Teenager Ella Benn has lost part of her left leg, and part of her right lung, to cancer. But, with the guidance of a Paralympic legend, she’s determined to be a swimming star in her own right.
Ella Benn doesn’t want to be known as the next Sophie Pascoe.
But it’s so easy to draw the comparisons.
Like Pascoe, 15-year-old Benn has had part of her left leg amputated – hers through bone cancer.
Benn, too, is a powerful swimmer, a New Zealand record holder, who was inspired by Pascoe to dive into the pool. The nine-time Paralympic gold medallist visited the then nine-year-old while she was undergoing chemotherapy in Christchurch Hospital, and has been a mentor to the teenager ever since.
Benn also has a couple of pairs of Pascoe’s racing togs, which she wore at the national short course championships earlier this month, setting personal best times in them. She’d like to think a little of Pascoe’s magic rubbed off.
And Benn actually was Pascoe in a TV ad for Rebel Sport, acting as the teenage Sophie.
“That was cool, but looking back at it now, a lot of people we’re saying ‘Oh she’s the next Sophie Pascoe’. And when I was younger, that’s who I wanted to be,” she says.
“But now I just want to be the first Ella Benn. Because there’s only one Sophie and only one Ella.”
Benn has dreams of winning her own Paralympic gold. And her realistic aim is the 2024 Paralympics in Paris.
Pascoe says Benn reminds her of herself when she was younger – a talented, hard-working and motivated athlete who “isn’t letting anything get in her way of achieving her goals and dreams”.
Although Benn knows she still has to shave a couple of seconds off her times to become a world-class swimmer, she says she’s up for the challenge. And she’s certainly faced greater tests in her lifetime, and passed them.
At nine, Benn was a talented young runner. Soon after she moved to New Zealand from Lancashire – with her parents, Andy and Sandi, in 2013 – she represented Canterbury in cross country.
But she ran in that national championships race with her left knee strapped, and in pain. She thought she’d injured it training. As her knee continued to swell, an x-ray revealed she had osteosarcoma – a tumour in her left femur.
She started chemotherapy treatment soon after, and in January 2014, made the decision to have Van Nes rotationplasty – removing her leg above the knee, and reattaching the ankle and foot, rotated 180 degrees, to the femur.
The Benn family call the new leg Little Anee – “because my ankle is now my knee”, Ella explains.
“The doctors would come in and say: ‘How’s your stump?’ And I didn’t like that.”
“Psychologists we’ve spoken to say it’s a lovely thing to do, to name the little leg,” dad Andy Benn says. “Little Anee, she’s just part of the family now. She has her own birthday too, in January each year.”
Little Anee helps Benn balance on the starting blocks before a race. ‘She’ also helps Benn to wear a prosthetic leg, and to compete in other sports.
At the weekend’s Halberg Games – the annual three-day sporting event for physically disabled or visually impaired young athletes – Benn competed in discus and shot put, archery and rowing, on top of her swimming schedule. In her free time, she likes to ski and knee board.
Benn had learned to swim before she was diagnosed with cancer. “When I was a baby, I really liked swimming – though I have to admit I refused to go down the deep end,” she laughs. “But it was running, cross country, that was my first love.
“When I was in hospital and they were removing my leg I knew that didn’t completely shut the door on running. But there was that mental barrier there, that I wasn’t going to be the same runner I used to be. And I thought I’m not going to do the same things I used to do.
“I’m definitely a better swimmer now than when I had two legs. Losing my leg definitely opened the door to my swimming career.”
The first time Benn met Pascoe helped define that career.
“She’s been a very good role model for me, ever since I was in hospital having chemo and she came to visit. The thing that inspired me to be a swimmer was seeing how amazing she was,” says Benn, who swam during her nine months of chemo to try to keep fit.
“I got to hold a Paralympics gold medal of hers. I looked at it and instantly went ‘I want one of these for myself’.
“I’ve seen her over the years at different events, and she will always give me a bit of advice and tell me my racing is going good. She recently gave me a couple of her racing togs, which have had some good use.”
Benn has now reached the stage where she is swimming in the same races with Pascoe. At the AON NZ Open championships in Auckland in June, where Pascoe shattered four world records, Benn swam in the lane next to Pascoe in a couple of races.
She won bronze in the 200m individual medley, behind Pascoe and fellow Paralympian Tupou Neiufi.
“It was really cool, not only be in the lane next to Sophie, but to hear she’s broken a world record right next to you. And you want to think, maybe she’s trying to keep going faster so I can’t catch her,” Benn says.
Pascoe, naturally, is happy to see Benn catching her up.
“Ella has already proven to the world she’s a strong and courageous person by overcoming cancer,” she says, from a holiday in Morocco. “She’s shown her hard-working and motivated attitude in and out of the pool, always with her infectious smile, and isn’t letting anything get in her way of achieving her goals and dreams – which reminds me of my younger self.
“Ella is the epitome of the up-and-coming Para development we have coming through in New Zealand, which is humbling to see grow in a small country, yet see so successful on the world stage. I look forward to watching Ella take on the world.”
A Year 11 student at Rolleston College in Christchurch, Benn is starting to make her own mark in the water.
At the national short course champs earlier this month, she won four gold and five silver medals, and set two New Zealand records. “It was a very successful week,” she says.
She swims all strokes, and her favoured events are over distance. “I’m more the longer freestyle swimmer, because I’m able to keep up the pace and I have the stamina for it,” she says. “I think I transferred that stamina from cross country to swimming. I get tired, but it’s not like I’m swimming a long way.”
Benn is managing to do it with reduce lung capacity, too. She’s had two surgeries to remove two tumours in her right lung. But, each time, it was only a matter of days before she was back in the pool again.
She still has six-monthly scans, and got the all-clear at the most recent scan last month. But she has been hospitalised twice in the last two years with cellulitis ‘of Little Anee’. It’s swimming that has helped her mentally through her long list of medical procedures.
“When I was in my treatment after my lung surgery, having immunotherapy trying to get all of [the cancer] gone, it was swimming that helped me get through,” she says. “Even now, no matter what mood I’m in, swimming is always there for me. Being in the pool allows me to think about a lot of things. It clears my mind.”
Benn was one of the first two recipients of the ISPS Handa talent scholarship last year, along with track and field athlete Alyssa Baxter. The scholarship helps cover costs for Para athletes to compete internationally for the first time.
Benn used hers to compete at the Victoria Open in Melbourne, where she swam personal bests in every race. Up against older, more experienced Para swimmers, she was thrilled to finish 11th in the 400m free and 12th in the 100m free, just missing the finals in both.
“That scholarship meant a lot to me. I never thought of myself as a particularly good athlete. I was one of those athletes if I got a PB I’d say, it wasn’t the PB that I wanted,” she says.
“The award opened my eyes to the fact that I am getting there; people are noticing my achievements and they’re wanting to give me help.”
She’s part of the national Paralympic Potential squad and now that she has an international classification she hopes to do more international meets next year, aiming for the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
“Now I can see where I’m going and I know I’m almost there. It’s kind of scary, but you’ve just got to put your head down and do the work to get there,” she says.
Her dad, who takes her to training at the Selwyn Aquatic Centre most days where she’s coached by Ben Close, can attest to her phenomenal work-rate.
“These kids, they do the same distance as able-bodied swimmers. But whether they’ve got half a leg, or only one arm, they train so much harder,” Andy Benn says. “And then their recovery has to be longer, but that’s not always factored in. These guys put so much more effort in.”
While Ella Benn’s dream is to win a Paralympic gold medal of her own, what’s more important to her, she says, is inspiring other Para athletes.
“Knowing you’re inspiring kids to do what they love and dream of would be better than any gold medal you could win,” she says. “Knowing that you’re one of the reasons they took up a new sport, or tried out for a new team.
“I’ve been to the Halberg Games three times now, and when I came here for the first time, they were about me feeling more comfortable in myself and with my disability. When I’d just had my operation, I didn’t know anybody. It was quite scary, having to figure it all out myself and with my family.
“But, coming to these Games, I saw other people with one leg missing it made me feel okay. Now these Games to me are about seeing other athletes and what inspires them. The kids running around not caring about anything; they don’t feel any different.
“It makes me happy to see everyone else so happy.”