Wednesday 24 January 2018

'In hospital one of the first things I thought was, what will get me up every morning?'

Irish Paralympic hopefuls reveal their dreams and motivations to Michael Verney

Michael Verney takes part in a wheelchair race at the Paralympics Ireland Media Experiential Day in Santry yesterday as the team continues its preparations for this year's Paralympic Games in Rio (SPORTSFILE)
Michael Verney takes part in a wheelchair race at the Paralympics Ireland Media Experiential Day in Santry yesterday as the team continues its preparations for this year's Paralympic Games in Rio (SPORTSFILE)

Michael Verney

Sport is often described as a game of inches but for Irish Paralympic shooter Sean Baldwin, the margins are even more minuscule, like hitting "a one-euro coin from the width of a football pitch away".

With 30 years of Defence Force experience it's only natural that the 48-year-old is a deadeye with a rifle but this is no normal target practice, as I was quick to realise. And Baldwin is no normal athlete.

While serving with the UN in Liberia 13 years ago, the Newbridge man lost his leg in a car accident. Not only that, he broke nearly every bone in his body, but the dream of being an elite-level athlete could not be quenched.

Most would wallow in their life-changing situation but survival mode kicked in, with Baldwin's focus quickly shifting to the future. He didn't just preach the military motto of "adapt, improvise, overcome", he lived through it.

"It was one of the first things I thought about in hospital, 'what's going to get me up on a Saturday morning?'," Baldwin said at the Paralympics Ireland 'media experimental day' at Morton Stadium, Santry yesterday.

"I was lying in the hospital bed thinking about my hip and I said 'well I'll be able to shoot standing, I'll be able to do an elite sport' and that's what I always wanted. I competed at the World Championships for orienteering in 1990 but I was never going to be able to run as good as before.

"That didn't intrigue me any more but what did intrigue me was that I could continue to be as good at shooting as I was before the accident, so I persisted."

Good is an understatement. After trying (and failing miserably) several times, I watched in awe as Ireland's first Paralympic shooter routinely hit a target so small I had to look twice to even see it.

While firing a Walther rifle - the maker of James Bond's weapon of choice - with pinpoint consistency Baldwin outlines how the margin between victory and defeat is wafer-thin.

Such is the level of precision required, he regularly leaves Ireland to get his firearm serviced in Germany, with ammunition tested in England, months in advance of competition.


"Shooters in Paralympic sports are so good and the quality of equipment is so high that it will be won by the width of a hair. If you don't shoot 60 tens out of 60 shots you're not at the races. I've shot two off a world record and not made a final, it's that competitive," he said.

"I'm constantly going in and out of the country to get equipment serviced, I can't just go down to Penneys. With shooting it's not just about your ability, and it's your responsibility to get equipment refined to a world-class level."

Having started his Paralympic journey in 2011, Baldwin received an "unexpected" wildcard entry to London but four years later, he has already qualified for four events in Rio, his favourite of which is the marathon 50m shoot, with 120 shots over three hours and 15 minutes.

After holding the rifle for a mere five minutes (while sitting) and growing tired, it's hard to fathom how one could maintain accuracy with every pull of the trigger. "It's like the starting blocks except in athletics but I've to do it 120 times in a row and get it perfect," he said.

The Rio Games, starting on September 7, is the culmination of a five-year plan for Baldwin but contrastingly, it has been a quickfire journey for Cork discus thrower Noelle Lenihan.

Less than a year after taking up the discipline, the Charleville teenager made a stunning major championship debut when taking silver at the Paralympic Games in Doha last October with an F38 world record of 31.64m to finish behind reigning F37 Paralympic champion Na Mi of China.

Her father and coach Jim has been central to her rapid development, while the people of Charleville have been hugely supportive. "Dad started coaching so he could train me to throw and he's been brilliant," she said.

"He's a father and a coach, you can talk to him about anything. Plus you can just pop out into the yard and train whenever you want. There wasn't a discus ring close by but the locals put down a square of concrete in Charleville Park, we drew out a circle and it's brilliant."

The Hazelwood College Dromcollogher fifth year student embraces cerebral palsy, highlighting how it has opened doors which she could never have imagined, and a possible Paralympic medal.

"If I didn't have Cerebral Palsy I wouldn't be here today," she said.

"I've learned that if you put in the time and dedication to your sport you can do anything and I've come a long way in a year. It would be a dream come true to win a medal at 16, a lifetime goal achieved."

London 2012 helped Paralympics Ireland shatter the glass ceiling. Now, it's more than sport, it's real people dreaming big, getting the opportunity to fulfil their sporting dreams on the biggest stage.

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