“I found out what makes me tick as well as what works best for me in the pool. I’m a more rounded person for that experience”
They had called her a superhuman, so Ellie Simmonds went swimming with sharks.
She flew to the coast of Mexico and dived in with an assortment of the whale, blacktip reef and tiger varieties.
Later she would jet ski on full throttle then head to dry land and abseil down the wall of a castle.
It is an all-action image which sits well with host broadcaster Channel 4’s stunning Superhumans trailers for the past three Paralympics.
But, in truth, Simmonds felt less than super.
Since the age of 13, when she became the youngest athlete at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, she had known only competitive swimming.
Two gold medals in China made her the poster girl for London 2012, where she won two more. By Rio the weight of expectation was becoming too much, though she still delivered gold number five.
She knew that if she was to make it to Tokyo she must get off the treadmill and clear her head.
“I had made my international debut when I was 12 and went into 2016 as a 21-year-old,” said Simmonds. “I’d been in the sport for 10 years as a swimmer, a school kid then a student.
“My days, weeks and months were mapped out: waking up, going swimming, going to school. All I knew was me as an athlete. I was ready to be free from that routine, be a bit normal.”
At that point she did not know whether she had it in her to get to Tokyo. Her batteries flat, she opted for a year out to recharge.
“Being an athlete is a very regimented life, you have to make a lot of sacrifices,” she said, detailing her daily ritual of 4.50am alarm call, catch the first tube, swim for two hours before office hours even begin. “Finally I was able to wake up and think ‘what shall I do today?’
“I booked plane tickets, I was able to say yes to my friends’ weddings, to treat myself to a glass of Prosecco and figure myself out, not just as Ellie Simmonds the swimmer but Ellie Simmonds the person.
“I pushed my boundaries a little bit. I didn’t do anything too crazy, though the abseiling was quite scary. I swam, but only with the sharks, or under a waterfall!”
Away from the treadmill of elite competition, Simmonds found the headspace to “rediscover the love for what I do”. It gave her a second wind.
“As a 21-year-old it’s about finding that maturity, finding your path in life,” she added. “Growing yourself as a human.
“I found out what makes me tick as well as what works best for me in the pool. I’m a more rounded person for that experience.”
The upshot is that Simmonds, 26, is in Japan and on Thursday bids for a hat-trick of Paralympic titles in the 200m individual medley, one of three events in which she is entered.
“I’ve been to three Paras and achieved so much already,” she said. “For me this Games I just want to soak it all in, every second of every moment.”
Five times Paralympic gold medallist Ellie Simmonds is a Team Speedo athlete