SWORDS paralympian Catherine Walsh lives life to the limit, and beyond.
Although born albino with peripheral vision the 39-year-old is a physiotherapist, a World Champion tandem race cyclist and a mother of two. At 9.30 a.m. on Friday, at London's famed Velodrome, she will become the first Visually Impaired athlete ever to compete in six Paralympic Games. Catherine has pursued sport for as long she can remember. 'I started competing locally in North Dublin when I was 12, my first senior international was at the World Disabled Championships in Aasen Holland when I was just 16.'
She grew up with her seven siblings in the Fingal town and divided her time between home and attending the now closed St. Mary's School for the Visually Impaired in Merrion, Dublin. Whatever of education, home was where her sporting genes and genius came from and her parents have always been her inspiration. Her mum Bernie and dad Joe are now well known athletics officials but they were once major sports participants themselves in all that is true and amateur. Three years ago her dad was named Volunteer of the Year for his work with vision impaired and other disabled athletes. In 1992, still a teenager, Catherine represented Ireland at the Paralympic Games in Barcelona.
The Paralympics, the Olympics for disabled athletes, are held in parallel with Olympic Games taking the same flame, city and venues. 'I have competed at the last five Paralympic Games, the first four in athletics and the last one in Beijing in tandem cycling. Sydney in 2000 gave me my best result in Paralympic Games where I won bronze in the pentathlon.' Before moving across to cycling Catherine won many honours over the years at national, European and World level. At the 1994 World Disabled Championships in Berlin and the 2002 World Disabled Championships in Lille, where she won bronze at the pentathlon. After the birth of her first daughter in 2005 Catherine thought she was finished with competitive sport. 'I was thinking of doing the triathlon instead when I bumped into Michael Delaney and Mark Keogh, friends from Paralympic sport, and they told me Denis Twoomey, Irish ParaCycling Manager, was going mad looking for girls for his team and it all spiralled out of control after that.' In 2007, Catherine competed in her first World Disabled Cycling Championships, quickly followed by Paralympics.
In November 2009 she won silver at the World individual indoor pursuit in Manchester. More honours were to follow culminating it World Cup and World individual titles in Spain (June 2011) and LA (February 2012). Aside from her parents, Catherine gives great credit to her one time team mate Bridie Lynch, Paralympic and World Champion discus thrower and pentathlete. 'I was lucky to be on the same teams as Bridie in those early days. She was serial world medallist and record breaker. I learned a lot from Bridie Lynch's preparation and overall dedication.' Catherine reckons tandem cycling is not the easiest sport to get into but if you can do it, it's worth it. 'Well, logistically it can be quite difficult at first to find a pilot of similar standard. I would start with family members and friends locally giving me a hand a lot of time. I do my work on a stationary bike also as well as doing other gym work. If you want to get into tandem cycling some of the sports partnerships and cycling clubs have tandem bikes which they will loan to you if you show interest.' Catherine also points out that event organisers are now more likely to include tandems in their activities. As for costs. You can purchase a tandem bike second hand for €1,200 or more.
As new you are looking at over €2,000. If you can ever get to the dizzy heights which Catherine has achieved to date your costs may be slightly higher. 'If it wasn't for the equipment grants obtained by Paralympics Ireland and Cycling Ireland we couldn't do this.