Sunday 25 September 2016

Bound for Rio

Helen Kearney has battled against all the odds to represent her country

Siobhán English

Published 13/07/2016 | 02:30

Immense courage: Helen Kearney has battled against the odds.
Immense courage: Helen Kearney has battled against the odds.

London 2012 seems a long time ago, but not for our athletes who contributed to Ireland's best haul of 16 medals at a Paralympic Games since Seoul in 1988.

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The Seoul Games were a year before Helen Kearney was born and only her family will remember those Games, but they will never forget London, where Helen became one of the most successful athletes of this era with three medals to her name in what was a fantastic two weeks for Ireland's Paralympians.

Helen had travelled across the Irish Sea with high hopes aboard her horse Mr Cool, but exceeded her own expectations by a mile when winning team bronze and individual bronze and silver.

"In 2011 I claimed Ireland's first European Para Equestrian medal, but London really was a dream come through for me and I was honoured to represent my country there.

"The best score up to that had been 73pc, so to gain a mark of 76pc was amazing," commented the 27-year-old.

Fast forward four years and the Dunlavin, Co Wicklow native is now busy preparing to fly the flag once more having been recently confirmed as Ireland's sole representative in the para equestrian competitions in Rio in two months' time.

It has been a long journey to get here, but it is all the more remarkable given Helen's story to date.

Diagnosed with the rare degenerative condition Friedreich's Ataxia (FA) at the age of 13 following surgery for scoliosis, Helen quickly threw herself into horse-riding to distract herself from a disease for which there is currently no cure.

Little did she know back then that her love of ponies would lead her to joining Para Equestrian Ireland in 2008, and from there to the greatest sporting event in the world, not once but twice before the age of 30.

Battling against the odds, over the years Helen has shown immense strength and courage to overcome her disability which sees her in a wheelchair when not aboard her horse Rock & Roll 2.

"Since my diagnosis of Friedreich's Ataxia in 2001, horses have been a huge part of life. Horse riding, and the physical activity that goes hand in hand with it, is what is keeping me walking.

"It has given me a reason to keep fighting. Horse riding and competing in para-equestrian sport has given me so much of what this rare condition has taken away."

Following her success at London, Helen began the daunting task of finding another horse to replace Mr Cool who was now nearing retirement age. The next horse proved unsuitable, and it was only after a chance encounter while in Germany with her trainer Heike Holstein that she discovered what would be her equine partner for the foreseeable future.

"After London I knew I would need another horse sometime soon and we tried a few but it was not until January of last year that we purchased 'Rocky'. Until then it was all up in the air as to whether or not I would qualify for Rio."

Sadly Mr Cool was euthanized just two months later following an accident in the paddock.

Deemed unsuitable for able-bodied riders due to his 'laid back' approach to life, Rocky proved the perfect match for Helen who completely relies on a sensible and steady horse to perform her dressage tests.

Initially introduced to the sport at Grade III, a deterioration of her condition since 2010 now sees her compete at Grade 1a which is confined to riders with the greatest impairments.

Competing at this level of the sport, whether it's the Olympics or Paralympics, takes great dedication and Helen has the wonderful support of her family - her parents Michael and Mary, brother John (30) and younger sister Brona (24), who also suffers from Friedreich's Ataxia.

An active horse-rider like her sibling, she enjoys competing in endurance. "Mum and Dad are very supportive, and are really looking forward to travelling to Rio, as will my boyfriend David Redmond.

"It's a logistical nightmare getting 'Rocky' there - he's never flown before - but my groom Lydia Bagge will be there to meet him when he arrives.

"It's a long way for us too but I am really looking forward to it. I have had a good preparation competing abroad in recent months and feel I am ready now.

"The competition will be different this time round and there are new people in my category but if I finish in the top six I will be happy with that," Helen concluded.

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