Ellen Buttrick: Leeds Rowing Club starlet sets golden standard with Paralympic gold medal
The measure of a person can often be how they react to adversity.
When 19-year-old Ellen Buttrick was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, a juvenile macular degeneration in her eyes that means she has central vision loss and can only see peripherally, there was no feeling sorry for herself.
The first thought that entered the head of the Leeds teenager was how can I turn this into a positive?
“I saw it as an opportunity rather than getting held up on the negative,” Buttrick, now 26, tells the YEP.
“It was challenging, but when I heard about it straight away I was like: ‘right, I can row at a Paralympics’, so I’ve just been set on that for so long.”
She would have been forgiven for wondering ‘why me?’. Stargardt disease is a genetic condition and yet no one in her family had ever had it before. Also, it develops in people up to the age of 19. Buttrick was 19 when she got it.
“I was nearly clear of it,” she laughs, ruefully, as if talking about missing the No 10 bus and having to wait 30 minutes for the next one, not a visual impairment that will stay with her for life.
The mindset typifies this impressive young woman, who just last month won a gold medal at the Paralympics as part of Great Britain’s PR3 mixed coxed four rowing boat in Tokyo.
That achievement was the fulfilment of the pledge she made when the diagnosis was made that she would make it to a Paralympics.
Buttrick had only been rowing two years when her life was changed for ever.
She took up the sport through Leeds Rowing Club’s Learn to Row scheme on Waterloo Lake in Roundhay Park.
“I took to rowing quite well at club level and I think my coaches could see I had potential,” she reflects, noting the role Leeds Rowing Club’s Dave Cottrell had in getting her started.
“I’ve got the physical attributes to be a good rower because of the length of my arms and my height, and my ability to work hard and push myself.
“I wasn’t massively into sports at that time, I just liked being part of teams and clubs. I found rowing and that’s something I actually improved at and finally thought ‘this is something I might be good at’.”
Despite her initial determination to make the Paralympic squad, she had to wait a few months to get back on the water. She was at Northumbria University which did not satisfy her thirst for rowing, so she had to wait until she got back to her home city.
“When I came back to Leeds Rowing Club I told them about my ambition,” she remembers. “They’ve never had an international elite athlete before so it was quite exciting for them to have someone representing Leeds Rowing Club on an international stage.”
That she has done with distinction. Buttrick was spotted at a talent ID day in 2017, joined the British Rowing squad down in Berkshire in 2018, won the world title the following year and European and Paralympic gold medals this summer.
“I’ve been very lucky to be in the mixed coxed four, it’s got a great legacy. We’re fortunate to have come back having achieved what we wanted,” she says of their Tokyo triumph.
“When I set myself the target of wanting to get to a Paralympics back in 2014, I didn’t mind then if I medalled or not, but once I got into this successful boat the pressure was on to win a gold.”
Buttrick is the type to respond to such challenges. When lockdown struck in the pandemic last summer, depriving her of the public transport she uses to get about, she stood firm and did not panic, and once society re-opened, she got out into the local community and worked as a volunteer to re-engage with people.
When she first arrived at the British Rowing headquarters in 2018, she only allowed herself to be overwhelmed by the names on the wall like Sir Steve Redgrave, for only a few moments.
“I couldn’t believe I was there, walking the halls that they had walked. But it just makes you believe in the system, you know you can trust this.”
She is already targeting Paris 2024 and will return to training soon. “It’s weird being a normal person again,” she laughs.
“I can’t wait to get back to training. To keep my seat I have to make sure I’m fast enough.
“It’s not about winning for me, it’s about being the best I can be.”
What’s next is a guest appearance at Team Yorkshire – The Homecoming next Sunday night at First Direct Arena in Leeds, when she will join Yorkshire’s other Tokyo heroes.
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