|British Para-swimming International Meet|
|Date: 31 May-3 June Time: Heats from 09:30 BST, finals from 17:00 BST Venue: Ponds Forge, Sheffield|
|Coverage: Live on the BBC Sport website, connected TV and BBC Sport app|
Paralympic champion Ellie Simmonds admits she came close to quitting swimming after losing her love for the sport in the build-up to the Rio Games.
“I just hated swimming and everything about it,” the 23-year-old told BBC Sport.
But instead of retiring, the five-time Paralympic champion took a break after winning gold and bronze in Brazil and went travelling while she considered her next move.
Her time off included camping under the stars in the Australian outback, an emotional trip to the Water Cube in Beijing plus visits to Thailand, America, Mexico, South Africa and Vietnam and a chance to see more than just the airport, hotel and swimming pool frequented by a competitive swimmer.
It allowed her to be Ellie Simmonds and not Ellie the swimmer, do the things that other 20-somethings do, enjoy the experience and see where that journey took her.
Now, older, wiser and with her enthusiasm back, she is hoping to regain a place on the British Para-swimming team for August’s European Championships in Dublin at the trials which start on Thursday in Sheffield, as part of the British Para-swimming International Meet.
“I needed that time away to refocus and figure out what I wanted in life. I had an amazing time travelling and discovered lots of things,” she explained to BBC Sport’s Kate Grey.
“It gave me perspective of what the sport is for me and helped me find my love for it again.
“Early last year I thought it was my time to retire. I just didn’t want to get back in the pool. I didn’t have any objectives, I had achieved my dreams by winning Paralympic golds and competing at three Paralympic Games.
“But as the months went by, I decided I really liked swimming. I found my love for it again. I realised I didn’t want to retire. I still want to go on and train as much as I can.”
Building it up again
Simmonds has grown up in the public eye from the 13-year-old who won two golds at the Beijing Paralympics in 2008, famously bursting into tears when the realisation of what she had achieved hit her, to the pressure of being a poster girl for the London Games where she again won double gold.
But the build-up to Rio and the Games themselves were a testing time for Simmonds, with new rivals on the horizon and a move to British Swimming’s National Performance Centre in Manchester not working out as successfully as she would have liked.
So with time ticking fast towards the Tokyo Games, Simmonds has opted for a mix of the familiar and the new, switching her training base to the London Aquatics Centre, scene of her 2012 success, but returning to work with an old friend.
Former coalminer Billy Pye was Simmonds’ coach when she moved to Swansea aged 10 from her home club at Boldmere.
The 59-year-old Welshman, a qualified primary school teacher, was by her side, gently encouraging Simmonds through the tough training sessions in Wales as she juggled training and schoolwork, and celebrating with her as she became one of the best-known faces in Paralympic sport.
Pye moved to coach in China at the start of 2016 but has come back to mastermind what is likely to be the final part of Simmonds’ career, and the smile is definitely back on her face.
“Being back with Billy is such a laugh,” she says. “We push each other to the limits but we know what makes us tick.
“We’re both happy and I think that’s what’s showing in the pool.”
But Pye knows that this will probably be the biggest test of their working partnership.
“It had to be Ellie’s decision to get back in full time,” he explains. “But once she makes a decision, that’s it.
“We’re building her confidence back up year-on-year, building the person and the engine back up.
“She wasn’t happy with her performances in Rio and if she had finished there, it would have left unfinished business,
“Now we’ve got an opportunity and I’m hoping we can finish in Tokyo because I’m getting too old for this!
“But on a serious note, it will be nice for me to be there for the start of the journey and finish it.”
Back on the podium?
The World Para-swimming World Championships were due to take place in Mexico City in September but the earthquake which struck the city that month resulted in its postponement and the GB team did not take part in the rearranged championships in December.
Simmonds is now hoping to get a place on the GB team for August’s European Championships in Dublin but will have to contend with the likes of fellow Rio gold medallist Ellie Robinson (16) and 15-year-old Maisie Summers-Newton, who had both been selected for Mexico.
She returned to international competitive action at last month’s World Para-swimming Grand Prix in America but will need to improve on the times she managed there if she is to regain her place, with her best chances coming in Friday’s 200m individual medley, the event where she is the current Paralympic champion and world-record holder, and Sunday’s 400m freestyle.
“I know it’s going to be really tough to get back on the team but it’s great to have youngsters like Ellie and Maisie because I’m not going to be around forever,” she admits.
“There is a lot of pressure but I’m just lucky that I’ve got a personality that can cope with it.
“Some days it is tough because I want it all now, and it’s not going to happen overnight. I don’t think I’m going to be doing my best times come the Europeans, so I’m just taking it as it comes.
“I’m so proud to tell people I’m a Paralympic champion and I would love to go to a fourth Games and be back on top of the podium again.”