By Oliver Lees
Gold medallist Ashleigh McConnell will be aiming for another podium finish at this year’s Paralympic Games, following the announcement she will represent Australia once again on swimming’s biggest stage.
This will be the second time the Sunbury resident has represented Australia at the Paralympic Games after she took out gold in the women’s 4×100 metre freestyle at Rio in 2016.
Alongside Ellie Cole, Maddison Elliott and Lakeisha Patterson, that women’s relay team set a new world record within the event.
McConnell said her focus this year is to improve her individual racing.
“It’s pretty exciting,” she said.
“I’ve had success in relay swims but individually I wasn’t where I wanted to be. I feel like this time around that is my biggest goal.”
McConnell has qualified for the 100 metre freestyle within classification S9 of the paralympic system and may also be selected for the relay team depending on her form leading up to the games.
McConnell started her swimming journey at the Sunbury Swimming Club as a junior.
She said it was in her teenage years when she started to consider swimming at a professional level.
“Probably around the time I went away on my first junior national team at the Arafura Games in Darwin when I was 15-years-old,” she said.
“It was that competition where I was performing really well that I thought I could represent Australia at some stage.”
McConnell went on to compete for qualification at the London Paralympic Games in 2012, but narrowly missed selection by 0.12 seconds.
“Missing out on the team like that really lit a fire in me to make it next time,” she said.
The 23-year-old has since notched a number of accolades, such as reaching the women’s 50m and 100m freestyle S9 finals at Rio, and receiving a bronze medal in the women’s 100m backstroke S9 at the Commonwealth Games in 2018.
Last week the International Olympic Committee announced that up to 10,000 spectators will be allowed at venues, but a decision on crowds at the Paralympic Games has been postponed until July 16.
McConnell said although COVID-19 restrictions had affected her preparations she doesn’t see it impacting her racing.
“Coming from Melbourne my preparation has definitely changed because I haven’t been able to train, whereas many of my competitors have been,” she said.
“The change in crowd hasn’t affected how I’m imagining the games. It will definitely seem empty because usually the Australian crowds are very vocal like at Rio, but it’s hard to know how that will affect my performance.
“Overall it’s just very lucky that it’s even going ahead.”
McConnell said even at a professional level, she’s motivated more by personal development than acquiring accolades.
“I enjoy training more than I enjoy competing,” she said.
“It’s all just so much fun to me, it’s the people that you meet along the way that make the experience.
“I’ll be happy coming home having swam my best, if I can get a personal best and it lands me a medal then that’s great. But that’s not the most important thing.”