Ready, winning and able...
Disabled sport is booming after the Olympics, opening the way for thousands of young athletes. Fiona McPhillips meets three talented stars
When the Irish Paralympic team returned from Beijing in 2008 with three gold medals, one silver and a bronze, the public started to take notice. Expectations were high for London 2012, but very few people predicted the final tally of 16 medals – eight gold, three silver and five bronze. Double gold medal winners Mark Rohan, Jason Smyth and Michael McKillop became household names last summer while the whole Paralympic team stole the hearts of the Irish public. The 2012 Sports Sentiment Index (a survey that looks at attitudes to sport) found that the Irish Paralympics team was the public's 'Team of the Year'.
While London 2012 might have opened the public's eyes to the amount of talent in this country, it is something the Irish Sports Council has been developing at a grassroots level for over a decade through its Sports Inclusion Disability Programme. This programme is implemented locally countrywide, allowing people with a disability to participate in sports clubs in their area.
Ireland has one of the highest levels of participation in sport in the EU and, thanks to the efforts of the Irish Sports Council and the high number of volunteers in sports clubs around the country (something else in which we lead the EU), this holds true for all levels of age and ability – a 2010 study found that Irish schoolchildren with a disability had the same level of participation in sport as those without a disability.
Oisin Putt (10)
Paralympic team hopeful
Ciara Putt's son, Oisin has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair outside of the home. Oisin has been involved in sport since he was five and takes part in basketball, rugby, table tennis, football, Gaelic football, athletics and sailing.
He attends the Irish Wheelchair Association (IWA) sports club in Clontarf and plays for the Dublin Swifts basketball team there. He also attends basketball development training at the club on a Thursday evening and Ciara has had to take parental leave from work to facilitate this.
"It's a big commitment but it's worth it," she says. "It's a fantastic way for the kids to meet their peers. The majority of kids now go to mainstream schools so they're not coming across other children who have physical disabilities on a day-to-day basis. Oisin has made lots of friends through it and some of his closest friends do basketball development training on a Thursday night."
Ciara explains that the development coaching does not focus solely on basketball and that most of the children that attend are earmarked for athletics too. Oisin has already won medals for the 100m, 400m, discus, javelin and shot put. "It's only when he gets to 14 that they'll be able to see what his capabilities really are. That's when you really start going for it", says Ciara.
Although Oisin will be too young for Rio 2016, Ciara is hoping he will make the Irish Paralympic team for 2020 in basketball and athletics. Oisin is more certain: "Yeah, I will represent Ireland at the Paralympics."
Oisin went to the Paralympics last year with his dad, David, and saw Oscar Pistorius, Jason Smyth and Michael McKillop winning medals. David is a volunteer coach at the IWA club. "He's brilliant," says Oisin. "And it's great because on the way there, I can tell him what games to play."
Josh Murphy (12)
Powerchair football player
Paul Murphy was his son's coach until he stepped aside last year. Paul's son Josh, who suffers from muscular dystrophy, has played for the Fingal Flyers powerchair football team since it began in 2009.
There is now a countrywide league with seven clubs and new teams are setting up all the time. Boys and girls of all ages play together. "There's not a noticeable difference in ability between the age groups as everyone is playing on the same power level," explains Paul.
The Fingal Flyers train every second Saturday in Corduff sports centre and league matches are once a month. "It's their day," says Paul.
"The kids didn't ask to be born this way but this is their time – they just go out and have fun. It's a very enjoyable sport and it's very competitive too. The players want to go and win week after week."
Paul says that parental involvement in the club is huge. "You need 100pc commitment from parents because the parents have to bring their kids to and from the matches, they have to stay while the kids are training in case anything happens and they have to make sure that all their special needs are met."
The parents are also involved in fundraising for the club and are looking for a sponsor for a new team kit.
Last year, they raised money for Josh to go to Portugal for a week's training. "It was brilliant," says Paul. "We had players from England, Portugal, Brazil and France. The kids got on and made friends and that's what the whole thing is about."
Josh now has his sights set on making the Irish under-18 team for an international tournament in Paris in October. "The six lucky lads that are picked will be given full international caps," says Paul. "Josh is in with a very good chance – our fingers are crossed."
"I think I will play for Ireland some day," says Josh. "Hopefully at the end of the year." Josh's favourite team is Manchester United, a team his cousin Robbie Brady played for until his recent move to Hull City. "Josh was there cheering him on when he made his debut for the Republic of Ireland senior squad," says Paul. "Now Robbie could be going to Paris to cheer Josh on!"
Heather Jameson (16)
At 15, Heather Jameson was the youngest member of last year's Irish Paralympic team. Heather set new Irish records in the T37 and F37 cerebral palsy categories in the 100m and long jump and also competed in the 200m.
"It was an amazing experience and the atmosphere was really brilliant," she says. "You could see a lot of Irish support, not just in the stadium, but out and about and in the Olympic park. You could hear the Irish support in the stadium and if there were no English in your race, the English would cheer for the Irish too." Heather's mother, Sandra, adds: "It was so exciting – it was like a home games and the English were brilliant. Sitting there thinking, my daughter is running in this fabulous stadium – it was mind-boggling."
Heather has been competing since she was 11. "She was very dedicated, even at that age", says Sandra. "You have to keep things under wraps because you don't want to blow their mind with stuff or get them all upset and worried. We didn't tell many people at that stage – we would just say we were going to competitions."
Heather always won medals, no matter where she competed. "People in the know were telling her, 'I'll see you in London 2012' and we were going, yeah, okay," says Sandra. "And they were right."
It was June of last year when Sandra finally got the phone call to say that Heather had made the Paralympic team.
"My mam was down the back with the horses and we saw her coming running up," says Heather. "I've never seen her running so fast – she was screaming in the window at us saying that I had been selected."
Sandra travels with Heather to competitions at least once a month during the athletics season from April to September. "It does require a huge commitment – a lot of things get the back seat. Last year we were in Italy, the Czech Republic and we were also three times in England."
This year, the World Championships are in Lyon in France in July and after that, Heather has Rio 2016 to aim for. "For 2016, hopefully a lot will have changed and I'll be bigger and stronger," says Heather. "Maybe I'll make a final in the sprints and maybe even a medal."
Heather trains for four hours a week in athletics and also spends about three hours a week playing soccer. Her advice to aspiring athletes is never to give up. "Even if you think you're not very good, there's always a chance. You may not be good at one sport but there are hundreds of sports you can try – not just for Paralympians but for able-bodied people as well."
If you think you might have what it takes, you can contact Paralympics Ireland at www.paralympics.ie. Or if you are just interested in taking up a sport, you can contact the sports inclusion disability officer at your local sports partnership. The Dublin City Sports Network is at www.dublinsport.ie.