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Ellie Simmonds: How the girl from West Midlands has been making strides for dwarfism representation

Strictly Come Dancing star Ellie Simmonds was supported at Saturday night’s show by her publicity-shy boyfriend Matt Dean, a childhood friend whose parents first introduced her to swimming when she was a toddler. 

It is thought to be the first public appearance by Matt, who has stayed out of the spotlight even as Ellie’s profile has grown following her retirement from professional swimming last year. 

But Matt seemingly couldn’t miss the opportunity to cheer on his girlfriend, 27, as she took to the floor for the first time with her dance partner Nikita Kuzmin. 

The couple are understood to have known each other since childhood, after meeting through Matt’s parents, Penny and Arthur Dean, who are pioneers in sports for people with dwarfism and gave Ellie her start in the swimming pool. 

Love blossomed between Ellie and Matt ‘a couple of years’ ago but they have kept their relationship private.

After spending lockdown together in London and buying a house in South Manchester, Ellie made a rare reference to her love life in a documentary about dwarfism, which featured Matt’s mother Penny. 

Ellie – a five-time Paralympic gold medallist – has also mentioned him in a handful of interviews, but Saturday night is thought to be the first time he has been seen in a public setting.  

Strictly viewers were delighted with a surprise appearance by her long-term partner, Matt Dean, pictured, who was on hand to cheer on his talented girlfriend

In a heartwarming twist, Ellie, 27, met Matt, who also has dwarfism, through his parents Penny and Arthur Dean, pioneers of sporting opportunities who gave the five-time Paralympic gold medallist her start in the swimming pool. Pictured, Ellie with Matt's mother, Penny Dean in a documentary about living with dwarfism

In a heartwarming twist, Ellie, 27, met Matt, who also has dwarfism, through his parents Penny and Arthur Dean, pioneers of sporting opportunities who gave the five-time Paralympic gold medallist her start in the swimming pool. Pictured, Ellie with Matt’s mother, Penny Dean in a documentary about living with dwarfism

When Ellie won her first race as a toddler, it was Penny Dean, left, who gave her her medal. Now Ellie has found love with Penny's son, Matt, and they live together in South Manchester

When Ellie won her first race as a toddler, it was Penny Dean, left, who gave her her medal. Now Ellie has found love with Penny’s son, Matt, and they live together in South Manchester

In 2008, as a teen, she won the BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year award fresh off her performance in her first Olympic Games, where she took home two golds, pictured

In 2008, as a teen, she won the BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year award fresh off her performance in her first Olympic Games, where she took home two golds, pictured

Paralympic superstar Ellie Simmonds can count on the support of her boyfriend as she shimmies her way closer to the glitterball trophy with partner Nikita Kuzmin, pictured

Paralympic superstar Ellie Simmonds can count on the support of her boyfriend as she shimmies her way closer to the glitterball trophy with partner Nikita Kuzmin, pictured 

Ellie, who was diagnosed with achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism, as a baby, grew up with average height parents who ensured she was surrounded by other people with dwarfism. 

This led the family to the Dwarf Sport Association UK, founded by Mr and Mrs Dean, which introduced Ellie to swimming at the age of two. 

The DSAuk, of which Ellie is now patron, is a sporting charity which aims to make sporting opportunities accessible and enjoyable to anyone and everyone of restricted growth in the UK.

Her boyfriend’s mother was the first person to help Ellie onto a podium after a stunning performance in the pool as a toddler – and has remained an ‘important’ part of the athlete’s life as she ascended through the ranks, winning a total of 26 gold medals. 

Penny, who along with her husband was awarded an OBE for her achievements, joked in the documentary Ellie Simmonds: A World without Dwarfism, that she didn’t know Matt and Ellie had been dating, until her son confessed. 

Offering rare insight into her relationship in an interview earlier this year, Ellie said: ‘We’ve been together a couple of years and just bought a house in South Manchester. 

The youngest of five children, Ellie, pictured aged seven, was small compared to her friends, but it didn't affect her childhood. Her free time was spent pony riding and ballet dancing, and she played the part of a giant in a school play

The youngest of five children, Ellie, pictured aged seven, was small compared to her friends, but it didn’t affect her childhood. Her free time was spent pony riding and ballet dancing, and she played the part of a giant in a school play

Ellie was fond of pony riding and ballet as a child, before she joined a swimming club age five and fell in love with the sport

Ellie was fond of pony riding and ballet as a child, before she joined a swimming club age five and fell in love with the sport

A sporty child, Ellie began to collect medals in all sorts of sports before dedicating herself to swimming

A sporty child, Ellie began to collect medals in all sorts of sports before dedicating herself to swimming 

Sporting pioneers: Penny and Arthur Dean

Matt's parents, Arthur and Penny Dean, founded the Dwarf Sports Association, with which Ellie swan her first race aged two

Matt’s parents, Arthur and Penny Dean, founded the Dwarf Sports Association, with which Ellie swan her first race aged two

Penny and Arthur, from Stockport, Dean founded the Dwarf Sport Association in 1993. 

They were moved to create the charity after Arthur took their daughter Nichola to Chicago to compete in the 1st World Dwarf Games, organised by the Dwarf Athletic Association of America. 

The couple, who were both born with dwarfism, have been championing sporting opportunities for others since then. 

Ellie Simmonds OBE and ex Paralympic swimmer Matt Whorwood, who both started their swimming careers with the DAAUK, are the charity’s current patron. 

In 1995, the association invited people from overseas to take part in the UK’s first international athletic event for people with dwarfism, before hosting the 2nd World Dwarf Games in 1997. 

Now, the association hosts a  National Dwarf Games each year where athletes from the age of two to 70+ years old take part.

Four of the athletes competing at the 2012 Paralympics in London were members of the DSAuk, and these Games were credited for having the largest number of dwarf athletes ever.   

The DSAuk covers nine regions throughout the country, and its mission statement is to ‘make regular sporting opportunity accessible and enjoyable to anyone and everyone with dwarfism.’

Arthur Dean and his wife Penny received an OBE from Prince Charles in 2014 for their service to charity. 

On the Dwarf Sport Association’s website, Arthur Dean writes: ‘But it is not about being the best, it is about feeling good with who you are and knowing that you can achieve anything you want to do in life as well as in sport.’ 

‘We lived together during lockdown in London, so have become very used to living with each other,’ Ellie told The Sun.

Ellie explained it was Matt who encouraged her to embrace the opportunity of doing Strictly. 

She said in a separate interview with The Sun: ‘When I got the call I did wonder whether I should do it. Then I thought I’d do a leap of faith. You don’t know until you try.’

She revealed that Matt told her: ‘Go for it, you don’t know unless you try.’

Their playful relationship became clear to viewers during Saturday night’s Strictly show when Ellie cheekily told presenter Claudia Winkleman that he was cooking for her ‘for the first time ever’ but needed to ‘add more vegetables’ to his dishes. 

‘We have to mention your partner Matt because he’s never cooked before and now you’re doing Strictly, I believe he’s making you packed lunches, he’s making supper at night,’ the presenter said.

Ellie replied: ‘He’s making everything, so yeah, he’s an alright cook,’ before joking that she thinks ‘he could do a bit better.’

She explained: ‘He needs to add the vegetables. He keeps forgetting the vegetables and is just giving me carbohydrates!’

The camera zoomed in on Matt, who gave a thumbs up from his place in the audience.

Ellie, who retired from swimming last year following the Tokyo Olympics, has said it is ‘a real honour’ to be ‘the first dwarf doing the show’ and vowed to ‘show how positive that is, that to be different is OK.’ 

It is the same can-do attitude that has driven Ellie through every stage of her career. 

Ellie was born the youngest of five children in Walsall, West Midlands. She was small compared to her friends, but it didn’t affect her childhood one jot. 

She went pony riding, ballet dancing and performed in school plays. 

Her parents Val and Steve have always been supportive of their daughter. 

‘I grew up with average height parents and they always ensured I was surrounded by other people with dwarfism,’ she said in the BBC documentary Ellie Simmonds: A World Without Dwarfism. 

‘There’s never really been a time in my life where I’ve thought ‘I want to be tall, I want to be different’.

‘It’s given me some of the most amazing things, like representing my country, going to the Paralympics, and the friendship, the people I meet along the way.’

She fell in love with swimming age five, and three years later, was racing to the same pace as her able-bodied peers, telling the Daily Mail in 2012: ‘I just wanted to keep up with my friends, so I worked even harder.’ 

When she was just 11 years old, Ellie and her mother relocated to Swansea so she could train with coach Billy Pye in a 50m pool.

Meanwhile, Ellie’s father Steve and her siblings remained in the family home in Warsall, and she would travel back and forth to visit on the weekends. 

Ellie became fully dedicated to the sport after watching Nyree Lewis (now Kindred) from Wales win gold in the 100-metre backstroke at Athens 2004, and Ellie began to train three hours a day, six days a week. 

The swimmer, 27, who was born in Walsall, West Midlands, and was diagnosed with achondroplasia - the most common form of dwarfism - as a baby, is a five-time Paralympic gold winner who made a splash at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 by winning her first two gold medals. She was just a teenager when she made her debut (above)

The swimmer, 27, who was born in Walsall, West Midlands, and was diagnosed with achondroplasia – the most common form of dwarfism – as a baby, is a five-time Paralympic gold winner who made a splash at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 by winning her first two gold medals. She was just a teenager when she made her debut (above)

Throughout her Olympic career, Ellie has also relied on the unconditional support of her parents, Val and Steve, pictured at the London 2012 Olympics where Ellie broke three world records

Throughout her Olympic career, Ellie has also relied on the unconditional support of her parents, Val and Steve, pictured at the London 2012 Olympics where Ellie broke three world records 

26 of Ellie's medals are gold medals, five of which she won at the Olympics Games. The last gold she took home was for her 200 m individual medley SM6 at the Rio Olympics of 2016

26 of Ellie’s medals are gold medals, five of which she won at the Olympics Games. The last gold she took home was for her 200 m individual medley SM6 at the Rio Olympics of 2016

There are over 200 types of dwarfism. Achondroplasia is caused by a genetic mutation that leads to impaired bone growth. This leads to physical differences, like short thighs and upper arms.

In more than 80 per cent of people with achondroplasia, it also causes bowing of the legs and curving of the upper back.

Simmonds had four minor operations when she was 11 years old to straighten her legs and help with her swimming.

For around 15 per cent of children born with dwarfism, life-saving surgery is required to ensure that the passageway that connects the brain to the spinal cord is wide enough.

The swimmer also recognises she is fortunate to have ‘grown up quite fit, quite able, quite athletic’ and raised by supportive parents who were entirely supportive of her dwarfism and never saw it as a barrier to success.

The biggest honour came in 2009 when she became the youngest ever person to receive a MBE from the Queen, aged 14, pictured

The biggest honour came in 2009 when she became the youngest ever person to receive a MBE from the Queen, aged 14, pictured

Her MBE was later turned into an OBE for her service to Paralympic swimming, which she received from Prince Charles in 2013

Her MBE was later turned into an OBE for her service to Paralympic swimming, which she received from Prince Charles in 2013

After retiring from competitive swimming in 2021, Ellie has gone on to present for BBC Sport, most recently for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, as well as making documentaries such as Ellie Simmonds: A World Without Dwarfism? for BBC One and BBC iPlayer

After retiring from competitive swimming in 2021, Ellie has gone on to present for BBC Sport, most recently for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, as well as making documentaries such as Ellie Simmonds: A World Without Dwarfism? for BBC One and BBC iPlayer

What is Achondroplasia? 

Achondroplasia is a form of short-limbed dwarfism. The word achondroplasia literally means ‘without cartilage formation’. However, the problem is not in forming cartilage but in converting it to bone, particularly in the long bones of the arms and legs.

All people with achondroplasia have short stature. The average height of an adult male with achondroplasia is four feet, four inches, and the average height for adult females is four feet, one inch.

Characteristic features of achondroplasia include an average-size trunk, short arms and legs with particularly short upper arms and thighs, limited range of motion at the elbows, and an enlarged head with a prominent forehead. 

Fingers are typically short and the ring finger and middle finger may diverge, giving the hand a three-pronged (trident) appearance.

Health problems commonly associated with achondroplasia include episodes in which breathing slows or stops for short periods (apnea), obesity, and recurrent ear infections.

Source: nih.gov.

In 2008, she won two gold medals during the Beijing Olympics, becoming the youngest individual gold medallist ever at 13. 

Her Olympics success propelled her into the limelight, and she appeared on Blue Peter and All Star Family Fortunes, and rubbed elbows with the likes of David Beckham, Lewis Hamilton, and then Prime Minister David Cameron. 

She juggled her newfound fame with her studies, passing nine GCSEs and learning to drive a specially adapted Mini One hatchback with pedal extensions and a high cushioned seat provided for her by BMW. 

The biggest honour came in 2009 when she became the youngest ever person to receive a MBE from the Queen, aged 14. Four years later she received an OBE.

Ellie’s parents wore t-shirt adorned with her face as they watched Ellie break the World Records at the London 2012 Olympics. 

After she made history, her father, Steve Simmonds, told Business Live: ‘That was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen her do. 

He added: ‘There were seriously loud noises for all the British athletes. It was an unreal atmosphere. I think the encouragement from the crowd will have made a difference.’

Ellie’s mother Val added: ‘You want to give your children the best possible opportunity. It certainly rewards that. I was shaking all the way through the race. It was only in the last 20 metres we were confident she would win.’

Ellie’s young age is not the only thing that made her stand out in a pool: the swimmer collected 39 medals throughout her career swimming in the s6 disability category. 

Twenty-six of her medals are golds, five of which she won at the Olympics Games. The last gold she took home was for her 200 m individual medley SM6 at the Rio Olympics of 2016. 

Simmonds, who was Team GB’s flag bearer at the Tokyo Olympics last summer, announced after the event that it was time ‘hang up the goggles.’ 

‘I’ve heard it said by others that you know when it is time to call it a day, and having given a lot of thought to it, I know that now is the right time for me,’ she posted on Twitter at the time. 

It was announced this Summer that Ellie would be joining this year's Strictly Come Dancing Cast, pictured outside her dressing room

It was announced this Summer that Ellie would be joining this year’s Strictly Come Dancing Cast, pictured outside her dressing room 

Ellie, pictured on the dancefloor with Nikita, told MailOnline and other outlets at the time: 'Disability representation is so important on a show like this, and I'm honoured to do it for the dwarfism community

Ellie, pictured on the dancefloor with Nikita, told MailOnline and other outlets at the time: ‘Disability representation is so important on a show like this, and I’m honoured to do it for the dwarfism community

And noting that it will not only be something new for her, but for the show's professionals to adapt to as well - Ellie admitted it's a learning process

And noting that it will not only be something new for her, but for the show’s professionals to adapt to as well – Ellie admitted it’s a learning process

‘Being part of the Paralympic movement and able to contribute in some small way to the progression of para-sport means an enormous amount to me and is something that I shall continue to be involved in. 

‘Being a Paralympian has changed my life. I’ve made the best of friends, travelled the world and met the most amazing and inspirational of people – all while having the time of my life.’ 

Simmonds finished fifth in her final race – S6 400m freestyle – having had an initial disqualification overturned on appeal.

‘Since my first international competition in 2006 aged 12 to the Tokyo Paralympics, competing for Great Britain has been the greatest honour of my life,’ she added.

‘From having my dreams come true as a wide-eyed and excited 13-year-old in Beijing and then competing in a home Games in 2012 through to now it’s hard to convey just how proud, honoured and grateful I am for everything, not least the wonderful support I’ve had.

‘I love swimming and I’ll still be found in the pool, but now I’ll be able to do it without the 04:30 alarm.’

After retiring from competitive swimming in 2021, Ellie has gone on to present for BBC Sport, most recently for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, as well as making documentaries such as Ellie Simmonds: A World Without Dwarfism? for BBC One and BBC iPlayer.

It was announced this summer that the swimmer would be competing in this year’s Strictly Come Dancing.

‘It’s been so hard keeping this secret as I’ve wanted to tell everyone. I’m going on Strictly Come Dancing!! I’m a tad nervous too, well more than a tad… I’m absolutely petrified,’ she said after BBC made the cast announcement. 

‘To be asked to be part of the Strictly family is just so exciting and I cannot wait, it’s going to so much fun. I’m counting down the minutes until it starts; learning to dance, meeting my partner and everyone else involved in the show.

‘Plus wearing the sequins and all that, It’s going to be a blast. I’ve been watching Strictly from as far back as I can remember; it’s a traditional lead up to Christmas with my family and it’s a genuine privilege to be part of it.’

She added to The Mirror: ‘I’ll be so, so nervous, and I will try not to think of all the people watching,’ said Ellie, who attended the Commonwealth Games yesterday.

‘My family and friends will support me and help me stay grounded. I am the first dwarf doing the show, I will show how positive that is, that to be different is OK. It is a real honour.’

Ellie told MailOnline and other outlets at the time: ‘Disability representation is so important on a show like this, and I’m honoured to do it for the dwarfism community.

‘Especially something like dancing, which is something that I’ve never ever done before. So hopefully people who are sitting at home and watching realise that anyone can do it.’

The swimmer also gushed over previous winner Rose Ayling-Ellis – who was the show’s first ever deaf contestant, and went on to win last year.

And noting that it will not only be something new for her, but for the show’s professionals to adapt to as well – Ellie admitted it’s a learning process.

‘Dancing with a person of shorter stature is obviously new for the professionals too and then I’m completely new at dancing so it’s about seeing how we’ll see how we can adapt it and learning for me and my partner – it’s like where do you put your hands and things like that.’

While Ellie has endured rigorous training for her swimming career, the star also admitted that dancing rehearsals are a ‘completely different’ kind of sport.

‘It’s completely different to swimming training, I’m aching already. Swimming is in the water but dancing is very high impact, it’s muscles I’ve never used before.’

She has previously been supported publicly by reality star Terra Jole, who also has dwarfism and starred on the US version of Strictly, Dancing With The Stars, back in 2016.

And with the TV personality making it to the semi-final of the show, Ellie explained that she’s been getting some tips from her: ‘Terra Jole has been giving my so many tips on how to stand and everything so that’s been so helpful too.

‘I’ve been so nervous thinking about doing it in front of a live audience and on Saturday night TV but it’s also exciting. It’s like when you’re a kid at Christmas and you’re so excited that you feel sick,’ shared Ellie.

However, Ellie has admitted her first Strictly experience has been tarnished by cruel troll targeting her online.

She was worried about signing up for the show, particularly because of the big height difference between her and partner Nikita Kuzmin – and what keyboard warriors might have to say about it.

She told The Sun: ‘I’ve had it already. Some people have said, ‘How’s the dwarf going to dance?’ It’s sad and it does get to you.’

And Ellie for sure made her community proud as she kicked and partner Nikita Kuzmin kicked off her Strictly campaign with a great Cha Cha Cha to Dance by DNCE. 

Sharing his thoughts on her routine, Anton said: ‘You powered across the floor, you went, ‘OK, here we go, have some of this’. Your side-by-side work was great, your timing was excellent. It was good.’

With Craig agreeing with his co-star as he shared ‘I have to agree with Anton, the timing, your attitude, the rhythm, your isolation. It was excellent.’

While Motsi added: ‘I absolutely love this team. What I love is this focus, you understand what the dance was about. Allow yourself to enjoy it even more. I loved it.’

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