Paralympian Cole on her fourth Games and the movement's evolution

Australia's Ellie Cole will contest her fourth Paralympic Games in Tokyo Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

As Paralympian Ellie Cole lay in hospital with a broken hip, it suddenly dawned on her.

"I have four months to get ready for Tokyo."

A feeling of dread then came over the Australian swimmer as she thought of the recovery process.

The chance to make her fourth Paralympic Games and add to her 15 medal haul seemed slim.

In that moment Cole thought of athletics star Jana Pitman, who'd miraculously returned from a knee injury in time for Athens 2004. In those memories she found comfort.

"I was thinking about all the athletes that had been injured before and managed to turn it around to race," Cole told ESPN.

But two weeks later hope came in a different form as the extraordinary happened.

The Tokyo Games were delayed due to the COVID-19 crisis.

"I was very much looking forward to having an extra year to prepare for the Games," Cole said.

"It's been like that for some, but very detrimental for others. At the end of the day, for the Paralympics it's very much leave your baggage at the door and race the best you can."

Cole was fortunate in that the break was in a movable bone, meaning she could still swim and continue her training for Tokyo. The biggest setback was an inability to weightbear on that side.

The now four-time Paralympian found the recovery journey "fun" as it created variation to her training.

It's an odd statement at first thought but after 15 years of international swimming, the challenge only made Cole hungrier for more.

"It was a really interesting challenge, I enjoyed this which is a very strange thing to say," she said.

"It changed things up in my training and almost made me hungrier to find new ways to train and adapt to that, while also adapting in the coronavirus pandemic. It was just whole new stuff for me."

Following a Paralympic cycle like no other, 29-year-old Cole headlines Australia's 32-strong swimming team for the Tokyo Games.

Six-time Paralympic gold medalist Cole will seek to add to her collection in the 100m freestyle, 400m freestyle, 100m backstroke and two relays.

She is the reigning Paralympic champion for the latter individual event.

Cole is classified in the S9 category in swimming due to an amputation in her right leg, which occurred when she was two years old to treat a rare sarcoma.

She started swimming as part of her rehabilitation just eight weeks after surgery. It ignited her love for the sport and thus began a decades-long journey to four Games.

In that time the Paralympic movement has grown massively, a phenomenon captured by the 2020 Netflix documentary Rising Phoenix in which Cole featured.

There's also now Paralympic Barbies and toys with physical impairments. Cole bought one of those dolls for her niece and paints its prosthetic black with an Australian flag, making it look like hers.

"To be able to see the Paralympics, Rising Phoenix, adaptive sports and toys, everything like that - the world for me in terms of disability is definitely moving in the right direction," Cole said.

"I never had that when I was a kid. I didn't even know the Paralympics existed and now there's Barbies in wheelchairs and prosthetics, it's unbelievable how much the world has changed and become more accepting of people with differences.

"Because when I was younger, I was outcast a little bit for having a disability and I knew what it felt like to be different. And it can be quite detrimental, especially for young kids' mental health.

"It's human nature for people to put others into a box. Seeing kids sending me stick-figure drawing of people in wheelchairs on top of medal podiums has been life changing.

"Kids these days are seeing that you can be a champion and have a disability at the same time."

The Paralympics will return to centre stage when the Games begin this week. It comes as welcome viewing for the millions of Australians stuck in lockdown amid the delta-variant outbreak.

About 20 million Australians tuned in to watch the Olympics coverage across the Seven Network platforms, making it the biggest digital event in the nation's television history.

So while there won't be fans filling the stands at Tokyo Aquatics Centre, Cole takes comfort in knowing the country is behind her as they watch the Games from home.

"When I found out the Olympics and Paralympics were going to be the first overall televised on equal terms, it reminded me of watching The Crown and when Queen Elizabeth had her wedding televised. I was like, 'oh my gosh, the world is moving in a different direction,'" Cole said.

"It's going to be a very interesting Games not having a crowd there for the first time because that's one of the special moments, walking out and 15,000 people are there.

"I think it's kind of cool in a way because it lets the athlete internalize what the race is going to mean for them without those external distractions, their mind isn't going to be bouncing around.

"It's going to be like; take a deep breath, it's quiet and only you out there. Which I think is cool and different as well, I think you can tell I like different things."

As Australia's swimmers claimed a record nine gold, three silver and eight bronze at the Olympics, Cole and her Paralympic teammates continued their training in Cairns.

She told her friends, Australian swimmers Cate and Bronte Campbell, they would be the Paralympians' guinea pigs to see how the logisitics of the Games played out.

As well as having the Campbell sisters in her corner, the Sydney-based swimmer has had decorated Olympian Dawn Fraser as a mentor on the road to Tokyo. The icon's influence has Cole enjoying swimming more than ever before.

"She is so funny. She is very passionate about swimming still, every time she sees me she smacks my forearms and says 'these need to get bigger... you need to do better in your last 25'. She's watching everything and giving a lot of advice," Cole said.

"She has become a very important cheering teammate for my family, they come to all the trials and local competitions.

"It's quite funny. I touch the wall and look over at my mum who is standing with my grandma, and it's those two and Dawn.

"She just gets involved with the athletes on a personal level as well as a professional level. She's definitely going to be around the Australian pool deck no matter how long she stays around for.

"One of the things I look forward to most is seeing her for sure."

Cole will launch her Tokyo campaign with the 400m freestyle - S9 - heats on Wednesday morning, with the final to take place that evening. She'll then turn her focus to defending her gold medal in the 100m backstroke - S9 - the following Monday and the 100m freestyle on Tuesday, August 31.