The 29-year-old from Sydney was diagnosed with a rare nerve cancer at the age of two after her parents noticed her legs were growing at different rates.
A few months later when a lump was found behind her knee, Ellie Cole was rushed to hospital and a biopsy diagnosed her with neurosarcoma.
Growing up in Melbourne, Ellie had no idea the amputation would lead to her making world championships and the Paralympic team at just 14.
As a toddler, she had chemotherapy trials for a year but ‘nothing worked’ to effectively target the cancer.
‘My hair was falling out, I was a restless and my parents decided it wasn’t an ideal way for a three-year-old to live – so they chose to amputate,’ she said.
Ellie was fit with a prosthetic leg straight after surgery to reduce the swelling.
‘Apparently I came out of surgery, looked under the sheet and saw two legs, so I thought everything was normal – but when the doctors took the prosthetic foot off to change the shoe that’s when the penny dropped,’ she laughed.
Only two days later, Ellie stood for the first time wearing the prosthetic leg and learnt how to walk again not long after.
Ellie’s mum, Jenny, enrolled her in swimming lessons and instructors predicted it would take her 12 months to learn how to swim, but it took the youngster only two weeks.
Bullying wasn’t an issue for Ellie – she was never treated differently by other kids and her friends were always ‘very supportive’.
‘I wasn’t exceptional at the start but I set a high bar for myself and worked hard to improve from seven years old,’ she said.
Ellie graduated from the Learn To Swim program alongside her twin sister Brittany and then started club swimming to train like an athlete at the age of 10.
The next ‘step up’ was squad swimming and competitive swimming carnivals most weekends.
Her first official competition was racing against Paralympic athletes at the state championships.
‘I remember driving to the event saying I was going to win and come home with a gold medal – but I came last and cried on the way home,’ she laughed.
The loss made Ellie realise she needed to work harder if she ever wanted to win gold and she increased her training to three times a week.
The hard work paid off after she made the national championships at age 13.
The following year in 2006 she made the Australian world championship swim team and set off to South Africa to compete.
‘I came home with a silver medal, which was crazy, and the time I swam was only three seconds slower than what I swam in Tokyo,’ she said.
In 2008 at age 16 she made the Paralympic team in Beijing and won silver and two bronze medals, and from 2010 she moved to the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra to focus on the world championships.
‘We were training 50 hours a week, but it was all worth it because I came home from the London Paralympics with four gold and two bronze medals in 2012,’ she said.
She won gold in the 4x100m freestyle, 100m backstroke and 100m freestyle, and won bronze in the 50m and 400m freestyle.
‘You always imagine what it’s going to feel like winning gold, and for me it was a huge sense of relief because I had put so much pressure on myself,’ she said.
Ellie has now become the most ‘decorated female Paralympian’ in Australian history.
Ellie recalled how when she was younger people would feel embarrassed after realising she only had one leg, but since then the stigma around disability has shifted and she’s noticed people ‘aren’t afraid to talk about it’.
‘My biggest goal since becoming a Paralympian is to reduce the stigma around disability,’ she said.