There are many ways in which Ellie Simmonds is a typical teenage girl; she cries at films, likes horses, shopping with her friends, singing along to Rihanna and gets bored by parts of her history A-level.
And then there are those where she is anything but. She has a cabinet in her bedroom in which she likes to keep a few of her favourite things, two Paralympic gold medals, a handful of world championship gold medals and an MBE. Not just your average teenager then.
There is every chance that come September the cabinet will have been restocked with somewhere between two and four more Paralympic golds and by the time Simmonds decides to end her swimming career it may contain enough bullion to prop up the Greek economy.
It was watching the 2004 Athens Paralympics and the performances of the then 13-year-old Welsh swimmer Nyree Lewis that stirred Simmonds' interest. Roll on four years and Simmonds was the same age as Lewis when she took her two golds in the Beijing Water Cube. She will be 17 – she was born on Remembrance Day – for the London Games. It will not end there. "I want," says Simmonds, leaning forward on her chair, "to be a top Paralympian – that's my aim, to be like Tanni Grey-Thompson."
Grey-Thompson won 11 gold medals and competed in five Paralympics. The next Paralympics after London are in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and Simmonds intends to be in Brazil, form and fitness allowing. Wherever is chosen for 2020, Rome, Istanbul and Tokyo are among the bidding cities, and 2024, she wants to be there too. Come 2024 she will be 29 and still more than a decade younger than Mirjam de Koning-Pepper, the 40-year-old Dutch swimmer, who will be one of her main rivals this summer. "I don't want to still be swimming at 40," says Simmonds. "Three more after London would be good. I want to be very recognisable."
But first comes London and sitting in a hotel in the capital with views across the Thames to a floodlit Houses of Parliament, Simmonds talks excitedly, with an engaging mix of teenage enthusiasm and the narrow-eyed intent of a top-class sportswoman well practised in the art of winning, about what lies ahead. "It's the biggest event of our careers," she says. "The Paralympics is a big thing and having it as your home Games will bring so much expectation. It's exciting just thinking about it – and scary too."
The expectation is a new experience for Simmonds – she was unknown outside her sport when she arrived in Beijing. Now she is Britain's most recognisable current Paralympian and with that comes the expectation and the consequent increased pressure. "It does. But it's not just me. I think every British athlete will have that pressure because it's a home Games. People expect me to get titles because I am a Paralympic and world champion. I might not – you never know who might come round the corner, or I might not swim at my best. There is going to be a pressure but pressure has driven me forward in the past – it makes me want to achieve more and I believe that will be the positive."
Beijing changed Simmonds' life. Born in Walsall, she has achondroplasia, or dwarfism. As a young girl she enjoyed riding ponies but after watching the Athens Paralympics she changed tack. At her first disability swimming competition she won every event. "I realised I was quite good," says Simmonds, who is 4ft 1in. But to go from "quite good" to a Paralympic podium has meant her and her mother moving to Swansea, where Simmonds trains nine times a week for two hours a time as well as fitting in school, and driving back home to the Midlands to rejoin the rest of the family on Saturday mornings (after training, of course).
"We've been doing it for four years now so you get used to it, the travelling," says Simmonds. Her mother is sitting at the adjacent table. When our interview is done they will take the train back to Swansea and Simmonds will be up at five the next morning to head for the pool. "It is quite tiring but then it is something that I have to do if I want to be the best. You have to give up something. Every athlete has to give up something."
The reward came in China. She won the 400m freestyle gold and then after winning the 100m free she burst into tears live on TV. "It was quite embarrassing," says Simmonds. "But [watching it back] makes me feel emotional as well – because I did it. It reminds me how I felt. Sometimes I think: 'Oh I'm just a bit of a swimmer' and then you watch it and think: 'I'm a Paralympian athlete and that is what I achieved'. After the 100 free in which I cried I don't remember much because it was all bit of a blur... except it's a good feeling whatever it is."
It brought recognition beyond sport too, she is the youngest recipient of the MBE, and entry into a different world. "[Life] changed a lot," she says. "It's brought great opportunities. I have been travelling everywhere and meeting all sorts of people. It's nice – I love it. It can feel a bit surreal. Sometimes you're talking to famous people and you think: 'Oh gosh, I'm talking to Lewis Hamilton'. I was talking to James Corden. Then I was in the same room as David Beckham – I was, like, 'oh my gosh I'm in the same room as David Beckham'. I do get recognised – people come up to me and say 'you're that swimmer'. In the time after Beijing it was weird. I had gone out there unknown but you get used to it. It is good though to get recognised for something that you love to do, that people are watching you."
After a couple of days off over Christmas, Simmonds is back in the pool in Swansea. She is studying for two A-levels, history and world development, but on a part-time basis, and expects to leave the rise of the Nazis – her favourite part of the syllabus so far – alone until her sporting duties are done.
"We won't have another break until after the Paralympics," says Simmonds. She will be back in London briefly in March for the British trials in the Olympic Park's aquatics centre. "Now I'm in the pool thinking, this is the year, this is the time."
And after her time in the pool is done, what then? For a moment the sporting mask slips and there is the 17-year-old again. She shrugs. "My friend was asking the other day what do you want to do, do you want to go to uni? I don't know, I really don't know what I want to do. I'm still a teenager."
Ellie Simmonds is a member of Team EDF, www.teamgreenbritain.orgReuse content