May 2024

Ellie Cole's new era

For 16 years, Ellie Cole's life was dictated by the pool. Now, she's taking the reins and already unstoppable. By Courtney Thompson

PHOTOGRAPHY by GEORGES ANTONI
STYLING by RACHEL WAYMAN

Ellie Cole was lying in the middle of the South African jungle trying to recall the shape of her son’s nose. It had been a few weeks since she entered camp as a contestant on the tenth season of I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here! when the former Paralympian swimmer had the startling realisation that she couldn’t recall what five-week-old Felix looked like. “I was trying to think of his face, but because his face was changing so much in the weeks before I left — like it was changing every day — I couldn't,” Cole says. “I was like, ‘oh my gosh, I can't remember what Felix even looks like.’”

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A few weeks earlier, Cole had held Felix close in the moments before being picked up to leave for South Africa. “It was hard to leave him,” she admits. “I had him on my chest and he was so little, and I was just giving him a last cuddle because I was like, he'll never be this small again. That made me really upset.” Cole and her partner, Silvia Scognamiglio, welcomed Felix in early February and so while it was hard enough dealing with the harsh conditions of the jungle, Cole was fighting a more emotional battle than most. For her, the most challenging part of the experience wasn’t the snakes or the rats or even the mind-numbing boredom that inevitably came as a result of being awake for 18 hours a day. It was that she didn’t know how Silvia was doing with Felix. “She was effectively a single mum at the time,” Cole tells me. “And I didn't know if she was struggling or if she was doing really well.” Receiving a letter that confirmed all was going smoothly at home gave Cole some temporary comfort. “Then we got the videos and then that's when I started to unravel a bit. I was like, I've gotta go home.”

When I ask what was harder — the jungle or life with a newborn — she doesn’t hesitate with her answer. “Oh, the jungle,” Cole confirms. “I've got a unicorn baby. He sleeps most of the day, he doesn't really cry too much, doesn't make too much noise. I was in the jungle with one of the loudest people I've ever met in Khanh Ong, he screams more than my baby does.

Cole’s appearance on I’m A Celebrity… is a perfect demonstration of her approach to life post-swimming. As an athlete, Cole rose to become Australia’s most decorated Paralympian, winning 17 Paralympic medals, four Commonwealth medals, three world titles and nine Pan Pacific gold medals. She was the flag bearer for Australia at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games Closing Ceremony. In 2022, she was awarded Most Outstanding Woman in Sport at the Australian Women in Sport Awards. Now, she’s building a life of her own with a successful career outside the pool and her young family alongside.

It’s common for professional athletes to struggle with the transition post-retirement. Without the structure or purpose that comes from a life of training and competition, they become unmoored and are plunged into an existential spiral many don’t emerge from easily. But Cole was readying herself for retirement long before it was a reality. “I was kind of preparing myself mentally that I would struggle,” she explains. “I took a lot of lessons away from other athletes who have retired about making sure that you're still staying connected to your sport, making sure that you still have structure in your day. And like, my transition into retiring from sport wasn't overnight. It was something that I had been planning for years and years; I'd set up some really great work, some amazing goals I wanted to achieve outside of sport. And so when I did eventually retire, I hit the ground running a bit (even though I can't run).”

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Cole started working in disability advocacy and on television. In addition to her stint on I’m a Celebrity, in the nearly-two years since she retired, she’s become a regular on the Nine Network as a sports commentator, managed the Australian team at the 2023 Commonwealth Youth Games and joined the Paralympics Australia Board. After years of being confined to a schedule dictated by others, Cole was liberated to take hold of her life and find out what it would be like to say yes. “I don't think people realise how many things athletes actually have to say no to,” she says. “We're expected to be at 100% of our training sessions, expected to travel the world for a large part of the year. Even fitting in university is really difficult, let alone a social life and work opportunities. So when I did retire, I wanted to open myself up to a lot more opportunities and say yes to everything 'cause I've been saying no to my whole life.”

There’s a lightness in her voice that reveals she’s still not taking any of it for granted. “Like, the honeymoon period isn't over, even two years later, I'm still appreciating all of the sleep and the work that I've been able to do,” she enthuses. It’s only when I ask what her relationship with swimming is like now that she turns more reflective. “I think it's always gonna be a tricky one,” Cole admits. “There were times where I loved being on the Australian swim team, but there were other times where it wasn't necessarily the safest place to be mentally.”

Asked to elaborate, she names the ‘win at all costs’ mentality as a chief contributor. “There used to be this approach in swimming — and in all sports — that the athletes needed to win gold medals,” she explains. “And it was almost in complete disregard of any kind of athlete's wellbeing.” For Cole, coming up in the time she did meant that athletes didn’t have the platforms they now have to advocate for themselves. “When I was a young athlete, it was difficult. You know, you would speak up about these things, but nobody was really listening. I don't know if it's because of social media or just general awareness, but I think things are improving. I hope that they are. But I think that's where my work with Paralympics Australia is gonna be amazing.”

Over the years, both as an athlete and public figure, Cole has become one of the most prominent advocates for disability and accessibility in Australian sport. In 2024, she was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for her "significant service to sport as an advocate for diversity and inclusion". One of her main goals has always been to work in television so that she can help rewrite the story we hear about both Olympic and Paralympic athletes. “I've obviously had a lot of experience in the media space being an athlete, but I wanted to be on the other side of the camera and actually control the narrative a little bit,” she says. “Because I think the main difference between the Olympics and Paralympics is that in the media you're able to tell some amazing stories about our Paralympians because people always wanna know how they acquired their disability or how they've overcome their disability. But I also wanted to be able to do a bit more storytelling with the Olympic guys.”

"I wanted to OPEN myself up to a lot more opportunities and say YES to everything 'cause I've been saying no to my whole LIFE.”

Since leaving the pool, she’s also started working more in the adaptive fashion space, including with brands such as R.M.Williams. As the official outfitter for the Australian Paralympic team for eight consecutive games, R.M.Williams has again led the charge for the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games and made the uniforms even more adaptive. Typically, Paralympians, like any disabled person, will receive an item of clothing that isn’t designed to work for them and so will need to get it tailored to their specific needs. “What's really great about the uniform for the Paris Games is that it reduces the amount of tailoring needed,” Cole explains. “It's inclusive and accessible for our whole team.”

Updates like magnetic zips and zip-up boots are simple but effective ways of aiding athletes. “I think the one thing that the adaptive fashion space is doing is that it's making these items of clothing easy to wear for us, but also for everyday people who don't have dexterity issues,” Cole notes. “When they see something like a magnetic zip, it makes them think about the issues that disabled people may experience when just wearing normal clothing. Some of the adaptive clothing I wear may not necessarily be designed for someone like me who's an amputee, but more for people that have dexterity issues. Like, I have lots of clothing with magnetic zippers, and I absolutely love it. I wish that we could see it on everything.”

Having iconic and influential companies like R.M.Williams engaging in adaptive fashion makes a bold statement into the kind of world that they want to see. “Not only are they outfitting our Paralympic team, but they're making a commitment in the adaptive fashion space,” Cole says. “And at one point in our lives, we're all gonna need adaptive clothing. That makes a real statement into the brand that they want to be.”

Looking to the future, Cole hopes to build upon the foundation she’s already built. To help influence positive change both within and beyond sport now that she’s got the power of hindsight behind her. “I’ve got a whole new appreciation for the athletes [since retiring],” she says. “It's kind of like when you hear from people who are mums, looking back after their kids have grown up and they say, ‘I don't know how I did it.’ It's the same as being an athlete. You look back at your career and it’s like, I did not know how I did that. So I have a whole new appreciation of sport from both sides now.”

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