“As a kid, I didn’t feel different. My family didn’t treat me differently. But I went to America aged 12 and everyone was staring. I was at a sink in a bathroom and a woman came over and asked if I had been in a shark attack! I just didn’t want to be known as the girl with one arm.”
Irish swimming star Ellen Keane has done a lot of soul-searching and growing up since that awkward exchange 10 years ago with the help of family, mates and her extraordinary efforts in and out of the pool.
The 22-year-old Sky Sports Scholar became Ireland’s youngest Paralympian in Beijing in 2008 aged 13, made three London 2012 finals, won a bronze at Rio four years later and is now preparing to light up the World Para Euro Championships on her doorstep in Dublin this summer before aiming for a fourth Paralympics in Tokyo.
Aquatic glory probably wasn’t on the Keane radar when their daughter was born without a left arm and although she had a pretty stress-free childhood getting stuck into the same activities as her sisters, brothers and cousins, secondary school at 11 was a game-changer.
“I was afraid of rejection and being judged,” Keane said. “My own insecurities about my arm made every social situation worse and when I came home from the States I really noticed the staring.
“I had my sleeve down all the time and even for PE I would have a baggy jumper trying to make it look like two hands. I was convinced it looked OK, I refused to take my jumper off and I’d be sweating terribly.
“It was so hard and everywhere I went I had such high anxiety, it was horrible.”
Strangely, at the start of her career, she hated swimming lessons, but after an invitation to a disability event in Northern Ireland, the competitive juices were flowing. She joined an able-bodied club and was soon racing all levels of swimmers.
Qualifying for the 2008 Chinese Paralympics aged 12 was beyond belief. Barely into her teens, she was sixth in the 100m breaststroke and smashing the headlines in the pool.
Out of the water, her anxieties remained. But she found inspiration at boarding school with fellow one-armed swimmer Lauren Steadman (now a para triathlete) appearing to be “carefree, confident and happy”.
“Seeing her in able-bodied sessions and in public made me think ‘why can’t I be like that?” Keane said. “When I swam I felt free and happy and I didn’t notice the staring and other swimmers didn’t care. Why couldn’t I do it in public with clothes on?
“On my first day in college I thought ‘I have to do this NOW’ and there’d be no turning back. I didn’t want to hide my arm to avoid giving anyone a fright anymore. That’s when I did it and it was the best thing I’ve ever done.
“I started to accept my own arm. If you’re ashamed of something and it becomes obvious, you’re not confident or happy.
“When I became confident and proud of my arm, people seemed happier in me and treated me better. I made everything worse because I was ashamed of myself.
“People are attracted to confident people so when I learned to love myself for who I was, I became more confident and so much happier. I realised to be happy in the pool I had to be happy outside of the pool.”
Keane admits she still gets anxious and “afraid of being judged” if she meets someone important. Being introduced to her boyfriend’s dad was “tough” while she was “petrified” meeting Head of Scholarships Tony Lester because of her desire to be a Scholar.
Inspiring others to get involved in Para sport and growing her own profile are big ambitions during her three years as a Sky Sports Scholar.
“I’ve got big goals developing my media skills,” she said, “while on the competitive side, the finances have got me on par with other athletes and I can access things I could never have done before like diving blocks.
“Even just getting on the Scholarship has given me huge confidence. So many applied for it and if Sky has confidence in me then I should have no excuse not to have confidence!”
It seems though, more podiums await for Keane, or even a coffee shop (she is currently studying for a Culinary Entrepreneurship in Dublin), or, perhaps more importantly, a legacy of inspiring a new generation of athletes struggling to deal with their physical differences.
She said: “I feel responsible for talking about it. When I was younger there was nobody in the media with disability. When I’m in front of camera or in the public eye I have my arm out.
“There are so many people with disabilities and I feel responsible for telling my story. I’ve had mums admitting their two-year-olds have started hiding their arms, and so many people have thanked me for telling the story.
“As soon as I stopped the hiding I’ve become so much happier and I encourage people to do the same – even though it may feel scary!
“My message is this – if people are going to stare, you might as well wave it in the air and be proud of it – you might even shock them.”