Five-time gold medallist Ellie Simmonds has announced her retirement from Paralympic swimming, after escaping disqualification in her final race in Tokyo.
Following a decade as the face of British Paralympic sport, Simmonds’s last appearance was very nearly disastrous, as she was initially disqualified for failing to touch the wall at the 100m-mark. An hour later, after a prolonged appeal process, the decision was overturned and Simmonds’s fifth-place standing reinstated, behind fourth-placed Maisie Summers-Newton plus team-mate Grace Harvey in seventh.
Unless Simmonds has a major change of heart, it will almost certainly be her final appearance at a Paralympics and when asked how she would like to be remembered, she took only a moment to consider her answer. “The smile,” she replied, tears welling up in her eyes. “I’m a bit emotional now. But just that, Ellie Simmonds, the one everyone remembers in London 2012.”
Nine years ago in London, Simmonds held onto the edge of the pool, her eyes bright and smiling in disbelief as the thunderous adulation from the home crowd washed over her. She had just stormed to gold in the S6 400m freestyle, one of two titles she defended, and the moment became one of the most memorable of the Games. “That was the best moment of my life,” she said.
On Thursday though, in the echoing silence of the Tokyo Aquatics Centre, that smile was only visible through bittersweet tears as the eight-time medallist announced this as the end of the road. “I think this is going to be my last,” Simmonds, 26, said. “I’ll go home and evaluate. I’m not just saying that because I’m gutted or anything like that. I knew going into these Games this was going to be the last. I don’t think I could go for another three years. I’m leaving it at the right time, I love it, I’ve absolutely had a wonderful competition and I’ve loved every minute of it.”
The overturning of her disqualification was only small consolation for what has been a “tough” Paralympics, as Simmonds leaves Tokyo 2020 without a medal, a first for her: “It’s been quite a tough Games, training has been going so well, and the times have been ok but not what I was expecting. For me I normally rise up to a Paralympics, I love those pressured environments. But, in a sense, a couple of months ago I was seeing my psychologist loads and she was really helping me, so to even get to these Games has been really good.”
She captured the attention of the British public at just 13, when she made her Paralympic debut in Beijing winning two gold medals. Since then she has become one of the most famous Paralympians of her generation, her influence permeating across international sport. But being thrust into the spotlight brought its challenges, Simmonds taking a break after Rio 2016 when she said she “hated” the sport.
“When I was in Beijing, London, and also in Rio I was still a kid really, I didn’t feel pressure,” she said. “Now I’m a 26 year old woman. Being a lot older I feel those expectations. And it’s definitely hard on my shoulders, to the extent where in training I’m ok but in competitions I panic, and I do stupid things. Working with [my psychologist], at these Games one of the things I’m proud of is I didn’t have any panics. I was so happy about that – I went out and raced and enjoyed it. The whole nation thinks I should be winning, winning, winning all the time and that’s a lot to take on my shoulders. But now I’m getting to the stage where I’m going out there to do it for myself.”
Simmonds could well still compete at next year’s Commonwealth Games, but reflecting on her career at the Paralympics she was focusing on all she had achieved: “As an eight or nine-year-old, watching Athens 2004, to think as a kid then I would not just go to one Games, but four.
“It has been an amazing part to play – inspiring that next generation. I am honoured. It makes me emotional to think that Maisie [Summers-Newton] and Ellie [Challis], all those guys and girls were inspired by watching me in 2012. Now they are inspiring the next generation.”
Team-mate Bethany Firth finished her Games by winning her second gold and fourth medal on Thursday, taking home the S14 100m backstroke title, while Jessica Jane Applegate took bronze. Reece Dunn, who won three gold medals and a silver in Tokyo, completed his set with a bronze in the men’s version of the event.
Britain’s Ben Watson and Fin Graham claim men’s C1-3 road race 1-2
By Gareth A Davies in Tokyo
Cyclist Ben Watson might not have been at these Paralympic Games after an horrific crash in training in Portugal, but the 32-year-old celebrated becoming a double gold medallist. Great Britain claimed the top two podium places in the men’s C1-3 road race played out in torrential rain with Fin Graham finishing in second place.
“After three laps the rain really started coming down and that was when we took our opportunities. It started really getting whittled down on the climb. Forty started and then 10 were left,” explained Watson. “We came with plans to win this today and it paid off.”
Wheelchair tennis pair Jordanne Whiley and Lucy Shuker are through to the gold-medal match for the first time as a doubles pairing after a semi-final triumph 6-4, 6-2 against Chinese opponents Ziying Wang and Zhenzhen Zhu in two sets lasting just over two hours. The underdogs meet Dutch No 1 seeds Diede de Groot and Aniek van Koot.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Shuker. “Having won two bronzes in the previous Games, we’ve always dreamt about winning gold or silver and now we’re in that match.” Earlier, in the men’s singles, Alfie Hewett and Gordon Reid both lost their semi-final matches and will fight it out for the bronze medal. Defending champion Reid lost 6-3, 6-2 to Japan’s world No 1 Shingo Kunieda and Dutchman Tom Egberink defeated Hewett 6-4, 7-6.
Nonetheless, British pair Reid and Hewett will team up with even more at stake in the men’s doubles gold-medal match in a repeat of the Rio 2016 final against defending champions Stephane Houdet and Nicolas Peifer from France.
‘Best day of my life’: Joy for Daniel Pembroke after victory in javelin
By Gareth A Davies in Tokyo
Daniel Pembroke described his javelin gold medal victory as “the best day of my life” as the partially-sighted F13 athlete set a new Paralympic record with a throw of 69.52m after a delayed start due to torrential rain. “It is an amazing experience and I can’t put it into words, I know everyone says that but it is true,” said the 30-year-old, who was diagnosed with the degenerative eye condition Retinitis Pigmentosa when he was six years old.
“It really is the best day of my life. There are so many words to describe what just happened and I am so, so happy,” explained Pembroke who competed as an able-bodied thrower before an elbow injury and the travel bug captured him. In 2011, Pembroke had thrown 75.89m, still his able-bodied record, finishing 11th at the under-20 world championships. It was close to the qualifying distance for the 2012 Olympics, then set at 78m.
However, after he snapped the medial collateral ligament when throwing, and with his eyesight deteriorating, he quit athletics. “I had a surgery to fuse the ligaments back together – but it just didn’t feel right. With my eyesight getting worse, and my desire to travel, I quit athletics,” he explained having left the sport to travel around the world in 2013.
But the desire to compete returned, and Pembroke made it to these, his debut Games, and claimed Great Britain’s 34th gold medal of these Games, while compatriot Dan Greaves had to settle for a bronze medal in the discus. For the two Dans of the field, vastly different journeys. Competing at his first Games, Pembroke, once a formidable able-bodied performer, and now inspired paralympian.
Stalwart Greaves, meanwhile, became the first ParalympicsGB athlete to win an athletics medal at six consecutive Games after netting bronze in the F64 discus final. The 38-year-old’s best throw went 53.56 metres in tough conditions and he finished just 38 centimetres ahead of USA’s David Blair. Greaves, who won his first medal at Sydney 2000, now has one gold, two silvers and three bronze medals and admits this one feels extra special following an injury-hit five years.
“Where do you put them?” he said. “This is what it is all about for me, I thought I had maybe had my day but it is nice to walk away with a medal from another Games. I have been through some tough times and it is really hard to describe the dark moments. I was told I could crack my hip if I keep training at the intensity I was and I didn’t really fancy a replacement. I want to be able to play with my kids and do everything a dad should, so I took six months off in 2019.
My body is now able to cope with the load it is given and I have fallen back in love with it.” A shocked – yet delighted – Sammi Kinghorn claimed a silver medal in the T53 400m with a valiant performance as the 25-year-old finishing in 57.25 seconds to beat China’s Hongzhuan Zhou by just 0.04s, with Swiss powerhouse Catherine Debrunner claiming top of the podium. Double paralympic champion Libby Clegg announced the end to her Games career yesterday after finishing third in her T11 200m heat with guide Chris Clarke.
“To finish my career in the Paralympic stadium in Tokyo is amazing,” said Clegg, who gave birth to her first child in 2019 and competed in Dancing on Ice in 2020. “I wasn’t even sure I was going to be here so I’m happy. For me, this Games is a year too late. I was ready for it last year, I was in phenomenal shape. It’s hard but it is what it is,” added Clegg who will compete in her last race, the relay, on Friday.