The thing I’ll remember most about the Games is the Brazilian people. They were so happy and friendly, and seem to think everyone is beautiful, so much that I even got a marriage proposal on the bus one day. Beforehand, so many people said bad things about the shortage of money, but the Brazilians didn’t need money to put on the show they did. When I won the medal, the crowd were so happy for me, waving and cheering even though I’m just some random Irish girl.
In the build-up, I was so focused on winning a medal that I was getting very anxious in training. It really affected me. Even in the breaststroke, I won a medal but I didn’t get the time I wanted so I’m not 100% satisfied. The biggest takeaway is to learn to relax. I’m such a stress head, but I need to relax and learn that I am strong enough, fit enough.
The thing I’m most looking forward to, now that it’s over, is to condition my hair. It may seem strange, but I never do it when I’m racing because I have a mortal fear of my hat falling off and when you condition, it slides off a lot easier. That, and the homecoming. I’ve been to two Paralympics already, but both times I came home without a medal and watched as all the people rush towards the medal winners in the airport. Part of me always wanted that.
The build-up to this year’s Paralympics was nothing like 2008 or 2012 for me. I was almost glad to be able to get out and run because I’d come through a really tough time. Five weeks before the event I ran 4:30 for 1500m, a really slow time, and I was flat out. For the next couple of days, I couldn’t get out of bed; I was wrecked. I struggled with vitamin B12 levels and was rock bottom, but I managed to turn it around since then.
It was really, really tough, because living up to people’s expectations is a hard thing to do. I knew even if physically I wasn’t in my best shape, my mental attitude would get me through. Along with that, I had a bad injury for the last three months, a cyst growing in my foot, but nothing was going to stop me getting on that start line. The race itself was harder than my past two Paralympics. The Canadian, Liam Stanley, really made me work for it. I wasn’t the fittest I can be, but I made sure I pushed myself to my limit.
Before the Games, people were talking about the Paralympics, saying there were not many tickets sold and other stuff, and everything was negative, but you could see how much the Brazilians got involved in what we wanted to achieve. There were more at some sessions than were at the Olympic Games, and for me that’s phenomenal; it shows Paralympic sport is moving in the right direction.
When I crossed the line in the time trial and realised I’d won gold, the first emotion was relief that I hadn’t lost. I suffered quite a bit throughout the week because of a knee injury I had been carrying. I don’t want to overblow it because cycling is a sport where you will always suffer, but it was really painful and would be there on every ride I did, whether racing or training.
The day before the time trial, I had a rant at my coach, told him I wanted to throw the bike into the sea, and luckily he stopped me. I rang my wife that morning and told her I don’t want any more of this, but the truth is I was always going to do it.
For that, I have to thank the support staff. I wasn’t happy with my result in the individual pursuit, where I finished third, but they constantly built me up and had confidence in me even when I didn’t have it in myself. Earlier this year, I was flying over Siberia when my daughter was born. I had to miss her birth to prepare for this, so I’m glad I got two teddy bears now to bring home to her, along with the medals.
This was my first and last Paralympics. I’m 36 now, and to me the goal of coming here was something that motivated me for the last couple of years. I’d like to continue racing next year, but I’ve been doing this for 15 years. With injuries and everything else, I won’t make Tokyo, but will always be left with good memories of Rio.
Rio was my third Paralympics, and like every Games, it brought something different. Granted, the atmosphere in London was miles better — the crowds here were about half the size of that — but the Brazilians were great in getting behind the athletes. Unfortunately, I couldn’t go for double gold as the IPC scrapped the 200m in my category, which was disappointing, for me and the fans, because T13 is one of the quickest categories and spectators want to see fast times and fast people.
My two races had an unusual turnaround time between them: the heat was 7:20pm on Thursday night and the final 11am on Friday. By the time we got home after the heat, it was close to midnight, then up again at 6:45 for breakfast. It wasn’t ideal, but it was the same for everyone.
In the final, I was confident I could produce the goods because I’ve run quicker than anyone else this year. I was the man to beat. I knew if I started well, I’d put guys under pressure and that’s what happened. To win gold again was a bit like a fairytale, one I don’t want to end.
I want to run quicker, which is why I stayed training while out in Rio. This was just the start of the five-year cycle, one that will take me all the way to Tokyo.
It was amazing. There was a lot of lows to start with, we had to recalibrate after the track. We were very disappointed with fifth in the Pursuit but were honest about that. We just sat together in the room and said we can come back from this. It gave us that more fire in the belly. In the time trial, we were both thinking ‘this is pain but we have to keep going.’
Then, in the road race, we went in a lot more calm. The pressure was off but we still wanted to win. We were never going to settle. We came for three medals so two out of three ain’t bad! I always reach my hand back to (touch) Katie when we’re coming to the finish. As hard as it is for me, it’s harder for Katie. We’re a team, and I never want people to think I’m at the front of the bike. They can see my results as a domestic rider at home but they don’t necessarily see Katie’s because she can’t ride on her own, but, if Katie could ride the bike on her own, she’d be exactly the same as me.”
Exhilarating, educating, humbling, perception-changing, and often mind-blowing. The great thing about being in the heart of the Paralympics is that you become inured to the sight of physical disability. You are surrounded by so many people with impairments that you stop being blindsided by their physical appearance.
You don’t see a one-legged high-jumper or a blind long-jumper or a limb-less swimmer and pity them. You simply start analysing them as athletes, studying how they biomechanically do what they do and admiring their skill and courage, like you admire a jump jockey or springboard diver or a footballer or hurler.
I’ve also learnt that there are three different types of athletes within Paralympic sport; those who are born with a physical impairment, those who acquire one and those who develop disabling illnesses. I’ve learned not to lump everyone under the same ‘disabled’ banner and ascribe the same motivations to them all. Paralympic sport is a massive rainbow of skill and motivation. I’ve come to understand and appreciate that and, I hope, become a little less prejudiced in my thinking.