Sunday 22 April 2018

Cliona Foley: Turning accident into opportunity

Declan Slevin has been through the mill, but he came out the other side with an Olympic dream

Declan Slevin instantly took to Para cycling when he tried it after his accident, revelling in the freedom it offered him. Photo: Morgan Treacy
Declan Slevin instantly took to Para cycling when he tried it after his accident, revelling in the freedom it offered him. Photo: Morgan Treacy
Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

Declan and Evelyn Slevin have an idyllic rural view from the front window of their immaculate dormer bungalow in Kilcatherina, near Moate.

They've got clear, unimpeded sight across to Cnoc Aiste, the highest point in their local village of Rosemount, but it's one of the costliest views in Ireland.

Twelve years ago there were two imposing trees in the opposite field. One came down in a bad storm; luckily, it fell away from their house, but it minded Declan, a self-employed carpenter, builder and part-time farmer, to take the other one down, just in case it ever fell their way.

Only it was he who was felled. A telephone wire ran through the tree, and when he unscrewed it to release some slack, it bounced back and knocked him off the ladder. The fall crushed several of his vertebrae and he never walked again.

The girls - Amy (6) and Jessica (5) - were at the childminder's and Evelyn, mid-way through a degree in Athone IT, was in the house, which was a building site as they were midway through renovations. "This is bad, this is bad," he said, when she reached him in the ditch.

A few days later she stood beside him in the Mater Hospital's spinal unit, a couple of hours after an MRI had confirmed the worst.

"He was on the splint bed, down facing the floor. They used to rotate them to take the pressure off their backs. Myself and his brother John were there. All he could see was our feet, and all we could see was the back of his head.

"We were due to pour a new floor in the sitting room the next morning and John said 'well, I'll put off that concrete so,' and suddenly Declan's head moved and said 'c'mere!' John had to get down on the ground to talk to him and he said 'no way are you putting off that concrete! Pour it in the morning.'"

Evelyn remembers a nurse one day suggesting she feed him. "I'll never forget, it was scrambled eggs. I gave him a spoonful and he started to cry and said 'this isn't happening! This is not how it's going to be!' And I was like 'look, eat it, get over it and we'll move on to the next thing.'"

He was over three weeks there, and another three and a half months in the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dun Laoghaire, though the medics told her his was the shortest stay ever for a patient with his level of spinal injury.

He pulled her aside one day and said: 'You know you don't have to stick this, don't you? If you want to go, that's fine.'

"And I said 'hold on a minute, I'm 10 years down the road here! I didn't walk up the aisle to walk away from the first hurdle so let's just see how it goes, will we?'" she says, laughing.

Theirs is a home filled with constant laughter. A sideboard is loaded with cards, most offering best wishes for Declan's upcoming Paralympics debut but others for their recent 21st wedding anniversary.

Three months after the injury he insisted she go back to college and she's added a Masters to her BSc degree.

Amy is now in college, Jessica is doing the Leaving and they have a son, Graham, aged five, a hyper-active delight who loves nothing more than pulling out a couple of his father's spare chairs and challenging you to a game of wheelchair basketball in the back yard.

Declan still works in building and farming. He's one of seven children who grew up on the family farm next door so there were plenty of siblings eager to help. A concrete ramp was built so he can wheel up to the tractor cab to which they've attached a steel platform, and he drives it with hand controls.

Among his many gizmos is a six-wheeled quad that looks like a heavy-duty golf buggy, and the variety of wheels and sprockets hanging up in the shed confirm that this is also a cyclist's home.

"I got in the Sky (satellite TV) after the accident because, well what was my husband going to do? It was never used, I had to get rid of it soon after," Evelyn chuckles.

The irony is that, before his accident, Declan was always far too busy for sport, even though several of his brothers were Gaelic footballers.

He started out, somewhat reluctantly, with wheelchair basketball while in rehab and still plays it for fun.

Some wheelchair marathons followed but, five years ago, when local man Mark Rohan - a double Paralympic champion at handcycling in 2012 - invited him over to Athlone to try a time-trial in a recumbent handbike, he was smitten.

"He just took to it from the very first evening," Evelyn recalls. "He came home and went 'wow!' He said he loved the freedom of it, he was flying out the road. Speed was never the big thing, it was the adrenalin rush and the freedom he got that evening and he's never lost that."

Within a year Declan had founded Rosemount Cycling Club whose members push him mercilessly on their 50km spins, and he does his fitness training with former Offaly footballer Joe Quinn in Clara.

Paralympics Ireland welcomed him with open arms and, within seven months, he was competing internationally in Barcelona. Para cycling has since brought him from Abu Dhabi to Prague and now he's reached its pinnacle, the Paralympics.

Evelyn and the kids will be there too and they'll all be waved off with the unstinting love and support of family and a community whose only question ever, before they raise funds and cheerlead, is 'would Declan be happy with that?'

Bunting and tricolours decorate their lane and, a few miles away, at the entrance to the Athlone-Mullingar cycleway, a pretty flowerbed features a 'Rosemount to Rio' sign and tyres painted like the Olympic rings.

The Slevins' irrepressible positivity and gentle fortitude make it easy to underestimate his achievement. He half-jokes that the recession was the best thing that ever happened him, as it yielded the free time to get immersed in sport and cycling.

But, if pressed, he'd surely say the best thing to ever happen him was meeting Evelyn Fox from Horseleap at a Declan Nerney gig in 'The Well'.

"His accident was at 5.0 on a Friday evening on September 17 and he'll be cycling in Rio, on September 15, 12 years later," she grins. "That's cool!"

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