Swimming star Ellie Simmonds believes reality television and the Black Lives Matter movement have each contributed to improving the image of the Paralympics.
Simmonds is preparing to lead her country into Tokyo 2020 after being chosen as one of Great Britain’s flagbearers for Tuesday’s opening ceremony alongside archer John Stubbs.
The 26-year-old, who has bone growth disorder achondroplasia, will compete at her fourth Games having already won eight medals, including five golds, across appearances in Beijing, London and Rio.
She feels the perception of disability has changed significantly during that time, citing mainstream exposure of Para athletes and the rise of protest campaigns demanding equality as major factors.
“Even before Beijing, people thought I was going to special Olympics; the Paralympics and disabilities were still under wraps really,” said Simmonds, who was just 13 when she made her debut in China in 2008. “People didn’t really know what it was.
“Disabilities – and especially the Paralympics – were brought into height in London 2012 and the Paralympic movement and disability has just crept up and it’s just amazing to see – it’s been showcased and it’s amazing.
“It’s not just achondroplasia or different disabilities in sport but it’s also now in other things: you had Jonnie (Peacock), you had Lauren (Steadman), you had Will (Bayley) in Strictly (Come Dancing), you had Hollie (Arnold) in I’m a Celebrity (Get Me Out of Here).
“There’s so many athletes out there with disabilities in reality TV and that’s so good for all different disabilities.
“And not just in those types of reality TV (programmes) but seeing it on TV, so kids growing up are more aware that there are so many different people.
“I think also we’ve seen the rise about it being OK to be different, the likes of Black Lives Matter, the acceptance of all that, the change, the protest and the awareness of there are so many different people out there.”
Simmonds arrived in Japan as defending champion in the 200m individual medley.
The S6 swimmer will bid for a third-successive title in that event on Thursday and is also scheduled to enter the 100m breaststroke and 400m freestyle.
She admits even the prospect of joining the exclusive list of British flagbearers made her teary eyed before being left speechless on Sunday when she received confirmation from chef de mission Penny Briscoe.
“My performance director Chris (Furber) rang me before coming out to the holding camp into the (athletes’) village and asked if I would like to be nominated, because every sport normally nominates an athlete who they think would like to carry the flag,” she said.
“I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, yes’. I was driving – hands-free, of course – but really a bit teary to be honest.
“I was just a bit emotional that I even got asked because in the past, I’ve seen the greats like Chris Hoy carrying the flag in London 2012 and Lee Pearson in the Paralympics and all those amazing athletes, who are great athletes and who have carried the flags – the best of the best.
“(When it was confirmed), I was just in awe and just didn’t have any words. It’s been a challenging year and to be carrying the flag for absolutely everyone, it’s just a huge honour.”
Simmonds has established herself as one of the country’s most recognisable Paralympians during the past 13 years.
However, despite her vast experience and hefty haul of medals, she says the burden of competing at elite level is greater than ever.
“As an older woman now, I feel the pressure more, I feel all those different aspects, I’m more aware of that,” she said.
“Whereas as a 13-year-old, as a 17-year-old, you just do swimming, you’re just doing it as sport where you don’t really think of all the outside bits.
“I’m more aware of those types of challenges now and I work with the psychologist really well.
“For me, these Games are just about going out there, racing, enjoying it, doing the best I can and just being happy and soaking it all in.”