Noelle Lenihan ready to let it fly in Rio

All seven of Elizabeth and Jim Lenihan’s children have been immersed in sport growing up in Deliga, near Milford.

If they weren’t running — their eldest Siobhan was good enough to go to Arkansas Tech on a middle-distance scholarship — they were playing camogie or hurling with Milford and throwing with North Cork AC.

So, in many ways it is not surprising that one of their children is a world record holder who’ll be competing at the pinnacle of her sport on September 17.

The only surprise is that it is Noelle (16), given the tough start she had in life.

When Noelle and her twin Emer were born — prematurely at 27 weeks — one weighed a pound and the other a pound and a half.

“For the first month and a half, they were only given a 10% chance,” her dad recalls.

“They were born on November 4 and came home St Stephen’s Day and they were still just four pounds each when we got them home.”

To complicate things further, Noelle got a bleed in her brain in the incubator.

Within three months, they’d noticed that she was heavily favouring her right arm and doctors quickly diagnosed Cerebral Palsy (CP).

There were some tough years ahead; half a dozen operations in Dublin to release the sinews in the back of one leg which was slightly shorter than the other.

Each surgery was followed by a cast for eight weeks to flatten her foot and stop her walking on her toes.

But support, especially from Enable Ireland, helped them get through it, and Noelle’s impairment is imperceptible nowadays.

Her mates at North Cork Athletic Club in Charleville have come up with an appropriate slogan for her upcoming Paralympic debut — ‘Make it fly in Rio Noelle!’ — because the teenage discus thrower is already flying high in her event.

She only made her senior international debut at the world championships last year but took silver behind the reigning Chinese Paralympic champion in the F37/38 discus category.

Noelle actually broke the world record in her own category (F38) and has since extended it to 32.14m when winning European gold this summer and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) has tipped her as ‘one to watch’ at the Rio Paralympics, which start today and run until September 18.

The way CP affects her is to make the left side of her body weaker than her right, no matter how hard she trains.

So she’s learnt to compensate, which has meant using the ‘South African’ half-turn.

Jim (her coach) and Athletics Ireland’s throws coach Dave Sweeney have been working on adding a full-turn this year but that’s still a work in progress, so she may choose to stick with the half-turn in Rio.

Fr Liam Kelleher, the legendary athletics’ and ladies football zealot, was the man who initially pulled the Lenihans into athletics in North Cork AC.

“He used to go into the local schools and say ‘come on!’ He didn’t ask could you walk, run or what could you do, he just brought every child out!” Jim recalls laughing.

As a Limerick hurling man, from Ashford near Newcastlewest, athletics was new to him but the family has been involved with North Cork AC now for the past 27 years.

“With Noelle’s disability I started up the throwing for those who mightn’t be as good at running, or just didn’t want to run,” Jim explains.

Now he churns out successful discus throwers while someone else coaches hammer; a field string that few Irish athletics clubs have to their bow.

At the prestigious All-Ireland schools T&F finals this summer, where they competed for Hazelwood College, Dromcollogher, Noelle won bronze in intermediate discus and youngest sister Megan (13) broke Marita Walton’s 41-year-old record in the junior discus.

Yet there is no fancy throwing circle or hammer cage in Charleville.

North Cork AC uses the local park in summer when they throw on the grass, and, in winter, use the 200m track at St Joseph’s, a local school for special needs.

St Joseph’s had a bit of tarmac so Jim just painted a circle on it once and gives it a wee touch-up every year.

The publicity that has followed Noelle’s recent success saw the park put in a small concrete square which offers a better surface to train on, but it’s all still pretty basic.

Her success, like that of Skibbereen’s O’Donovan brothers, is simply down to hard work in basic facilities with dedicated volunteers.

“It’s a real pity more clubs don’t do throws,” Jim says. “I only did the Level 1 coaching (course) and picked up what I could from the internet and other places.”

He’s not a man to complain but feels Athletics Ireland, apart from Dave Sweeney, should do a lot more to promote throwing, in which Ireland has such a proud history.

“We’d only one field eventer in the Olympics and no thrower! We’re losing talent because we don’t have full-time paid coaches in the country.

“We can only do so much, but then clubs like ourselves and Liscarroll would like to hand them on to top coaches, to bring them on another level.”

Four of Irelands’ 10-strong athletics team at the Paralympics are throwers and three of those — Noelle, Orla Barry, and Niamh McCarthy — are all highly ranked discus throwers from Cork.

Limited accreditation means Jim can’t be with her in Rio but he has no worries about her.

“She competed in Berlin this summer, travelled with a chaperone and was fine, and Dave Sweeney is fantastic with her.”

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