Monday 29 May 2017

Taking a thrilling taste of the Paralympic experience

WE'VE only just met, Fran Meehan and I, but she wants me to trust her completely. Helmet on, blind- fold down and off we go on a tandem bicycle with Fran in control at the front and muggins at the back, pedalling away and hoping for the best.

Of course, my pilot has done this before. She is part of a hugely successful Paralympic duo with Catherine Walsh and hopes to represent Ireland at the London Games next summer.

The Offaly native acts as Catherine's eyes. Catherine is blind and to give an idea of what she experiences -- only she does it at a much higher speed -- I have a blindfold on to simulate her experience.

By no means a novice -- I've been known to zip around the mean streets on a 'Dublin bike' -- I am more than comfortable on two wheels normally, but take away the sight and everything is affected.

Even though I am fully aware that all I need to do is sit straight and pedal, not being able to see anything is disconcerting to the point that you just don't trust what you're feeling and you start to wobble from side to side.

Given that your feet are attached to the pedals, there can be no stopping as we leave the safety of the hall at Santry's Morton Stadium and head out for a lap of the track.

The initial moments are tricky. Fran is calm and collected -- she's done this a thousand times before -- but possibly not with 16 stone of second-row forward bobbing from side to side on the back seat.

Concentrating on the pedalling seems the way forward, it takes your mind off the balancing act and slowly, but surely a rhythm is reached.

Wobble

We turn the first corner and head down the straight, but when Fran starts upping the pace, we begin to wobble again. I know that it is just a bike and that the woman guiding me knows what she's doing, but it will take more than a lap or two to get used to this.

Nothing leaves you more impressed with athletes than attempting to do what they do.

I've never thrown a hammer, discus or shot-putt, but I've always fancied my chances.

When thrower Ray O'Dwyer hoists into the specially designed device that holds him in place and uses it to leverage his discus throw and hurl it forward from a seated position, it is hard not to be impressed.

Cork's Orla Barry does the same, using the technique that saw her finish fifth at Beijing, while multiple medal winner Catherine O'Neill watches on approvingly. WIT student Ray won silver and bronze in the 2011 World Junior Championships and gets great length in his throw.

When my turn comes, I try and squeeze my leg into the contraption and try to use what upper body strength I have to firstly get a shot putt and then a discuss down the field.

It's harder than it looks, leaning back as far as you can and then following through without the use of both legs, and -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- my efforts fall well short.

Inside the sports hall at Santry, where Derval O'Rourke starts warming up as the media day comes to an end, it's a hive of activity as Boccia champion Padraic Moran -- who double jobs as East Coast FM's Bray Wanderers correspondent -- struts his stuff.

Over by the side, journalists are queuing up for a shot at possibly the coolest looking contraption in the Paralympic pantheon.

The hand-cycle requires the athlete to almost lie vertically, head slightly up, and propel themselves forward, feet first, using their hands to turn the pedals.

Westmeath's Mark Rohan is the sport's main man in Ireland, but he is away training, so his coach talks me through the routine.

Getting in is the hardest part, but once you get going the hand-cycle is an exhilarating experience. Part luge, part bike, it is not as hard as it looks to get going on a flat surface and it doesn't take long to hit some decent speed.

Stopping and turning are problematic, but like all boys with toys it's of secondary importance as the need for speed takes over.

Of course, going up-hill will present plenty more difficulty as will the endurance needed for the sport.

Guiding the cycle downhill at high speed is also difficult and the level of skill and bravery needed to compete at the highest level, like Mark does so impressively, is extremely high.

Still, the hand-cycle is a lot of fun to have a go on, even if one can end up veering towards the wall at times.

And what better way to finish off a day of trying out new things than shooting a gun?

Sean Baldwin lost his leg on duty for the defence forces in Libya in 2003, but has put his training to some serious use since, competing in both able-bodied and para-shooting events.

He is passionate about his sport and looks the part dressed head to toe in shooting gear.

Sean is very thorough as he talks you through the routine before he hands over his gun.

Unlike the Playstation where the simple push of a button will steady your characters' hand in order to take out an evil Nazi, you're reliant on your own limbs here and it is not until you have aimed at a target that you realise how shaky your grip really is.

I hadn't ventured out the night before, so the demon drink certainly wasn't to blame, but as my left hand seemed to be still, the look through the sight swung wildly around the tiny target 20 metres away.

I took aim, fired, and missed the 'black' completely. On second go, I hit the edge and then, third time lucky, I hit the target -- albeit wide of the centre.

It wouldn't get me into a final, but I'm happy enough. Not too bad for a starter.

That was that, the athletes' went back to their daily lives and the preparation for London 2012 continued.

Those members of the fourth estate left Santry with an incredible respect for their skills.

Irish Independent

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