Teen quadruple amputee sets UK para swimming records
Lining up for her race at the London Aquatics Centre in September, Ellie Challis was both in familiar and unknown territory.
The 15-year-old para swimmer was in a pool she had competed in many times, just a couple of hours from home in Little Clacton, Essex, and there was a busload of school friends and family in the crowd. But she was also about to race at the World Para Championships, her first major international meet and, on top of that, it was only in April that she had competed for the first time against anyone other than the clock.
But one thing that becomes quickly apparent when speaking to the teenager is that she is not easily fazed. At the British Para Swimming International in April, Challis set a world and two European records. Unbeknown to the newcomer at the time, it earned her qualification for the World Championships in September. There she made her major debut by winning a bronze medal in the S3 50 metre backstroke. Not bad for someone who had never raced against anyone in her classification six months earlier.
“There’s no one in my class in the UK that’s female, there’s one male, so I usually compete in it on my own,” Challis says. “The British Para Swimming International was really the first time I got to [race against other swimmers]. It didn’t really cross my mind because I was just very excited to be there.
“I didn’t even know I had to make times there for the Worlds, and then I got selected, it was a bit unexpected. Then the [bronze] medal just topped everything. I was looking up at the board 10 times, I took my goggles off, I was like, ‘Is that a three for me?’ I got out and went round where we get our accreditation and was like, ‘Where did I place?’ I really couldn’t see it!”
This time last year Challis, by her own admission, was a relative unknown, only just having made it onto the British Swimming programme. But she goes into 2020 as a real Paralympic contender for Tokyo and recipient of SportAid’s One-to-Watch award, an accolade the likes of Olympic bronze medallist Tom Daley won as a teen. “My name wasn’t really out with everybody,” Challis says. “But so much has happened in the last months, it’s been crazy.”
Despite having all four limbs amputated after contracting meningitis when 16 months old, Challis credits having five sporty siblings – including twin sister Sophie – with helping her become involved in sport.
After taking up running and football as a child, Challis began swimming aged eight, inspired by three separate 2012 events that give meaning to the saying “you can’t be what you can’t see”.
One was watching Dolphin Tale, a 2011 film based on the true story of a dolphin who learns to swim again after losing its tail. The second was having the London Paralympics play out on her doorstep, where she was in awe of the para swimmer she now counts as her idol – five-time Paralympic champion Ellie Simmonds. And lastly, an event with Limb Power, a charity launched to engage amputees and individuals with limb impairments in sport.
“I saw this girl just like me who could swim, I had never seen someone like that,” Challis says of the charity’s event. “I still couldn’t swim then. I never used to want to take my armbands off and I would never get in a pool without my dad.
“She was the first person like me who I could see swim, because it’s not a big class even in the Paralympics, there’s not a lot of us. Seeing her really got me thinking I could do it.
“Then I saw the film about the dolphin which definitely inspired me and then the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, Ellie Simmonds, and it just all adds up together.”
Just seven years later, Challis became Simmonds’s team-mate at the World Championships in September, and making Tokyo 2020 is a real possibility. But just as talking about her forthcoming GCSEs and describing her father’s taxi duties in dropping her off at the pool offer a reminder of just how young a talent Challis still is, so, too, does the giddiness that emerges when she speaks about Simmonds.
“I have a picture from about two years ago at the Nationals with Ellie, when she first came back after her break. She’s always been my inspiration so it’s crazy that I was on a team with her this year. And I talked to her and during the competition she’s there. She was so lovely. It’s very surreal.”
Challis could have a chance of creating her own teen Paralympic dream, as Simmonds first did aged 13 in Beijing. Ahead of the European Championships in April, Challis will find out if she has earned a seat on the plane to Tokyo, and though she is the first to admit 2019 was a welcome surprise, she says she always had the Paralympics on her radar.
“It’s been an aim for me,” she says. “But it was to go to trials – and still is to go to trials – to try and do good times there. I’m still 15 so I have time to keep going. If I don’t make [Tokyo] I’m not going to be terribly devastated. Obviously, I’d like to, but I’m going in with no pressure. I only made my big international debut a few months ago.”