• Thursday, February 29, 2024
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Ellie Simmonds: My family values


The Paralympic swimming champion talks about her big family and the sacrifices they made when she was starting out

I’m the baby of the family and love it. I’m the youngest of five – I have three sisters and one brother. There’s more than 20 years between us: Steven, Pauline and Georgina are in their 30s and 40s. I was always trying to copy them because I thought they were cool. I’m closest to Katie, who’s only five years older than me – but we did argue a lot as we were so similar. She has achondroplasia like me.

Despite the massive age gap, we’re a very close family, even though we weren’t often together as a group. Family activities involved riding our bikes, going for long walks or picnics in the park. Growing up, most of our family holidays were staycations in the UK. It wasn’t until I was seven that we went “abroad” together for the first time, to Jersey.

I’ve always been competitive and determined. It’s part of my personality. I’ve always been aware of being shorter, but I felt as if I could do anything. I don’t remember my mum and dad telling me anything and they certainly didn’t make any special allowances for Katie and me. They said if I wanted to achieve something I shouldn’t let it stop me. They were pretty easygoing. I think it’s important for parents who think they have talent on their hands to be supportive without being pushy.

I grew up swimming. Our first house in Aldridge, in the West Midlands, had a pool at the bottom of the garden. I sensed swimming was good for my body and I loved being able to move fast.

My extended family – grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins – all lived locally. My parents both grew up as one of three kids. I saw my grandparents every day and every Sunday we went to my maternal grandparents’ house for lunch. I have particular memories of Grandad falling asleep on the sofa every Christmas, so I’d be tempted to draw on his face with whatever was to hand!

Mum was the doer, shuttling us kids to all of our activities, whereas Dad was the fun one, playing with us and swinging us about. Dad was the cook in our family but puds and dessert weren’t his thing, so my maternal granny taught me how to bake when I was little and I’ve loved baking ever since.

When I was 11, Mum and Dad made the difficult decision that Mum and I would move to Swansea so I could train with the GB squad. Dad stayed behind with my siblings. Every Saturday morning we’d make the three-hour drive back home only to return on the Sunday afternoon. I’d sleep the entire ride just to make it go faster. It was a big sacrifice my parents made for almost six years. Mum set us up in a little house to retain as much normality as possible, but it was really tough being separated. I really appreciated the little time I did have with Dad even more then.

Last year I made a big step – moving out and into student accommodation at Loughborough, where I now train. I’m 19 now and it’s nice to have more independence. My roommates are lovely and we all get along well. Home is just under an hour away so I try to get back every other weekend

Zainabu Issah