When I spoke to Ellen – less than a week before she got on the plane to fly out to Tokyo to compete in the PR3 mixed coxed four – I was pleasantly surprised by how overwhelmingly positive she was about the situation she had found herself in at such a young age.
Ellen is 26 years old now and is preparing for the biggest couple of weeks of her life rowing for Team GB, but it was a trip to the opticians followed by a referral to the hospital seven years ago that changed everything for her.
Ellen was attending Northumbria University when her vision began to get worse, and she was later referred to hospital to discover that she needed more than just new glasses, as she had first assumed.
“I had been to an eye hospital in Leeds previously and they said I was just working my eyes too hard,” Ellen told me. Thinking back to that seemed to make her chuckle a little.
“I obviously knew that wasn’t the case and eventually, after a while, I ended up with the diagnosis of Stargardt disease.”
Stargardt macular degeneration is a genetic eye disorder that causes progressive vision loss. During a period in her life where she was enjoying life at university, studying for her degree and constantly improving on her rowing, Ellen had just found out her vision was going to get worse and at this point in our chat she didn’t even sound too phased by the thought of it.
This could have engulfed Ellen in worry and fear, but instead her immediate thoughts went straight to the Paralympics. The disease Ellen had just been diagnosed with wasn’t going to be a problem for her – it had given her an opportunity to represent her country and to eventually compete on the world’s biggest stage - and that is what she about to do.
Ellen had dreams of representing Team GB at the Olympics after she got into rowing through a learn-to-row course during the week of the London 2012 Olympics – her ambitions knew no bounds after she became hooked following weekends spent watching the boats on the lake in Roundhay Park.
“I had seen the boat race on TV and I had also seen people rowing in Roundhay Park and I thought I could probably do that,” Ellen admitted.
“I knew you had to be quite tall and I was about the right height so it seemed a great idea to me.
“I went on the waiting list and I was on that for a year and that’s where it started for me.”
Ellen continued to row at university and fell in love with the lifestyle surrounding her newfound passion, training with Leeds Rowing Club and studying for her degree alongside it.
When Ellen received her diagnosis seven years ago, it was only a minor obstacle in what was a dream of hers to live and breathe the sport; do her family and friends proud and bring back her medals to a proud Leeds Rowing Club. It was never going to stop her but only motivate her more.
In day-to-day life the loss of her vision caused more problems such as driving and reading her textbooks, but sitting in a boat put Ellen at ease and her muscle memory made everything a lot simpler.
Bar a short break, Ellen continued to row and has since become a two-time world champion – an achievement that seemed even more impressive when she told me that for her first victory she didn’t get into the boat until around three months before the World Championships.
Due to an injury in the team, she had found himself thrown in at the deep end in the January and up until she was awarded that gold medal she had spent her weeks commuting from Leeds to training in Reading, going back and forth ‘living out of a bag’ – but she assured me it was all worth it.
“The second time [I won gold] I had moved down here full-time and I was determined to break the world record to prove to myself that I could do it,” Ellen explained.
“We did it and it felt brilliant and it meant we qualified for Tokyo too.
“The people I was rowing with had been to Rio and were Paralympic champions so I knew I had to step up and be on their level and that’s what I did.
“It was the best moment ever for me.”
All of Ellen’s hard work, determination and positivity has all built up to this week – where she will compete in the PR3 mixed coxed four on August 27th and, hopefully, the final on August 29th.
Although, when I asked Ellen about her chances of winning gold this weekend, there was no ‘hopefully’ about it. She was bringing that medal back to Leeds.
“Since I was diagnosed, winning gold at the Paralympics was always my goal and I don’t even know what it is going to feel like when I achieve that,” She said.
“Leeds Rowing Club have never had any international athletes before so I think to bring back a medal for them will be an exceptional moment.
“Bringing it back to Leeds will probably be even better than actually getting it in Tokyo.”
It was then that Ellen told me of her plans for when she returned to the UK from Japan. At this point in our conversation it didn’t at all surprise me that she was thinking so far ahead.
Ellen loved a challenge and even becoming a Paralympic champion wasn’t going to satisfy her.
“When I get back home I will be starting my Master’s degree three weeks later,” She began.
“I will try and relax for a bit before that then focus on getting into the academic head space, then do my Master’s, train and then I would like to be selected for the 2024 Paralympics in Paris.
“I think if I was able to pursue two things at once – do my Master’s and get selected for Paris – then that would be a huge achievement for me.
“It will be really difficult for me but I really want to do it and in the end it will make my life a lot more enjoyable.”
Ellen Buttrick’s attitude towards her disability and her determination to succeed in what she loves is extremely admirable and the 26-year-old is a credit to our city, no matter what the outcome is in Tokyo this weekend.
Good luck to Ellen and the rest of Team GB – we will be cheering you on!