Summer 2020 was meant to be a big one for swimmer Ellie Simmonds. The British Paralympic champion was set to go for gold once more at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo. That was before the coronavirus pandemic hit, of course.
“At the beginning of the first lockdown, when it was announced the Olympics and Paralympics had been postponed, it hit me hard,” says Simmonds, who won five gold medals over the last three Games in Beijing, London and Rio de Janeiro.
“I felt like I had lost my purpose and couldn’t see what all the hard work and sacrifice over the preceding four years had been for.”
The 26-year-old was able to put the news into perspective, though. “Obviously, it goes without saying we’ve seen how small this problem was in the wider context of people’s lives – losing loved ones and means of income – but in that moment, it was earth-shattering.”
At home with her parents at the time, Simmonds, who hails from Walsall, says she “didn’t know what to do with [herself]” at first, but eventually found solace looking back at old newspaper cuttings her mum had saved.
“Over time, something changed. For a start, it was hard to feel sorry for yourself when the real tragedy was real and around us all, and secondly, seeing those memories on paper allowed me to feel some pride in what I’d managed to achieve in my career – something I had never really done.
“In a way, I often felt embarrassed to think about prior success, because in sport, you’re only as good your next event. But that taught me to enjoy and live in the moment.”
Admitting she’s “a planner by nature”, the athlete says she’s now, “trying to enjoy letting myself go with the flow and see where it goes. At the end of the day, sport is only sport. We’ve had the most real-life example one could imagine of how there are more important things in the world.”
To that end, during the pandemic Simmonds has continued her work as a WaterAid ambassador, promoting the charity’s Future on Tap appeal, which aims to help transform lives with clean water in Ethiopia and around the world.
“This year has reminded us of the importance for caring for each other,” she says. “From the start of lockdown, everyone got behind the NHS, regardless of who they were. I feel it brought the nation together in a special way, even though we’ve been able to spend less time with friends and family.”
Now, with hope on the horizon in the form of Covid vaccines, Simmonds is looking to the future with optimism and thinking about her goals, big and small.
“Obviously, competing at a fourth Paralympics is the ultimate goal, but like many, I suspect, I can’t wait to just call up my friends, walk to a nearby independent coffee shop in Soho or West Hampstead, of which there are so many amazing ones, and just be normal.
“I suspect I won’t be the only one who’s looking forward to doing that again. That moment can’t come soon enough.”
In the meantime, she’s reflecting on a turbulent year, counting her blessings and feeling thankful for the people who’ve “kept us all going” during the pandemic.
“For frontline workers – and I’m not just talking about the amazing health and medical professionals – but the teachers, nursery workers, supermarket staff – well, you’re all just amazing. I can’t thank them all enough.
“I sincerely hope we all remember how utterly incredible these people have been when this is all over.”
Ellie Simmonds is supporting the Wateraid Future on Tap appeal to bring clean water to communities in Ethiopia and across the region as part of her role as ambassador for the international charity. Donations to the appeal will be matched by the UK government up to £2 million until 4 February 2021.