in the media, with the likes of Jaws and all that type of stuff. And I had this amazing opportunity. I've always had a dream. When you're a kid, you have dreams of swimming with dolphins or swimming in the sea, and I had a dream of swimming with dolphins. 

So way back in 2016, before my third Paralympics in Rio, I got an amazing opportunity to go out to South Africa and swim with dolphins for an ITV documentary and it was about conquering that fear. And since I had that trip and conquered that fear, it's enlightened my world. It showed me such a different side and now my love for the ocean and what's out there has grown. 

So also when on that trip as well, I got friendly with a lady called Hanley Prinsaloo who's actually a freediver.  And also it clicked because her training was all about holding her breath and with swimming as well, it was really important for me to try and hold my breath as long as possible and really getting that meditated state of super relaxed when you're racing and stuff. So we worked really really well together and we clicked. And her training I learned from her, a lot with my training and we just got really really good friends. And she's also so, so passionate about ocean conservation in South Africa because that's where she lives, and she's got a charity called I Am Water which I started getting involved in and actually volunteered some of my time and went to South Africa for a month afterwards and stuff. 

And it just,  yeah, opened my world and I feel like now there's so much more we can do about oceans and same in that massive, massive world out there, because majority of this world is covered by water. Even us in the United Kingdom we've got rivers, lakes you know in Birmingham there’s the canals, and we've got the sea around us and it's so important that we show people what the beauty that is out there and to save it as well, and especially in the media. Now there's all about climate change, which is impacting every single one of us, and I think sometimes we forget that, but actually it is, and it's really, really important that we all do something about it and to not just save this planet, but save these beautiful oceans and the creatures that are in them. 


Sue Anstiss 05:20

And can you tell us a little bit about the Sheba Coral Restoration Programme you've been supporting? I've been watching you on Instagram and seeing the amazing posts that you've played there. 


Ellie Simmonds 05:30

Oh, that's been an incredible opportunity. So I've been working with Sheba who are part of Mars corporations, and one of their initiatives is coral restoration and for me, that just fits and is part of my passion as well, about saving not just the creatures but also coral as well, because coral has a - it's like trees in the ocean. So I've been very, very lucky to go out to Indonesia and to see one of the projects and meet full hand the whole community that is getting part of the coral reef restoration. But now it's not just, it started in Indonesia way back in 2019, but now there's so many other countries that are following that programme so it's spread to about 32 countries now are using this whole coral restoration programme to make change into the oceans and, yeah, it was definitely one of those trips that I absolutely loved and it just again opened my eyes to that beautiful world out there. 


Sue Anstiss 06:37

Yeah, it's lovely and I have power of you, of me only seeing that through watching your Instagram and seeing what you're doing and learning too, so it's a hugely powerful way to communicate about it too. And I wonder what's it like now swimming with a mask and fins and a wetsuit rather than being in the pool? Does it bring you the same joy in the sea and swimming in the sea? 


Ellie Simmonds 06:55

Yeah, no, it does, definitely. I think that's now my love for a different type of water. It's given me a bit of sea salt. I'm still not a fan of getting my mask or goggles filled with water. When I was a swimmer, that was one of my massive fears of when I used to race. I used to try and suck my goggles to my eyes so that no water would get in. But I think for me now I've swam for so many years, I love swimming and I love everything about it, but I think I need a bit of a mental break from that lane swimming. So now it's like, yeah, it's changed to wearing a wetsuit, wearing a mask, a snorkel, getting into the sea, but I absolutely love it. I'm still not a fan of cold water, so give me hot tea and I'm happy, but cold tea is definitely a different ball game. 


Sue Anstiss 07:47

I'm a cold water fan, so I'll have to get you involved with that more. I love cold water. 


Ellie Simmonds 07:57

Yeah, this open water swimming has gone huge and I'm so, so happy about it. I saw on your show, your movie, chatting with people that were -  Oh, actually you were open water swimming at the start. Yeah, swimming in that lake and yeah it's a massive passion and it's amazing that so many people are getting into that passion and getting into that thing of open water, swimming and swimming, because it's again, I've not done it, I've only done it in hot places, but I think it's quite liberating, isn't it, and it wakes you up and it starts your day, of just swimming in cold water. 


Sue Anstiss 08:36

Yeah, good for the soul I say.  good for the soul. So I wonder if I can take you out of the ocean and back into the pool. But the young Ellie, you talk about that kind of love of swimming that you had. So how did you first discover it? How did you first come to swimming? 


Ellie Simmonds 08:51

So it started at the age of five. You know, just like a majority of children out there, just learning to swim to be safe around the water. I'm from a big, big family. I've got three sisters and one brother and my parents gave them the opportunity to learn to swim and I remember sitting at the sidelines watching my sister swim in and learning to swim and next thing I know it was me learning to swim. So it wasn't a factor of like, this is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life. It was just because to be safe around the water. 

But actually, where I learned to swim in Boldmere swimming club in Sutton Coldfield in Birmingham, it wasn't just to learn to swim side of the swimming club, there was also a competitive side as well. And me even now, as a 28 year old, throughout my life I'm very, very competitive and when I was younger I was,  do you know, when you're young, you want to get your 10 metre badge, your 20 metre badge, all these different types of badges. That was me. I wanted to get everything. I was like,  I want to be better every single time I swim. And where I learned to swim, the coach at the time, Ashley Cox used to come to the learn to swim side of the swimming club and used to come and say like, oh, this is the competitive side, this is like the training we think you might be good for it. Come and come and try it out. And yeah, I just ended up going and learning and swimming for the competitive side of the swimming club. 

And when I was younger I didn't just swim, I did so many other activities as well. I was very much… I think my mom was very happy that I was the youngest because I was always doing something. I was never one of those children that could sit and watch TV, like that wasn't me. I was never a sit and watch TV type person. I was always doing either like ballet, stage  school swimming, even on the outside on my bike, you know, in the Cul de Sac, playing with friends or on the trampoline, and for me, like swimming ended up just taking over because I realised that actually I just loved it because of the friends. Say I was swimming once a week, I remember going home to my mom and saying, well, Ashley said, if I want to be a bit better. I need to swim a bit more.  

So all the other activities would end up going and I'll be doing like swimming twice a week, three times a week, and then on the weekends I started swimming for my swimming club competitively at the local galas on the weekend. And there's loads of children out there that do that. They're called Diddy Galas and I just loved it Like I absolutely love swimming competitively and I didn't do well like, but it was actually more just the fact that what I realized looking back now, which Ashley and Boldmere swimming club were amazing at, was including me like everyone else. Like yes, I had to work harder, but it was so good at adapting and treating me like every single other child out there, even though I didn't swim well for the swimming club I didn't get them points or anything, but for me it was just being part of that team, being part of the friendship, going on the mini bus like everyone else, being part of that whole team, just brought me so much joy and it was so amazing. And I think, like now I say to coaches out there and clubs, like if you have a disabled swimmer, treat them exactly the same as anyone else because it gives them so much joy and being part of it is just, it's just life changing and I think having to work that bit harder to keep up with my non disabled peers actually made me work harder. So now I think that's why, in the sense that what I've achieved because of when I was younger, I wanted to be with them, I wanted to keep up with them and at those galas I wasn't yeah, wasn't winning, but I still just loved it. 

But I think the life changing moment was actually watching Athens 2004 Paralympics. Because at that time, even before that, nine, 10 year old, I didn't know that there was disability garlands, I didn't know there was actually disability competitions. I was just, like I said, competing for my swimming club against non disabled athletes. But that turning point was Athens 2004,. 


Sitting on that sofa and realizing that there's people like me on the TV, that there's Paralympics swimming, that there is the Paralympics, and I remember saying to my mom, like how old do you have to be to go to the Paralympics? What do you have to do? And my mom was like, oh, you just have to be really, really good. You could be any age. Well, there was an age limit there's 12. You have to be older than 12. And I think as a kid, that was when my dream started. I was like I want to be a Paralympian, I want to get a gold medal. That is my dream. I was never thinking that I was going to be achieved or four years later I was going to achieve it but that was the starting point and I think that's why TV and coverage of not just the Olympics but Paralympics and sport in general is so powerful because you never know who's sitting on the sofa and can get inspired and eventually maybe become an Olympian or Paralympian 


Sue Anstiss 13:58

Absolutely. I just find the joy in sport for life, isn't it? And I've watched your incredible moving documentary my Secret Family on ITV. For those that haven't seen it yet, I would advise that they do. It was absolutely fantastic, but it really does paint a lovely picture of home life and such a happy, happy childhood that you had. So how did your dwarfism impact your young life growing up? Because from all you've described and all that you did as a young person, it doesn't feel like it was as negative as some might believe. 


Ellie Simmonds 14:30

No, no, no, not at all. It's never really impacted me. I think, again from the big family that I have and growing up and my parents have been amazing at just treating us and showing us that we can do anything, no matter what we might have to adapt, so I think they gave me a really, really good outlook on life from growing up to where I am now. So I think, in a sense, like having that outlook of life and having those parents that gave me such a positive childhood and a great childhood, it's just had no impact at all. And the next sister next to me has dwarfism and my sister has learning difficulties, so I've always been around people who have different disabilities and I think, again, that's been a really, really positive thing. 


Sue Anstiss 15:20

And you obviously had this huge success as a young swimmer. Was there a moment you can look back, when you think back and remember when you realised that you were so good in the pool? 


Ellie Simmonds 15:30

I think it was actually Beijing in 2008. I think that was the turning point Because I think before that I was just doing what I loved, and I still love it now. I was just a kid, I was 12, 13, I was just competing, swimming and not really thinking about it, just having fun with friends, having fun with the team and going away all the time. Again, I qualified, had an amazing 2008 trials in April, qualified for the Paralympics, but even then that was the first time I ever broke a world record. Even then I never realised that actually I was good. 


I think it was actually going into Beijing and getting the gold medal, especially that first one in the 100m freestyle. I think that's when it clicked that actually, oh my gosh, Ellie, you're the best in the world, you've just got a Paralympics. But I think sometimes, like I know, even looking back now in my career, I think when you're an athlete, you never really look back at your past career. You're always moving forwards and I think I've always been like that and in the sense, maybe looking back now, I should have stopped a bit more and really took in my achievements and really took in those moments where I swam well or got medals, or got gold medals or stood on the podium, because I was always thinking forward all the time, even in Beijing. We were going to those games for experience and then we knew that we had London 2012, which was going to be the biggest games, biggest Paralympics ever. So even in Beijing, I was just, yeah, always thinking forwards, which I think now, looking back, I probably should have stopped and taken it in a bit more. 


Sue Anstiss 17:11

Absolutely. You moved to Swansea with your mum when you were just at 11, so you could train at the world class facility with an elite squad. How hard was that, as you look back, to leave home and score friends and friendship groups at that time. 


Ellie Simmonds 17:24

You know what? Actually it was the best thing I've ever done. I loved my Swansea time and I think it shows just how incredible my parents are for making that sacrifice and that dedication to give me the amazing opportunity to train in Swansea with Billy Pie, who I started training with when I was 12 and I retired with him with 28. We've gone through my whole career together and he's not just the most amazing coache but he's my best friend and family friend now and I see him like I went hiking with him on the weekend in Wales and stuff, so to have that relationship with him from all those years. But I think for me like I don't think I would have done what I did in my career if we hadn't made that move and to credit to my parents for the sacrifice and stuff but for me it was the most amazing thing. 

I got to go to Swansea and train in the Paralympic squad, who were like family. It was the best years. There was 12 of us training towards Beijing and training towards London 2012. We were like family. We were not just training together all the time, but we used to go out in the evening to celebrate everyone's birthdays, go away on camps all the time and also the school in Swansea Oakford I moved to when I was in year seven and left after sixth form was the most amazing school and Welsh people I don't know if you'd see if you'd be into Wales, but Welsh people are the most friendliest people ever Like. They're literally so, so nice and they welcome me into the school and welcome me into Swansea Like a massive bear hug. It was just the most amazing time and I still go back to Wales. Like I said, I went last weekend and I've still got great friends and family and well, not family, but they are like family to me in Wales and still it was the most great seven years of my life. 


Sue Anstiss 19:18

In terms of the Paralympics and being in Beijing. You were the youngest person in that team, at 13, which we often talked about, but did you really feel that you were included as part of a team with those older swimmers there? 


Ellie Simmonds 19:56

Yeah, I think you know what I think when you're a kid, when you're 13, you don't really think of the pressure because I think you're still a kid, aren't you? And I think it's not til, like London 2012 and beyond, you actually realise how big a Paralympics is and actually take, like, the outer world on board. But for me, going as a 13 year old, going to Beijing and then afterwards, my teammates, my friends, my British Swimming team, were the most amazing team ever, like the likes of Liz, Nairie, all the girls and all the boys like took me just under their wing and like I'm best friends with all of them still now, like it was just. I was so thankful for that they looked after me, that they yes, like you said, I was the youngest person by quite a long time on the team, but they were like my big sisters. They were just the most amazing teammates, amazing friends ever. They even included me in everything you know, in not the drinking, or I couldn't go out with them, which I was so sad about. I had to stay in the hotel 

Like when I was 18 on the team, I was so happy because I could join in all the partying, but beforehand I was like, oh no, but no, they're so good. Like all of them, and during the team and I think that's one of the amazing things about the support team of British swimming like we had someone to help with school work. Again, I was off school a lot of times. Like I did my GCSEs in a Spanish school when we were training. I did my A levels abroad as well. Like I was away from school quite a lot.


Sue Anstiss 21:46

I didn't realise that. Wow, that is incredible. I was going to ask you about that balancing for those two Olympic cycles of school, but I hadn't even thought about that you're literally not being there at all. Moving on to London 2012,. You're 17 years old then and you're like the poster girl for the London Paralympics. So what kind of pressure did you feel ahead of those games, when you almost talked about going into Beijing and not having the pressure? But how different did it feel coming into London 2012? 


Ellie Simmonds 22:15

London 2012 was a different kettle of fish. The pressure on not just my shoulders but I think a lot of the home British athlete shoulders was immense and I think, in a way, what I had achieved in Beijing with those two golds and then coming home, as soon as I landed from Beijing, I think maybe the media,  sponsors just like attached themselves to me, which was good, but it also had nerve racking things as well because again being like one of the home favourites it just meant that the pressure was immense because people even before I was going to London and even before I raced, people were expecting me to get those golds already and it just created a massive, massive pressure on my shoulders. 

And I think going into those games really made me realise how important psychologists were and my support team, like my parents and my coach, because they really helped like chat things through,  really focus on the psychological side of the sport, whereas before that I really didn't take it that on board. I was just going out racing,  where actually the mental side had a massive part to play in it. So for me, London 2012 was just the most nerve-racking experience and when I got that first gold medal, I think the feeling had changed, like with Beijing, it was all amazing when I got the golds. It was just incredible,  when I touched the wall on that first 400 metres freestyle and saw I did the PB and World Record and Golds, the feeling was relief that I'd done it, that I could finally say I got a gold medal around my neck, and all those expectations and pressure from sponsors, the public, sport, the people in the crowds, all of those like I could finally say I got the gold medal. And it would just get relaxed after that, like I'd just done it. And I think I hear like a lot of athletes actually felt that in London 2012, especially home athletes, you know, because there was a lot of being a home games, so we had home crowds, you know, we had friends, family in the audience, in the audience? I'm sounding like I'm back on Strictly, the spectators!


Sue Anstiss 24:30

I was going to say,  I have that image of you from London, of walking on poolside,  in your fantastic robe with your poise and posture and your headphones and you kind of look so confident. So it is interesting. I was going to ask you whether you were as you looked. But I guess so much of that is the psychology of putting yourself in a place where you know that you can do it and just to be poolside on the aquatic centre. Do you still think about that today what that was like. That gives me goosebumps just thinking about it!


Ellie Simmonds 25:01

Yeah, it's funny, I think there's that Eminem song, isn't there? On the surface you look calm already, but inside you're about to drop bombs. And that was totally my feeling, like coming from the call room to the dive block in London 2012,. I was trying to like, be positive and strong, but actually inside I was so nervous I was the most nervous I've ever been and I was shaking and I was thinking why am I putting myself through this? It's a horrible, horrible feeling. 


But then that's when my psychologist all her work that she done with me had a massive part to play and also the confidence in yourself as well, that moment of self belief. You know, I done everything I possibly could in training and I had the most amazing lead up to 2012, because that's what I wanted to do. Even though you can't control your seven other competitors. My stance going into those games was don't have any regrets at all. 

So in myself I was strong and like confident in myself, but also very, very nervous. And, yeah, I don't actually want to go back to that feeling Sue, to be honest, because it was a horrible feeling. All the nerves and all that type of stuff. But so, yeah, I'll just enjoy it from now looking back, but I definitely don’t want to transport myself back to that feeling. 


Sue Anstiss 26:41

I love that You've had this massive success across your career right from the start, but there must have been disappointments to, and losses and injuries. So I wonder personally how do you cope when things aren't going to plan? And I've listened to you talking on the things. I know that you're quite a planner and organiser person but how do you cope when things don't go to plan? 


Ellie Simmonds 27:08

To be honest, I’m a bit of a…I spoke to some kids yesterday about it who are athletes and I must put my hand up, I was quite a sore loser, definitely very much a sore loser, and I'll take it a lot out of myself like I would never blame other people, but I would always like get so angry and so upset with myself because I would evaluate what did I do wrong. But actually those times, looking back in my career now, those times where I didn't go to plan, like races, or I didn't win or something didn't go right, actually you learn. I learned more about myself than when things went well, because I remember like I had a race. I think I can't remember. I remember just being in Eindhoven, in Holland, and I had a 53 that just did not go right and as soon as I finished and I looked to the board and I got upset with myself and had a good cry. That's what I always do like let these emotions out. 

And then as soon as I swam down and then as soon as I got my team around me and we sat down and we evaluated everything and actually then the next day and after my holiday and after my break, I was so much more motivated going into training because I was like I don't want to have that feeling again. I want to do everything I can and even better next time. So actually those times where it didn't go well, I just evaluated my race a lot more was when a race went really really well. I would just be as high as a kite all night and the next day and I'll never actually look back at them and evaluate what went well and what didn't. So actually, looking back, yeah, I learned a lot more about myself and my race and my swimming when races didn't go to plan. 


Sue Anstiss 29:00

Yeah, it's hard, isn't it? We hear that, with that kind of it's the failure and learning from failure, that's where we'll learn and grow. But it's hard to take that on board sometimes, isn't it, either as an athlete or just generally in life. 


Ellie Simmonds 29:26

So also as well, I think what I learned later on in life we're going from Rio to Tokyo and I think maybe age had a massive factor is,  like being a woman as well and being on your period. That really affected my training and I used to take it really really out on myself when sessions didn't go well, but then also now, well, when I was older, I used to think we're not robots, are we? 

There's some days where sessions aren't going to go well, like our body's not going to be on it all the time. We're just going to have those sessions where you just don't swim well and there's no other reasons. But especially like when I was on my period and like again I said, mentioned my coach knew me from so, so many years and he would be like Ell, are you feeling okay? Like what's coming on, like what time of the month is it? All that type of stuff, and we were really great to have that open relationship and talk about those types of stuff, cause I think being a woman in sport is tough when you're on your period or coming on your period and stuff, and yeah, I think it's not really spoken about much, I think. 


Sue Anstiss 30:39

I mean it's great to hear you're talking about it, but it is. It does feel like right now, with the work that the likes of Emma Ross and Georgie Brunville and others are doing in this space, as we are now beginning at last to have those conversations about bodies and periods and how it impacts its madness. Isn't it that it wasn't talked about in the past? 


Ellie Simmonds 31:01

Yeah, I know it is crazy but, like you said, there's some amazing women and people that are searching and doing some research and finding out. Because it does, it does have a massive impact and so many people are different, like for me, I always used to perform so so good after my periods, but it took me ages to figure that out. It was later on in my career that I realized that, maybe it should have been at the start. You know, I think women, we need to realize, like we need to be open a lot more, and not just,  it's not our fault at all, but I mean like the people just, yeah, be able to talk about it in a comfortable manner. 


Sue Anstiss 31:41

And you mentioned, obviously, your fantastic coach from Swansea. Yeah, such a positive experience there and that's continued through and obviously reflected in your success in Beijing and London. But sadly there were issues with a bit of a bullying culture in Paris swimming ahead of Rio 2016 and you'd moved to Manchester to the high performance centre. So I wonder how that  ile environment with with that coach not the coach that you had for all those years but how did that impact you and your performance? 

Ellie Simmonds 32:09

You know what? I think actually, it still impacts me sometimes now, and I don't haven't really. Yeah, I think it's. It's crazy when you you I think this it shouldn't be like when you're in an environment that someone is putting you down every single day and something that you think you're good at and they tell you you're not good at it. It's those words, the mannerisms and it's it definitely has a massive, massive impact. And especially when you're performing at a sport, it's, it's hard, it's pressurised, it's hard, it's not easy, like, it's not something like yeah, you see us at a Paralympics or an Olympics and it's all amazing, but there's it's it's tough, like and especially swimming, it's you're in the costume, you know, I remember I used to be. I was so skinny, like looking back, I remember I used to weigh myself every single day. I used to have like half a big get in half a half a bagel because I was worried about my waist and yeah, all that type of stuff. And I think it's really, really you're in a swimming costume. You're getting like judged for your body, you know, and I think it was a very, very tough time. But also, as well, I look back and I think it made me now realise that, like people like that, who who put people down, like now, I've got more confidence to stand up for myself, but also my teammates as well, and hopefully as well. 


It's given a wake up call to to British women, but also in sport in general, that that shouldn't be. You know, it's about being when you've got a coach or when you've got your team, your team, around you that they should work to to better you, not just as an athlete but as a person. And putting yourself down and telling you, using that old character, characteristic ways and that old style of coaching just doesn't work. Like it does work for some people and I'm not saying that, but for a lot of people out there it just doesn't. And so to to have that open relationship and talking and to to support the person as a human and not just an athlete yeah, it's, it's better, but you live and learn and stuff. And yeah, he's not. That individual isn't in the sport. Hopefully not, but I don't know. 

Sue Anstiss 34:23

And do you think that British sport is better now in terms of finding that balance between athlete welfare and the pursuit of Olympic and Paralympic medals? 

Ellie Simmonds 34:33

Again, I can only vouch for swimming, but I think it's getting better. I think I think what's happened in the past is that they've learned from it. Again, I'm not much into that world at the moment, so I don't know, but from when I, from when we had our moments and the timing in Rio, and afterwards it definitely changed. But again, I hope it has and I hope it's staying in the positive way and I hope it continues and you learn from it. And I know that British gymnastics and gymnastics as a whole has had it and it's happened a few times in sport and hopefully for future athletes and not just the youngsters, grass roots and Olympians, paralympians that it doesn't happen. 

Sue Anstiss 35:26

Absolutely Thank you for that. Your retirement had huge publicity in 2021. There's real outpouring of love and emotion from people who'd found such joy in following your performances over those years. So I wonder, as you look back at that time, if you had to think of one or two achievements or the medals that you were most proud of. Is that probably a question you're often asked? But are there moments or is it the kind of whole of your career you reflect on? 

Ellie Simmonds 35:53

You know what I think, like definitely my whole career, but I think for me, if I could say one thing, it was London 2012. 


I think it wasn't just because I had a great, great games and I swam the best I ever have, with personal bests in the heats, personal bests in the finals, and having the whole medal collection as well was really nice, even though I think it would have been nice to get an actual goal. 


But I got so many bonds and I absolutely love it because I've got all the colours from 2012. But I think for me, just being able to be part of that change and perception of disability and Paralympics sport and saying I was able to be included in that, you know, and I think what 2012 did wasn't just change perception of disability sport but change deception of disability in society, and I think it was a catalyst and it was the most amazing thing to see and be part of, because the likes of the Last Leg, the likes of disability in society, was changing and it still needs to get better still, even now in 2023, but it was that change in point then and people were wanting to come and watch us People, the tickets were getting sold and their venues were packed out, the people, not just in the media but in the crowds in London in the United Kingdom, people would just glued to the TV and to the success of the British Paralympic athletes and just Paralympics as a whole. 

Sue Anstiss 37:29

It was just the most amazing thing to be part of and we talk a lot today, don't we about how hard it is for a elite athlete to transition from sport, especially after such high-profile careers as you had for such a long time too. So how has that been for you, that new identity beyond Elisa Manzig, extraordinary Paralympic champion? Well, it's been like, I think, for me. 

Ellie Simmonds 37:51

I was always a bit like I always knew, going into Tokyo, I wanted to retire and I think that was really nice being in control of that. Like that, Lynn, that sorry, Tokyo 2021 was going to be my last game. So I knew, going into every race it was going to be my last one. But there's always that fear isn't there of that unknown and especially for me and loads and loads of athletes out there swimming, or your sport is a massive identity of yourself. It was huge for me. 


I had a plan, like I said, every single day I knew where I've got to be every single day. You've got your four-year plan, You've got your year plan, your month plan, your week plan and all of a sudden you come off that plane and it's like, wow, what am I going to do tomorrow, let alone next week or in a few months? And yeah, it's quite liberating, it's really, really nice, but it's also a bit scary as well. It's been a very much of a rollercoaster, Like I've been able to do some incredible, amazing things, like strictly like the two documentaries I've done, like TV stuff, and meet some amazing people. But there has been days where it's a bit like what actually, is it what I want to do? You do get a bit lost and stuff, but a majority of the time it is I've had a great retirement so far and it's actually two years since I've retired, so two years has definitely flown by. But yeah, it's been a really really good so far career in life. 

Sue Anstiss 39:19

And it's been wonderful to see you working in sport. Now You're out of the pool, but still poolside. You are a real natural. I think it's great to see you reporting and commentating at the World Swimming Championships with the lovely Ashley Wilmott. I'm a massive fan of Ashley, yeah. So I just wonder, was that a second nature to you, that being with the microphone and just talking, or were you really out of your comfort zone there? 

Ellie Simmonds 39:42

You know what? I love it. I really, really enjoy it and, like you said, to still be part of the sport and to still do the swimming, like again having that amazing opportunity last year at the Commonwealth Games and then this year at the World Swimming Championships, and we've got the Paris Olympics and Paralympics next year. So hopefully that. But yeah, I think, like you, always learn in, isn't it? 


I've been able to, like speak to Claire Claire Bouldin, who, oh my gosh, she is the most talented, amazing woman ever. She is just well like, just so amazing to be part of and sitting next to and you just learn from her every single day. And the loveliest human ever that she's so, so nice. And to learn from her and to see her do her thing and stuff and to watch her. And then, yeah, just I think I learn every single time I do it and, like I still I have cock ups, I have times where it goes wrong and stuff, but we're human, you know, and I do get super, super nervous because I just want to, I want to do a good job, and I want to do a good job not just for me but for the sport and for the channel I'm working for, but it's been really, really fun to have a mic and to interview the athletes and to just be involved in sport. 

Sue Anstiss 40:56

Yeah, I haven't. I'm not just saying this because you're on the podcast, but I think you're just so natural in terms of the documentaries that I've watched your questioning your whatever. So I don't know, it's not Claire Bouldin, you're learning that from me, but obviously you've got those skills and you're doing it anyway. But it does feel it's really lovely to watch you and watch your questionnaire things too. I really enjoy that. I heard you talk about the beautiful flow that comes from being the very best of yourself and how you used to find that in the pool. So I wonder kind of where you're finding that in life today and whether you got that in strictly and that learning of new skills and so on. 

Ellie Simmonds 41:31

Yeah, I think I did. I got strictly was the most amazing experience ever, like it was so, so lovely and to learn how to dance and stuff was just fabulous, like even, like you know, for me being a swimmer for a long, long time and, like I said at the start, like smelling of chlorine all the time normally I have in my hair in a bun, you know, wearing swimming costumes, you know, and that whole different worlds of like having fake tan on, do it, getting my hair done, makeup done, dresses, all that type of stuff. Was just wearing heels every day, leo. That was tough because like the blisters that I got, but just that whole different world and opening up my eyes to it and to be partnered with Nikita and to learn how to dance and to do that most amazing thing and to also, as well, to like. 


We had a lot of people question as well what we were gonna do. Again, he's an average height person. I've got dwarfism. We weren't the stereotypical like size for like ballroom or Latin, and people were questioning how we were gonna dance and he's never danced with someone like me before and I've never danced really like well, never done Latin or ballroom, apart from, say, your Saturday night, you know, when you're at a disco and things you're like raven or pulling out those classic moves, but things like that it was just the most amazing experience. And then afterwards, not just doing the show but getting to go on the tour as well and being like a rock star for six weeks, doing 32 shows all across the country, was just life changing and the most amazing experience ever. And whoever I say, go, do strictly, it's just yeah, do it. Literally Just say yes, it's so fabulous. 

Sue Anstiss 43:12

I was gonna ask you. It feels like a really ridiculous question. I'll ask you if Nikita's as lovely in person as he appears on the screen, but I feel it he must be really yeah no, he is. 

Ellie Simmonds 43:22

I'm so rooting for him and Layton this year. I think they're just gonna do amazing, like they had an amazing I think it was Samba on Saturday and I think I can't remember what dance they've got this Saturday coming up but yeah, they're so good and he's so, so lovely. He's also he's very competitive as well, he's very driven and he but so, so talented in not just dancing but choreography as well. They all are. All those pro dancers are just the most amazing talented humans ever, all right, it's lovely, I love it. 

Sue Anstiss 43:53

I'm a big fan, big fan of strictly. So I guess, finally, it's been such a joy to follow your career over the past 20 or years and yet you'd be very justified in choosing a quieter life now. But I don't feel that's the route you're likely to take. So I just wonder what are your ambitions? You've had this two years, since retirement, but do you have kind of ambitions for what you'd like to do, what you'd like to achieve in the future? 

Ellie Simmonds 44:15

You know what, and normally I am very driven gold setting and very much know what I want to achieve, but actually, like, still I've not really got any goals or ambitions. Like I'd love to be part of the Paralympics and go to Paris next year and see it from a different side, like that's definitely a massive dream of mine, but away from that, you know, I'm just taking each day as it comes and just saying yes to all these amazing opportunities and not knowing where I want to be in a couple years' time. And I definitely want to give back a bit more. I want to help more children and help more people with different disabilities as well. That's definitely a big ambition of mine. 


And also my massive hobby is also traveling. I love traveling and seeing the world and seeing how beautiful it is and just, yeah, also as well, getting like my confidence back as well and just seeing traveling on my own and just being okay on my own and things. That's definitely a massive ambition of mine. But helping people a bit more well, a bit more definitely helping people just in general, helping people and giving back and, yeah, traveling, I think that's my free ambitions actually. 

Sue Anstiss 45:31

Lovely Making magnificent documentaries while you're out there doing these last few years and we can all see you doing it. That's what we need, more of that. 

Ellie Simmonds 45:38


Sue Anstiss 45:39

Fantastic. Thank you so so. Thank you so so much. It's been really really lovely to talk to you. 

Ellie Simmonds 45:47

Thank you so so much, sue, for having me on. 

Sue Anstiss 45:56

Now, lovely is Ellie. What a joy to hear more about her career and all she's doing now. If you enjoy the podcast, there are over 160 episodes featuring conversations with trailblazers in women's sport and they're all free to listen to on podcast platforms or at the Fearless Women website, fearlesswomencouk. Previous  s include elite sportswomen, broadcasters, coaches, administrators, scientists and CEOs from a vast range of sports. The whole of my book Game On the Unstoppable Rise of Women's Sport is also free to listen to on the podcast. 


Every episode of series 13 is me reading a chapter of the book. Thank you once again to Sport England for backing the game-changers through a national lottery award, and also thanks to Sam Walker at what Goes on Media, who does such a fantastic job as our executive producer. Thank you also to my brilliant colleague at Fearless Women, kate Hannon. Do follow us to make sure you don't miss out on future episodes and if you have a moment to leave us a lovely five-star review or rating, that would be fantastic, as it really does help us to reach new audiences. Come and say hello on social media, where you'll find me on LinkedIn, twitter and Instagram at Sue Anstis the game-changers Fearless Women in Sport.