Strictly star Ellie Simmonds says dwarfism has made her ‘stronger’: ‘I’m proud of who I am’

Ellie Simmonds is posing on set in a pink dress and purple feather boa with the confidence of a supermodel. An icon of disabled sport, the retired Paralympic swimmer is Strictly Come Dancing’s newest recruit and is relishing her new platform – and her glow up.

“I’m so excited,” she says. “As a swimmer I don’t wear much make-up. In the past, we’ve used fake tan while swimming competitively, because if you’ve got fake tan on you feel good about yourself, don’t you?

"But then 10 days into the race, all the other competitors were probably looking at us funny because we’d gone patchy. Hopefully, this one will stay on for longer!”

A Paralympic star since making her swimming debut aged 13 when she won double gold in Beijing, by the time London came calling four years later, Ellie was the poster girl of the Games, winning another two gold medals on home turf.

Ellie has achondroplasia, a rare genetic condition which causes a type of dwarfism. She became the youngest recipient of an MBE, elevated to an OBE in 2013, before retiring as a five-time Paralympic champion after the Tokyo 2020 Games with 10 world records. But from those dizzying heights came a sobering loss of identity as Walsall-born Ellie tried to figure out what her future would hold.

“I’ve never really had a job before,” says the 27-year-old. “I’ve been swimming on the team since I was 12. The only thing I’ve known is being an athlete and that structure and routine. I’d lost my massive identity and the purpose that I’d had for so many years.

"I was talking to Chris Hoy recently and he said athletes are the most insecure people, and I think that’s so true. I can’t compare myself to other people, but I know as an athlete I’m insecure because you’re in the public eye, in front of people getting judged for what you do.”

The nation’s sweetheart, Ellie needn’t have worried. Despite preparing for a quiet retirement, the swimmer has gone on to present for BBC Sport at the Commonwealth Games this year, as well as making documentaries such as Ellie Simmonds: A World Without Dwarfism? for the BBC before Strictly came knocking.

She was “buzzing” when she got the call from her agent and confided first in her boyfriend Matt, who also has dwarfism. The couple have been together for two years and have just bought a house, with Ellie crediting him as her biggest support along with parents Steve and Val and her sister Katie.

“When I got the call from my agent Nick in May I was in my kitchen and I was jumping up and down screaming, ‘Oh my God!’” she recalls. “Matt was the first person I told. I wanted to make sure he was comfortable with me doing it, because Strictly is a big thing but he was fully like, ‘Go for it, Ellie – this is amazing.’”

However, 4ft Ellie admits on our shoot in north London that she took some convincing initially – not only because dancing is out of her comfort zone, but due to her genuine fears that the height difference simply wouldn’t work. Beeb bosses took her on an accessibility tour of the Elstree Studios in London and her anxieties were eased.

“When I step out into the pool it’s just me,” she says. “Yes, I know there’s a crowd watching but I’ve got water so I can’t hear and I’m not aware of the faces. I think that on the first live show I’m going to be very nervous. I met with the Strictly team and made sure that I was going to be comfortable because of the height difference.

"It was definitely something I thought about a lot before saying yes. Strictly have been amazing and have been helping me so much, walking me around the studio just to make sure I can reach everything and see if I need extra steps.”

During her studio tour, Ellie had a first meeting with all 20 Strictly professionals. “They were rehearsing and they all came and said hello. I was so embarrassed because I was so starstruck,” she laughs.

Despite early reservations, Ellie has become Strictly-obsessed. She is already in a WhatsApp group with the other 14 celebrities. Her partner is 24-year-old Ukrainian professional Nikita Kuzmin.

“Keeping it a secret was so tough,” she laughs. “I wanted to get a megaphone and tell absolutely everyone. I’ve already changed my Instagram handle to Strictly 2022. The response has been amazing. I was trying to be open-minded about who I wanted to be partnered with but deep down I wanted Nikita.”

She’s been getting advice about Strictly from Paralympic tennis player Will Bayley, who was in the 2019 series.

“He’s been giving me some really good advice about soaking it all in,” she says. “Yes, it’s competitive, but don’t be too competitive and enjoy every moment. He said it would go quickly. I love the fast dances. I’m quite energetic and I love upbeat things, upbeat music, when you go out with your friends dancing. I’ve got the shoulder strut!”

And while it is nothing to do with her height, Ellie isn’t immune from being self-conscious about her body while wearing the revealing costumes. During her Paralympic training, Ellie would swim nine times a week for 18 hours, but all that has stopped.

She says, “I’ve typically put on weight since retiring last year. Being an athlete and being a woman, you’re very conscious of your body and the insecurities of that, so I was thinking going into Strictly, ‘I want to cover everything up,’ but then when I was trying the costumes on I ended up trying the crop tops and stuff, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I love this!’”

Ellie’s honesty is one of her defining traits, along with her unwavering positivity. When asked what dwarfism means to her, she profoundly responds, “It means me. I’m very proud to be disabled and living with dwarfism. I can’t change myself. All I’ve known is being small and adapting and being aware. Dwarfism has never stopped me from doing anything.

"It’s made me stronger and more determined. I’m a very competitive and determined individual. Living with dwarfism you have to go that extra mile, you have to adapt, you have to focus more – it’s helped me to become a Paralympian, the person, the Ellie Simmonds I am today.

Ellie will be the seventh disabled celebrity to take part in the show and praises Strictly’s inclusivity after struggling to find representation she could relate to on TV while growing up.

“It’s very important,” she says. “Strictly is a prime-time show and come September, in the lead up to Christmas, everyone watches it, so it’s so important they are inclusive. When I was a kid I don’t remember seeing anyone with a disability on TV.

“It shows if I can do it – and I’ve seen the likes of Rose [Ayling-Ellis] who’s changing the world of disability and inclusivity – then people watching at home can adapt it to them, too. Yes, I’m nervous about what it’s going to be like. Nikita and I were chatting about it yesterday and we’re going to just see. It might look different, and my partner’s going to be tall and we’re probably not going to be able to hold the same poses, but I’m sure it’s going to work.”

So does Ellie think she can bring home the Glitterball to join her royal awards and Olympic medals?

“One of the things I’m nervous about is not getting votes and being in the dance-off,” she says. “If I got the Glitterball it would go in my house in Cheshire. I’d put it in my office on my desk."

Strictly is on Saturdays on BBC One and iPlayer


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