Ellie was dead for two minutes. Next week she'll be swimming for Britain at the Paralympics
CUTE as a button, miracle tot Ellie Challis melted the nation’s hearts when she proudly showed off her prosthetic legs on The Sun’s front page 15 years ago.
Now the determined 17-year-old is preparing to represent Great Britain in swimming at the Tokyo Paralympics.
Ellie’s story is one of courage, strength, a formidable attitude — and her belief, “There’s always a way”.
The youngest competitor in the British squad, Ellie said: “My dad thought I’d never walk again. Now I’m representing my country at the Paralympics.
“I’m going to go out there and do my best and enjoy every minute of it. I can’t wait to get started.”
Ellie, who has a twin sister Sophie, contracted meningitis aged 16 months and was given just a five per cent chance of survival.
Her dad 57-year-old dad Paul, who is divorced from Ellie’s mum Lisa, said: “It’s the word any parent dreads — meningitis.
‘She was such a happy-go-lucky girl’
“She actually died for two minutes. Her heart stopped. We were in the room when she was flat-lining. It was that close.
“She was in a coma for five weeks and the only thing you can hope for is that she survives.
“Her fingertips and toes started to turn black, then you could see it rising up and up.”
Ellie was transferred from St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, West London to Broomfields Hospital in Chelmsford, Essex, in September 2005.
Four days later she had both legs amputated above the knee and both arms removed below the elbow due to septicaemia. She spent a further 17 days in hospital before returning home.
Paul, who gave up his job as an area manager for bookie Ladbrokes to be Ellie’s full-time carer, said: “For the first three months we were back in hospital almost every other day. It was almost constant appointments, check-ups and physiotherapy.”
But Ellie’s incredible spirit made the journey so much easier.
A wilful baby right from the start, she learned to walk at just nine months, long before her twin sister.
She got her first set of £20,000 prosthetic legs when she was three, funded by generous friends and neighbours in Rainham, Essex, who would post cash through Paul’s letterbox
When their parents’ backs were turned, she would empty cereal packets on to the kitchen floor so she and Sophie could munch away.
Paul added: “Ellie was a little bugger, in the nicest possible way. She is such a happy-go-lucky girl. Her attitude is, there’s always a way of doing something.”
She got her first set of £20,000 prosthetic legs when she was three, funded by generous friends and neighbours in Rainham, Essex, who would post cash through Paul’s letterbox even though the family had never made any appeal for help.
And the whole nation was rooting for Ellie after The Sun featured the inspiring image of her in her adorable pink dress, tongue poking out in concentration, walking on her new legs on December 7, 2006.
Paul said: “It’s amazing to see that picture again and think about how far she’s come.”
Ellie never saw her disability as a barrier. At Engaines Primary School, Little Clacton, Ellie played football against her able-bodied friends. Then, at 14, she became the first British quadruple amputee to master snowboarding.
Ellie, who has two step-siblings from Paul’s previous relationship, told BBC Sport: “I’ve got older brothers and sisters so I’ve grown up as the same as them and I’ve learned to do everything by myself.
“Sport, for me, was the way to be involved with people. Everyone assumes you can’t do a lot until they actually meet you.”
One of her most recent achievements is mastering tying up her long, blonde hair.
She added: “I want to do things everyone says I can’t, just to prove them wrong.” Ellie was taught to swim by Paul on family holidays.
He would take her up to the pool edge in her wheelchair and tip her in — to the amazement of onlookers.
He said: “You’d hear everyone gasp. By the time she popped up on the surface, she was half a length across.”
In 2015, a chance meeting at their local Pizza Hut put Ellie in touch with a disabled swimming club.
Two years later she started competing, and two years after that she joined the GB regional squad.
In April 2019, at an international para-swimming meet in Glasgow, Ellie broke the British and European record for butterfly and the world record for breaststroke.
Months later she won a bronze medal at the world para-swimming championships in London. At that point Ellie had her eyes set on the Paralympics, which should have been held in 2020. Then the pandemic hit.
‘I’ll be an absolute wreck watching her’
Paul said: “We were lucky because I bought a nine-metre by four-metre pool for the garden quite early on.
“We had three taps running to fill it and the company forgot the heating element, so it took four days before Ellie could manage just a couple of lengths without freezing.
“She practised in that for six weeks and did about six miles on her hand bike every day.” When the announcement was made that the Games would be delayed until this year, she only allowed herself to dwell for a short time before reasoning: “Well, I’ll be a faster swimmer by then.”
She will compete for ParalympicsGB in four individual events in Tokyo.
Her biggest inspiration is para-swimmer Ellie Simmonds, who at 13 was the youngest athlete in the team at Beijing in 2008 and will be competing in her fourth Paralympics in Tokyo, hoping to add to her five gold medals.
But Ellie herself is incredible. As Dr Simon Nadel, who helped save her life in the hospital in 2005, said: “For some patients, even just to get up and walk or go to school is a great feat.
“For her to achieve what she has achieved is remarkable.” A fan of Ed Sheeran and boxer Anthony Joshua, Ellie is studying baking at college and hopes to one day open her own cake shop.
Paul, who moved to Manchester with Ellie so she could train at the National Performance Centre, says: “Ellie is enjoying every minute. She sounds very relaxed and she’ll come out to the blocks with a big smile on her face.
“She no longer tells me her training times or whether she’s got a chance of a medal.
“I’ll be an absolute wreck watching her.
“I couldn’t be more proud of everything she’s achieved.”
Five more of our Team GB Paralympians to watch out for
TABLE tennis star Will is the defending paralympian champ.
The 2014 world champion from Tunbridge Wells, Kent, was born with arthrogryposis which limits movement in all four of his limbs.
He has recovered from a knee injury which he sustained in rehearsals for Strictly in 2019.
Will, 33, said: “I’m playing the best table tennis of my career.”
Will, 33, said: “I’m playing the best table tennis of my career.”
DAME SARAH STOREY
WITH 14 gold medals, Dame Sarah, is our most successful female Paralympian.
She was born without a functioning left hand and started out as a swimmer.
In Tokyo she will defend her Individual Pursuit, Time Trial and Road Race titles.
Manchester-born Sarah, 43, needs two golds to match Mike Kenny’s British Paralympic record.
THE para-athlete hopes to defend his T44 200m titles, which he won in London and Rio.
Richard, 45, from Nottingham, also got a silver medal in the T42 100m in 2016.
He completed 40 marathons in 40 days in 2013 – becoming the first double-leg amputee to run that distance – and hopes to compete in the 2024 Games in Paris.
THE wheelchair racer has five golds from her two Paralympics.
In May she bettered her world records in the 100 metres, 200m, 400m and 800m events.
Hurricane Hannah, 29, from Halifax, West Yorks, suffered two cardiac arrests at birth that left her with brain damage, weak hips, deformed feet and legs, and mobility issues.
SIR LEE PEARSON
THE 47-year-old equestrian star has amassed an impressive haul of 11 Paralympic golds, two silvers and one bronze from five previous Games and will be hoping to add to that tally.
Sir Lee, from Cheddleton, Staffs, is considered the most recognisable face in Para Dressage, earning him the nickname “The Godfather”.
He was born with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, which meant his muscles didn’t grow in the womb and the movement in his joints is limited.
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