Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal: Two winners with one vision

Obstacles. Every athlete has to overcome issues, but impaired vision? And a tandem partner who isn’t recognised by Sport Ireland for funding? Little wonder the Olympic gold medal performances of Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal was one of the most emotional sporting moments of 2016.
Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal: Two winners with one vision

Vision (noun)

1. The faculty or state of being able to see: ‘she has defective vision’

2. The ability to think about or plan the future with imagination or wisdom

— Oxford Dictionary

It seems something of a paradox, given she’s known since she was 11 that someday she’ll almost certainly lose all sight, but one of the qualities that makes Katie-George Dunlevy such an exceptional athlete, and why Eve McCrystal will do anything for her, is her vision.

We’re speaking in a Dublin coffee shop four months after the pair of them have been to the mountain top, winning gold in the Paralympics in the 30k time trial. Rio, Dunlevy says, was “something I’ve been dreaming for years and years, not just three or four, but more like 10, 12 years”.

How do you follow that? Seeing your father, John, a Donegal man now retired after working over 40 years as a chef in Gatwick Airport, crying at the sight of you and your friend standing on the podium to the sound of Amhrán na bhFiann?

She’ll admit, she’s not sure right now if she’ll push on for Tokyo; when you’ve retinitis pigmentosa (RP) as she has and you’re now entering your mid-30’s, you learn not to think too far ahead.

But still she has a clear vision — the world championships in August. You might remember the rainbow jersey Stephen Roche won in Austria in 1987 to complete the treble of Giro, Tour and worlds. Well, Dunlevy wants the same jersey to complete a set of her own.

“That’s something we’d love. We’ve won silver and bronze at the worlds but never gold, never the rainbow jersey. It’s the one thing we haven’t got — yet.”

There are two operative words at play there — ‘yet’ and ‘we’. Eve McCrystal doesn’t just share a bike with Dunlevy; she has the same drive. Their personalities and circumstances are very different in so many ways. Katie, for all her dry wit, is shy and hates confrontation; Eve is outgoing, assertive. Katie likes her rest and lie-ins; Eve, as a mother of two who works as a Garda, is up at six every morning. Katie has RP; McCrystal’s eyesight is virtually 20:20. For a lot of the year Katie is based in England, where she was born and raised by a Donegal father; Eve lives in Dundalk, where she commutes to work in Ballybay, Co Monaghan, every day. Yet, as McCrystal puts it: “The reason we get on so well is that while we might be very different off the bike, when we’re on it, we’re just one person.

“We want the same things. You might think I have kids, that I have a job, but I wanted that medal as much as Katie did. I put everything into that bike. I left work for the year because I was fully focused on us getting that medal.”

Of course Eve did it for herself and her family. But she ended up doing it just as much for Katie, even though four years ago, they didn’t even know of each other.

Anyone who watched footage of the moment they had discovered their time had beaten everyone else’s would agree it was one of the best Irish sports TV moments of 2016, the mutual relief, joy and affection evident to all. It’s such a unique event the two of them participate in, it’s a unique bond they share.

“I knew how important it was for Katie, so as the pilot, all I wanted to do in Rio was steer her to that medal. I could have taken a corner the wrong way and she wouldn’t have medalled. She can never get a gold medal on her own, because of her sight limitations. She depends on me.”

McCrystal cringes at the times she feels her eyes left Dunlevy down. In 2015 they were in a bunch in World Cup road race in Italy when Eve’s eyes were drawn to a pothole. And you know the way you tend to follow where your eyes go? SMASH! The pair of them went straight into the hole and then crashing onto the ground, leaving Katie with her head split open and missing the next race.

“That had nothing to do with Katie,” winces McCrystal. “She didn’t see that pothole. That was all on me. But after that Katie never, ever made me feel I was wrong. Even in the world championships in Switzerland that September, we were 50 metres from the finish line, in bronze position, when I started to freewheel. Now, if I go to freewheel, Katie has to freewheel. And she knew in her head I shouldn’t have been doing that. But for some reason I did...

“I think you were afraid to pedal in case it (the pedal) hit the floor...” Dunlevy interjects.

“Maybe,” continues McCrystal, “but in that moment I freewheeled, the Dutch passed us to take bronze. And Katie was absolutely gutted. But you know what she said to me? ‘I could have said to you to keep pedalling.’ She actually took responsibility. It was completely my decision that cost us the medal, yet Katie never made me feel bad about it.”

It’s probably because Dunlevy knows that there’ve been other times where McCrystal drove her on when she was the one that was off. Early in 2015 Dunlevy went over on her ankle on a training camp over in Mallorca, again one of those mishaps that can occur when your eyesight is as impaired as hers is. For an athlete as driven as Dunlevy, the lay-off was “horrible”, unable to train for a month. The world championships were only a couple of months later. Would she be back in time for it? How would McCrystal cope training on her own?

Eve assured her they’d be fine. If anything, she was back in Ireland training even harder. If Dunlevy followed her rehab and did what she could do, they’d be right there. McCrystal’s extra commitment offset any lay-off of Dunlevy’s. In those world championships they’d medal.

Like Dunlevy, McCrystal came to the sport via a more circuitous route. Ten years ago she did her first Ironman, an event her brother Bryan has set national records in. In 2012 she joined the Garda Cycling Club, having enjoyed the bike from doing some triathlon as well. A colleague of hers, Sandra Fitzgerald, was piloting Katie-George at the time, and when Fitzgerald finished up a year after the Paralympics in London, McCrystal was asked by national performance coach Neil Delahaye if she would be interested in trying out for the pilot position. So she did, and pretty much from the start, she and Dunlevy clicked.

For the most part it’s been a privilege; she’s fully aware that only for Katie, she wouldn’t have experienced something like Rio last summer. But it has its challenges too. She might share Dunlevy’s vision and passion, but she wonders, does Sport Ireland fully appreciate it? At the moment they’re a bit of an anomaly. Eve McCrystal may have won a Paralympic gold medal but receives no funding within the Irish sports system. Anything she gets is from Katie-George Dunlevy, the only carded athlete who has to share her funding.

“Unfortunately Sport Ireland doesn’t recognise me as a carded athlete,” McCrystal explains, “so Katie has to help me out at various times and employ me, for lack of a word.”

What would Eve like? What would she recommend? “That Sport Ireland recognise that the front of the bike is just as important as the back of the bike. Even though I’m not a Paralympic athlete, I sacrificed so much to get that medal for our country. And it’s not so much about the money. You’ll never get rich riding a bike. It’s just to get by, so I can take some time off work to compete against full-time athletes and still pay the bills and rear my children.”

“It’s about the recognition,” nods Dunlevy. “I’m a partially-sighted athlete and there’s no other disabled athlete who has to share their funding to do their sport. It’s something that needs to be changed in the long term, otherwise I’d be worried about the future of tandem racing.”

The last thing Dunlevy wants to be seen is as some kind of victim here. To the contrary, sport is something that has empowered her over the years. Initially it excluded her; she remembers as a kid sitting on the side of the school pitch and school hall when it came to ball sports because she couldn’t do it, unaware it was because of her sight difficulties.

At 11, she was diagnosed with RT, a hereditary eye disease in which abnormalities of the photo-receptors of the retina lead to progressive visual loss. (It can often be a very gradual deterioration, as has been the case with Dunlevy so far, but it can also decline rapidly at any time).

Naturally, she struggled to cope with the news and also having to move to a school for the blind. But there she got involved with sport and found that she was good at it, winning national titles in swimming and a European athletics bronze medal in the 400m.

Then at university where she studied marine environmental science, she took up rowing, a sport in which she’d win world championship medals for Great Britain. She was pushing hard for a spot on the Paralympic national team but when her trajectory was stymied through injury, the system kind of lost interest in her. Instead she gravitated over to the one in Ireland, the birthplace of her father and where she spent most of her summers as a kid, playing on the beaches of Donegal.

“I’m very proud of representing Ireland. Although myself and my sisters were born and reared in English, I see myself as Irish. Most of my family are Irish. I have 25 cousins who are Irish.”

She started out in the boat, until, a little bit burned off by it, she was asked by then Cycling Ireland technical director Brian Nugent if she was interested to trying out the bike. Straight away she liked it, and before she knew it, she was competing at the 2011 road world championships.

She’s so grateful for what sport has given her. The moments, the skills. Ask her what she’ll do after her competitive career eventually finishes up and she says she doesn’t know, it certainly won’t be related to her degree.

“And I won’t be able to work in a shop or someplace like this,” she says self-deprecatingly, “I tend to walk into things and spill coffee over everyone. But I’ve just learned so much from sport — how to work with people, how, if you work hard, you’ll find a solution and get a result — which I’ll find something.”

She has another quality — people want to work with and for her.

She commands huge loyalty from her coach, Delahaye, whom she describes as a “brilliant, positive person — our prep for Rio was so good that it was just like another race; all Eve and I had to do was put our arses on the bikes and pedal.”

McCrystal is also ready to travel some more road with her. Eve’s 38 this year, and like her tandem partner, isn’t sure if she’ll take in another Paralympics — “I’ll keep an eye on how I’m doing,” says McCrystal.

“I’m not going to Tokyo if I’m going to get worse; I’ll never go if I feel we’re not going to be contending for medals. If I was to commit again I would have to be 100% in it.”

But she’s all in for this year’s world championships.

First there’ll be some time trials here in Ireland in March and April. Hopefully, if the funding is fair to them, they might get in a camp before the first international World Cup in Belgium in May, followed by another couple of World Cup events over the summer before the worlds in August.

“I never doubt Katie. Off the bike she might be this quiet person with a dry wit, but when she’s on the bike, she’s this ferocious competitor. She is just relentless. On race day I might get nervous but I’m never panicking because of what’s going on behind me.”

She knows who has her back. Just as Katie totally trusts in her and her eyes. As if they’re the one person, with one vision.

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