Feature: The Road to Rio for Kildare's Paralympians

Local trio on Team Ireland

Niamh O'Donoghue niamh.odonoghue@leinsterleader.ie

Reporter:

Niamh O'Donoghue niamh.odonoghue@leinsterleader.ie

Feature: The Road to Rio for Kildare's Paralympians

Sean Baldwin in action

Niamh O'Donoghue talks to sharp shooter Sean Baldwin; elite wheelchair athlete Patrick Monahan; and queen of dressage Helen Kearney, who are all Rio bound.

SHARP SHOOTING 

A road crash in Liberia in 2004 had catastrophic consequences for all involved.

“When I was lying in my hospital bed and I woke up after being in an induced coma, I realised how bad my injuries were and I thought what can I do now? I wanted to get back to work, but you need something else outside of work. I thought, well, I can actually shoot and compete,” says Sean Baldwin.

Other people might give up the prospect of a sporting career after losing a leg, but Newbridge man Sean is no ordinary man.

Having survived the crash while serving with the UN, his army colleague Sgt Derek Mooney tragically lost his life.

For Sean, it took two to three years to get fully physically fit and the Curragh based Defence Forces member became Ireland’s first ever Paralympic shooting representative in London 2012.

Setting two personal bests, he performed well, but acknowledges the games came a little too quickly for him. With a hectic schedule, combining training with his full time job in the army, the shores of Rio beckon next September.

“It’s totally different than military shooting, 180 degrees different from military shooting. Rio was the goal, but I got selected for London as a wildcard and it was a great experience,” he says.

Starting out at 6.30am, Sean packs in an hour’s training before work, notches up practice time on his lunch break and spends eight hours each Saturday and Sunday on the firing range in the midlands.

He points out he can do a lot of technical training at home and has a special computer programme to analyse his technique.

The Newbridge man has been with his partner, Pamela Donoghue for 32 years, having met when they were just 16.

He is hugely appreciative of her support and that of his family, especially his parents, John and Margaret.

“They have sacrificed so much. London was brilliant, the whole family came over. All the family have given me huge support. I don’t know if any of them will be able to go this time round, but my mother is threatening to go to Rio, and she may well do,” he says.

Sean first got into shooting in 2003, when Naas native, Ray Kane, who is now his coach, gave him a taste of the discipline.

“Then I had the accident, so it took me a while to get back into it and to get physically fit,” he said.

Sean, who has also been successful in able bodied events, pointed out there was no paralympic shooting in Ireland at the time. He represented Ireland in the Military Games 2010/11 in Rio, but it was only later when Liam Crawford, another Naas man and president of the NTSA (National Target Shooting Association), got in touch about the possibilities of paralympics.

Preparing to take part in four events, he points out there are no scopes used.

The indoor events will require competitors to shoot a half a millimetre dot target 10 metres away with an air rifle. The outdoor events will see participants aiming at a target the size of a 10 cent coin 50 metres away.

The main event is the most challenging. Lasting three hours and fifteen minutes, shooters start from a kneeling down position, to prone, which is lying down, and then finish off standing.

Sean points out the general standard of shooting has improved immensely in the past four years.

“Great Britain are very strong, China, Russia and Germany, they are putting a lot of money into their teams and it pays off,” he said.

“To be at a level you can compete, you have to be putting in 30/40 hours training a week.”

Sean is also grateful for the support of his army colleagues. So what are his ambitions for Rio.

“It all depends on the day. Rory McIlroy can go out and shoot 64 today, but he might shoot 70 tomorrow. Shooting is a bit like that. All you can do is do your best and don’t be worrying about what everyone else is doing. The aim is to get into the finals, That’s my goal,” he says.

“Everyone wants to get into the top eight and get into the finals. Then you have a chance, anyone can win it. Your scores go back to 0 and it is shorter and quicker.”

Sean was always into sport and played football for Sarsfields when he was younger. He also competed at the Orienteering World Championship in Sweden in the 90s.

When asked if the sporting buzz came from his family, he tells how his brother Malcom, who has since sadly passed away, was into athletics.

Sean has won countless Irish nationals and is current 10m national air rifle champion.

“The body has become really strong in the last three and a half years and I am shooting really well. Everything is on target and I'm aiming to peak at the right time.”

Helen Kearney with her London 2012 medals

QUEEN OF THE DRESSAGE

When Dunlavin's Helen Kearney returned home with a sliver and two bronze medals from the London Paralympic Games, a crowd of up to 1,500 gathered to greet her.

“I couldn't believe it, the way they embraced the paralympic games. I had never been involved in anything like that. To see the community turn out like that in support, it really opened my eyes,” said Helen as she prepares to return to paralympic stage.

Speaking to the Leinster Leader from a dressage competition near Gloucester in England recently, the 27 year-old is continuing her preparations and working hard to build on the bond with her new horse, Rock and Roll 2.

Acknowledging it can be very hard to develop a comfortable partnership with a new horse, Helen points out she relishes a new challenge.

When she was 10 years old, her parents brought both her and her sister Brona horse riding.

“I was absolutely petrified of the horses,” recalls Helen, but she soon ditched her reservations and fell in love with all things equestrian.

At the age of 13, she was diagnosed with Fredericks Ataxia, a rare progressive degenerative condition, which causes loss of coordination and muscle strength in the arms and legs.

“I was unsteady on my feet at first. I can fully stand, but I use a wheelchair and a motorised scooter to get around,” she explains.

She acknowledges it is challenging, but she has been riding so long, its a natural way of life for her. Taking part in two individual dressage competitions, it will be impossible to beat her three medal haul tally because there is no Irish team competing this time round.

Helen’s family have been 110 per cent behind her. She lives with her mam and dad, Mary and Michael, and has a brother along with her sister Brona.

“I have been working hard all winter and competed in a competition in April. I have worked with my coach, Heike Holstein from Carbury since 2011,” she said.

Having competed at the highest levels, Heike was able to share her experiences with the young Dunlavin rider.

The former Newbridge College student plans to fly out to Rio on September 3, and is due to compete on 12, 15 and 16.

“I would love to win a medal. Winning a medal would be the icing on the cake but, as I’ve said before, cake can be nice without the icing. To finish in the top six would be really brilliant. That's the aim,” she adds.

Patrick Monahan on the track

THE NEED FOR SPEED

When it comes to pinpointing Patrick Monahan's current status on his career trajectory, it’s clear to see it’s in its infancy, with just two years of competitive racing under his belt.

However, such are his achievements, who knows the heights he can reach in the future, having won the Dublin city marathon and competed in races all over the world.

Having achieved the A standard to qualify for the Irish team, the Caragh man still didn't get confirmation of his inclusion in the team until a couple of days ago.

“There were 10 athletes that had the A standard that weren’t included. They do a calculation based on your average times. My time (marathon) was 1 hour 29 mins and the A standard was 1 hour 43 mins,” he says.

During the winter, he clocks up a total of 50 miles a day in two training sessions - the equivalent of two marathons. However, his schedule at the moment consists of 30 miles a day as well as a gym programme. Often seen training at Mondello Park, he is grateful for the local racetrack's support.

“My first marathon was in Dublin in 2013 and I had just done five weeks training at that time,” he points out.

Before his accident, Patrick played football for Raheens and loved his job as an apprentice plumber. Life was good, but things took a dramatic turn for the 21 year-old when he crashed his car in March 2o07. He fractured three thoracic vertebrae and was told he would never walk again.

He spent a total of five months in hospital and the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire.

“I didn't want to go home actually. I was on my own all day, everyone was out working and I didn't know what to do with myself,” he explains.

He subsequently got a job at the bank, but gave it up two years ago to concentrate full time on his sporting career.

“I wanted to do something, some kind of sport but I didn't know what. I didn't want to play a team sport. I'd never played basketball and just because I had a disability, I wasn't going to take up wheelchair basketball,” he says.

Seven years later, Patrick was watching the London 2012 Paralympic games and started to gain interest in the wheelchair races. He decided to try it out himself and went out to Punchestown with his friends.

“I did two miles and I was knackered,” he laughs.

One would assume you’d need a huge amount of upper body strength for wheelchair racing, but Patrick points out weight training is necessary but it’s more about flexibility in the shoulder and fast hand speed.

Depending on the track, racers can get up to 31 to 32km per hour on the road and one track in England sees racers reaching searing speeds of 50km per hour. Patrick's average speed is about 28.8km per hour.

“It can be dangerous. You have only a small helmet and no significant break to stop yourself,” he says.

The 27 year-old knows what its like to crash out, having fallen over in the first 10km of a marathon in Paris. However, his most scary moment came when he hit a wall at speed in the Great Northern Run. Luckily he escaped with minor injuries.

The former Naas CBS student is competing in the T-53 800km on the track and the T-53/t-54 marathon. The T54 racers are more competitive as they are paralysed from lower down and can generate more power so it will be a tough race.

The local support Patrick has received has been incredible. Sponsored by Tom Cribbin from The Butchers Block, he also praised the support from Paralympic Ireland, The Irish Sports Council, and Marathon Mission. His dad, retired intercounty referee Mick
Monahan, and his wife Annemarie are hoping to head to Rio.

“I wasn't pushing anyone to go. There was no pressure on them. It’s so dangerous out there. I know there has been a lot of talk about the Zika virus but it's so dangerous out there in terms of crime. They won't even get to see me, I'll be in the Olympic village and I won’t be allowed out for safety,” he said.

Patrick has three brothers, Justin, Paul and Eoin — two of whom play rugby with Naas. His girlfriend, Louise Carey has also been cheering him on.

With next year's World Championships closer to home in London, more family members will get the opportunity to see him in action.

Coached by Ian Mirfin, the Le Cheile Athletic Club member is keen to point out that although he is competitive, it's not at the cost of his sense of fair play.