Friday 24 October 2014

Going for gold: From rare condition to champion

Helen Kearney thought her life was over when she was diagnosed with a rare degenerative condition at age 11, says Joy Orpen. Today, she's a member of the Irish Paralympic team, winning three medals in London 2012

Helen Kearney who rides horses for Ireland in the Paralympics with Mister Cool. Photo: Tony Gavin 20/03/2014

When Helen Kearney, 26, was diagnosed with a rare degenerative condition, she didn't give up on life. On the contrary – she looked at ways she could turn things around, and is now the very best in her chosen field, while bringing great glory to Ireland.

Helen was 11 years old when she was diagnosed with scoliosis, which is also known as curvature of the spine. She had two operations that lasted a gruelling 12 hours each.

As time went on, she developed a sore shoulder, so her mother, who is a GP in their home town of Dunlavin, Co Wicklow, took her to a physiotherapist, who picked up that "something was not right". So Helen was taken to a specialist, who diagnosed Friedreich's ataxia (FA).

According to Ataxia Ireland, this is a genetic, progressive disorder causing "clumsiness, difficulties with balance and lack of coordination".

Helen was stunned when the specialist talked about her future while living with FA.

"Everything was surreal," Helen recalls. "Anger, frustration and 'why me?' questions – I probably experienced them all. I remember thinking that, when I reached the point where I needed a wheelchair, my life would be over. It took me a long time to wrap my head around the disability."

Helen also recalls asking her mother if she would be able to have a family one day, but she says she wasn't enquiring for the obvious reasons. "I think I knew that I wasn't going to grow up and have the kind of normal life they have had. My initial feeling was one of great loss," she says.

Fortunately, Helen comes from a very loving family, and they absolutely supported her.

"Riding was the only sport that interested me," she says. "So my mam got me a pony – she wanted me to focus on living in the best way possible for me."

Helen was 13 and the pony, called Robin, proved to be a handful.

"He pushed me quite hard and, as I was still very inexperienced at the time, I learned an awful lot from him. I had him for over four years – he was my life," she says.

Helen's main focus back then was showjumping – mostly with The Pony Club. Then, when she was 17, Helen got Rascal. She was asked by another rider if she would be interested in para equestrian dressage.

"I said no – I just couldn't be bothered. But, when I saw how good she was doing dressage, I got hooked. By the time I did my Leaving, I knew that para equestrian dressage was for me.

To be honest, if there was a cure for FA, I'm not sure I'd go back to jumping – I really love dressage," Helen says.

She has gone from strength to strength ever since. Her first competition was in England. "I won the prize for the best international rider. The whole experience inspired me," Helen says.

Since then, Helen has won prizes all over the place.

Because her coordination and balance have deteriorated in recent years, Helen was forced to begin using her very racy-looking wheelchair in a limited way. However, since she can still walk short distances, and has a driving licence, she is able to lead a really independent life.

Sunday Indo Life Magazine

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