Why the F-Word means so much more in Paralympic sport
WHEN you go to an Olympic Games you hear an awful lot about the F-word.
But sometimes it feels like the ‘Olympic family’ is just a fancy name for the sponsors and the folks in the logoed blazers who get ferries around in courtesy cars while everyone else puts up with athlete-unfriendly schedules and convoluted transport systems.
With the Paralympics the F-word actually seems authentic.
Elite sport and parental/sibling sacrifice always go hand-in-hand.
No family that has nurtured a talented runner, swimmer, rider or team player has done it without parents and siblings who have sacrificed early mornings, weekends and holidays on the side-lines, cheerleading constantly through good and bad times.
When your child or partner has a disability, those support systems have to be expanded further if they want to excel at sports.
Their additional challenges can range from medical to accessibility and integration issues, and possibly even plain prejudice when trying to find a suitable club and level of competition.
Yet Jason and Bernie Turner found an open door at their local swimming clubs in Portarlington and, most recently, Portlaoise.
Bernie doesn’t mind getting up at 4:45am in the mornings to drive Nicole to training before school. Jason takes on the driving at weekends and their other children Daniel (21) and Ciaran (16) row in with it all.
Their reward in Rio de Janeiro? Seeing their exceptional daughter/sister excel on a world stage at just 14 and and then represent her new-found family as Irish flag-bearer in the Paralympic’s Closing ceremony.
It’s the same in a house in Clontarf where Ellen Keane (21) is the youngest of four children.
After she won her bronze medal in Rio her dad Eddie reflected on the whole family’s contribution, saying: “We have to thank the lads (twins Graham and Philip) and Hazel too, for staying quiet and going to bed early, and starting studying at 9 instead of 10. They all did their bit.”
Her mum Laura jokes that she's not sporty but “an elite supporter” and believes Ellen gets her talent from her own late father Fergus Boland who, sadly, never knew his granddaughter, but was a regular at events like the Liffey swim.
As Ireland’s record 11-time Paralympian sailor John Twomey’s family is more extended than most of his teammates.
Asked by the Brazilian Ministry for Sport where he keeps his Paralympic medals and paraphernalia that stretches back over 40 years Twomey revealed he’s already given most of it away to young children, to inspire them to get involved in sport; a man already extending the reach of the Paralympic family.
Sponsors are another extension of it.
Mondelez International decided to give one of their places in Rio to a member of their own Irish staff and their internal competition was won by Grainne Rowe.
Her choice for travelling partner was her mate Linda Evans, whose eldest child Luke captained Ireland’s CP football team in Brazil.
“All Peter and I ever wanted, and still always want, is for all four of our children to be the best they can,” Linda said.
“Luke takes the captaincy very seriously, especially now there’s a lot of young lads come in. They all headed out from the (athletes’) village one night but one lad had no family in Rio so Luke stayed with him.
"I’ve got to know all the other families over the years, you watch the lads grow up and now we see Gary Messett become a dad too, and that’s just lovely,” she added.
Mick Monahan is a GAA man from Kildare who has refereed All-Ireland senior finals.
He knew nothing about Paralympic sport but was worried when his son Patrick was left in a wheelchair after a car crash nine years ago.
Two years ago Pat took up wheelchair racing and has not looked back and Mick has noticed that, since Pat’s accident, his four sons have become even closer as brothers.
The O’Learys were always into canoeing.
Jude Coughlan and Pat O’Leary actually went to the same primary school in Glasheen in Cork. They got together when they were both in the canoeing club in college, married and are now parents to Sean (10) and Joe (8).
When Pat had to have his leg amputated less than five years ago sport provided physical and mental healing for him and his family have also benefited.
“Paralympic sport has turned something that was potentially very negative into something very positive,” Jude explained.
“It was a real choice for health. Pat could have sat at home and been depressed five years ago but he didn’t, and it’s made us all healthier as a family.
“We all go to the swimming pool together and all our holidays are based around his competitions. We bring the bikes and we go cycling and Pat goes training. It’s been so positive.”
In Paralympic sport sometimes even complete strangers become your family.
Many would regard tandem pilot Eve McCrystal as a selfless domestique for her visually impaired stoker Katie-George Dunlevy who achieved her dream of two medals in Rio, but McCrystal regards their effort and achievement as perfectly shared.
“We’re a team and I never want people to think that I’m at the front of the bike,” McCrystal stressed.
“People can see my results as a domestic rider at home. They don’t see Katie’s because she can’t ride on her own but, if Katie could ride a bike on her own, she’d be exactly the same as me.”
Their personalities, she jokes, are chalk and cheese.
“I’d be more highly strung, Katie would calm me down. We kind of balance each other out. I honestly don’t know, if we weren’t cycling, that we’d be ever friends but, on a bike, we’re one person,” she says of their remarkable symbiosis.
Katie’s girlfriend Helen Jacob has another take on the Paralympic family.
“We’ve missed so many family events - 40th birthdays, weddings etc..- but our friends and family understand what Katie does and believe they are part of this team too,” she said.
“What both of them have put in is phenomenal,” she added. “Eve has two young children and she misses things like first days at school and birthdays for training.”
Eve’s little daughters are already benefiting from the Paralympic family’s remarkably diverse and extended family and learned some of its core values.
When Eve phoned them after winning the second medal she was told “Mammy, we’ve figured out who’s going to get the man (mascot doll) with the gold hair and the man with the silver hair.'
Ava (8) has figured out that, as the eldest, she’s entitled to first dibs on golden Tom.
But she said she will happily share and swap him with Nessa’s silver Tom every Friday.