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Emer O'Sullivan can't wait to represent Ireland in powerchair football


Emer O'Sullivan had never been part of a team before taking part in powerchair football. Photo: Marc Condren

Emer O'Sullivan had never been part of a team before taking part in powerchair football. Photo: Marc Condren

Emer O'Sullivan had never been part of a team before taking part in powerchair football. Photo: Marc Condren

When Emer O'Sullivan was a toddler, she could totter about the place, and she could even run. But these days, she needs a wheelchair and personal assistants (PAs) to help her with everyday tasks. Still, none of that prevents this lovely young woman from leading a very full and active life.

When she was born in Portlaoise 19 years ago, there was no indication that anything was amiss. Emer was a contented baby, basking in the love of her accountant father and devoted mother. But, in her second year, her parents became concerned by her unsteadiness while walking.

"They noticed I was falling a lot, even for a child that age," she explains. "And I didn't go exploring or climb up on couches, like most kids do." Eventually, she was referred to Our Lady's Children's Hospital in Crumlin, where, at the age of three, she was officially diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA).

Muscular dystrophy (MD) is the collective name for a range of neuromuscular conditions that are characterised by the progressive weakening and wasting of muscles. Each type arises from a different mutation or deletion. While the causes vary, in Emer's case, SMA, her type of MD, affects her voluntary muscles (the ones we have control of) such as those in the arms and legs.

When Emer was first diagnosed, doctors were optimistic about her future, because, unlike some patients with MD, she could walk; in fact, she could run, too. So, her parents were advised to preserve that precious mobility by keeping her as fit and active as possible. When she was three, Emer went to playgroup. And then, two years later, she entered the hallowed halls of Scoil Mhuire in Portlaoise.

Throughout her childhood, she had physiotherapy on a regular basis. She also swam and did horse riding. "I rode a big, white horse called Jackie at the stables in Mountrath," Emer remembers. "That horse had a very nice nature. So I found it relaxing, while the riding itself was good for my balance. It definitely was a favourite thing to do."

When Emer was about 10, her walking deteriorated further. But she soldiered on, bravely doing most of what her peers were doing. "I couldn't play sport in primary school," she explains. "But I could join in the games in the playground." Around this time, Emer got a manual wheelchair, but only used it for long distances. "Walking used to make me very tired," she says. "Anyway, because my muscles were weak, I had to be pushed when I used the wheelchair."

Emer moved on to Scoil Chriost Ri in Portlaoise and, in time, began using a powerchair - again in a very limited way. It's clear that she places huge importance on family ties and special friendships. However, as she progressed through secondary school, she struggled to physically keep up with her friends. By the time she was 15, she was battling to get to the various classrooms around the school. Ultimately, she was forced to bring the powerchair into use. "I wasn't upset at this development," she says. "In fact, I was delighted, as it meant I could keep up with the others."

When it came to the Leaving Certificate, Emer proved that she wasn't going to let her disability hold her back when she received seven distinctions. Still, she's not blase about this impressive achievement. "I wanted to do well, so I worked hard," she explains. "I wasn't expecting the result I got. But it did mean I had enough points to do science at Dublin City University (DCU). I hope, eventually, to specialise in genetics and cell biology."

Emer is now happily ensconced in the DCU campus in Dublin. Because her weak muscles prevent her from performing certain tasks such as opening doors and cooking (she can't lift pots), she has had to resort to being assisted while she is in Dublin. "It was hard to adjust to having PAs who weren't family members," she says. "Although I'm used to it now. The PAs here are really nice." Otherwise, Emer is fully involved in college life and zooms about attending lectures, doing lab work and - equally importantly - socialising in pubs and restaurants.

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For as long as she can recall, Emer has been a member of Muscular Dystrophy Ireland (MDI) and has received much support from the organisation over the years. "Some of the people I met there are still close friends," she avows. "No matter what the problem, there is always someone in the office willing to give good advice."

Some years back, Emer began playing with the Midlands United Powerchair Football Club and soon discovered that she was an adept athlete. "I loved sport, but I'd never been part of a team before," she says. "So it was great being with people who were in a similar position to me. Competing was also a whole new experience for me."

Long before she began her college career, Emer was a supporter of DCU Storm, and she's now a crucial member of this successful team. She says powerchair football is very fast, with loads of action. "There are nine players in the squad," she explains, "but only four are on the pitch at one time. It's very tactical, so you can be mentally exhausted after playing a few games."

Donal Byrne, manager of the Irish powerchair football team, who has known Emer for about four years, says, "She has great talent. She is very calm and hugely determined to improve and to succeed." He adds that Emer was capped in Paris while playing in the U16 team, even though she was only 13. She was also a member of the Irish team that successfully competed in the European Powerchair Nations Cup in Limerick in 2014. This was a World Cup qualifier, so they're off to Florida in July.

Emer says she is extremely excited about competing in the US. "My whole family will be there, including aunts and uncles." It's quite clear that, even though Emer faces some practical challenges, she has many other talents - not least of which is an extremely positive outlook on life. "No matter what, I was always really content with myself. If you put your mind to anything, you'll be able to achieve all your goals," she says.

One of her personal goals is to get a good job in Ireland so she can stay near the friends and family who mean so much to her. But she also wants to travel. The Great Wall of China is high on her list. Nothing is beyond the reach of this determined young woman.

Muscular Dystrophy Ireland's annual LoveMDI awareness campaign takes place from today, February 12 and runs until February 19. For more information, ee mdi.ie

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