Wheeling in the years with Cork's multi sports club

In her wildest dreams, Eileen Simpson couldn’t have predicted her son would climb a wall.

Wheeling in the years with Cork's multi sports club

Rebel Wheelers are celebrating their 10th anniversary at the weekend, having helped children of all ages, writes Helen O’Callaghan.

In her wildest dreams, Eileen Simpson couldn’t have predicted her son would climb a wall.

Conor, 10, has spina bifida and hydrocephalus. A full-time wheelchair user, he got his first chair when he was three. Through Enable Ireland, Aghada-based Eileen and husband Greg heard about Rebel Wheelers, an Irish Wheelchair Association (IWA) sports club for young people with a physical disability.

The Cork club started 10 years ago with five sets of parents meeting on Saturday mornings because their children couldn’t do mainstream sport — there was nowhere for them. Today, Rebel Wheelers is the most successful disability sports club in the country. It was awarded best disability sports club at last year’s Cara National Inclusion awards.

Rebel Wheelers Saturday morning club is a gateway for kids from age five with physical disability to experience sports in a fun, safe environment. They participate in a wide spectrum of sporting activity: Horse riding, boxing, tennis, badminton, rock climbing, and canoeing are only some of what’s on offer.

When Conor joined at age six, he was shy and found it daunting. “He was always an anxious child. He finds new situations difficult. Quite a few Saturday mornings, we said ‘will we bother?’” says Eileen.

But perseverance paid off and two years after he started, Conor did a summer camp. “They took everyone wall-climbing. Conor was one of the first to get on the wall. I couldn’t believe he was actually doing it. I couldn’t believe how far up the wall he went,” says Eileen.

“Instead of crying not to go, he was crying because he didn’t want the camp to end.”

Just recently, Conor announced he wants to be a professional wheelchair basketball player. For Eileen, this is down to Rebel Wheelers role models — teens who’ve come through the ranks are great motivators for kids.

“Conor turned a real corner when he joined the basketball team. He could see how amazing Dylan McCarthy was at basketball and athletics. We couldn’t believe when Conor left our side and went off to play basketball with the older kids. He absolutely loved it and that’s thanks to Dylan for bringing Conor along.”

Dylan, 17, has been selected for the senior Irish Wheelchair basketball team. They were in Portugal this month for a tournament. Four years ago, he was picked for the Irish Wheelchair athletics team — on his first trip to the Netherlands, he won a silver medal. He did the same on his second trip in Prague and in December brought home gold and silver from the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports games.

Like Eileen, Sandra McCarthy, a Rebel Wheelers fundraiser and event manager, couldn’t have imagined any of this eight years ago when Dylan was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that means he could dislocate all his joints by just picking up a book. “It’s a degenerative condition. He used to be able to walk — now he’s a full-time wheelchair user. He has no power in his hips,” explains Sandra, Rebel Wheelers fundraiser and event manager.

When Dylan was first diagnosed, Sandra wanted to “just mind him, wrap him up, and not let him out”. That lasted six weeks.

“I thought what kind of life am I giving him?” A friend recommended Rebel Wheelers. “We’ve never looked back,” says Sandra, who knew they’d come to the right club when Dylan fell over and no one laughed. “Dylan was sitting with eight other kids on a mat playing with a balloon and bat. He got up and fell but nobody laughed or mocked him. One young fellow just crawled over him and left him there. Everybody else was falling over too. He fitted in.”

Rebel Wheelers has a ground-breaking strength and movement programme, the first of its kind in Ireland to be designed for people with physical disabilities. “Each child has a different disability. Even kids with the same disability can be different. We pick 20, each is assessed, and a special strength and movement programme designed for each. We run it September to June,” says Sandra.

The whole endeavour is to keep kids moving their bodies. “They’re doing physio and cardio work and they don’t even realise,” says Sandra. Her mantra is ‘there’s no such word as can’t’.

On a Saturday last November, the club had 128 wheelchairs on the ice at Cork On Ice.

“Having a disability doesn’t mean life ends. You can do the same things as an able-bodied person but you might have to do them slightly differently.”

The club’s run by parents who’ve trained in the various sports. It’s assisted by Paul Ryan, sports development officer (Munster region) for IWA. Altogether, 70 families are involved with Rebel Wheelers, which fields junior and senior wheelchair basketball teams in the IWA National Basketball League, a wheelchair rugby team in the Irish League, and junior and senior athletics teams — some have represented Ireland at international level and at the IWA Athletics Grand Prix series.

Alan Dineen, one of the first children in the club, is on the Irish wheelchair rugby team — they’re off to the world games in Australia in August.

Rebel Wheelers isn’t just for the kids, says Sandra. It’s for parents too. “I met a parent on Wednesday morning at Enable Ireland. She said ‘I can’t talk to you — I’m meeting three other mothers from Rebel Wheelers for coffee at Mahon Point’. And they’ve only joined recently!”

Rebel Wheelers’ 10th-anniversary fundraising Midsummer Ball is on Saturday, June 23, in Rochestown Park Hotel. Table of 10: €900; purchase individual ticket for €100. 100% of proceeds will be used for benefit of members. For tickets, email rebelwheelers@gmail.com; visit rebelwheelers.com.

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