Monday 20 August 2018

Turner's success based on a dedication that knows no limits

Nicole Turner is primed to compete at the European Para Swimming Championships in Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile
Nicole Turner is primed to compete at the European Para Swimming Championships in Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile
Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

There is huge irony in the fact that the one subject Nicole Turner gets to sit out in school is physical education. That's because this 16-year-old Para swimming star is already training 14 hours a week and travelling from Laois to Dublin to do it.

Expect Turner, who will compete in six events ranging from sprints to 200m individual medley, to be one of the Irish stars at the European Para Swimming Championships in Dublin over the next week.

Two years ago she won three European medals before her 14th birthday and then made the finals in all five of her events at the Rio Paralympics, coming fifth in the 50m butterfly and swimming six personal bests.

Expect her also to break down any latent prejudices you might harbour about people who look different from you.

Turner's swimming talent is showcased in Para swimming's hypochondroplasia class for athletes of small stature.

Ask her if she objects to the term 'dwarf' and she just grins.

"Some people don't like it because it has an association with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Many dwarfs use the term 'little person'. It doesn't really bother me. I'm not known as a dwarf or a little person, I'm known as a Paralympic swimmer," says the Laois girl, who sat her Junior Cert in June.

Up until last March Turner was coached and trained locally in Portarlington's 25m pool, rising at 5.0am daily. But the need to train in a 50m pool saw her move to join the Irish squad at Abbotstown, doubling her training load and the demands on her lifestyle.

Now she trains after school, from 5-7pm daily. Dinner is eaten in the car on the way home, followed immediately by homework and bed.

"There are days when you don't really want to do it but then you say to yourself 'look where you're at, you need to do it'."

On Saturdays she has two sessions. If she doesn't stay with a team-mate inbetween, her parents Bernie and Jason will do the round-trip to Dublin twice that day. That's the phenomenal level of dedication that elite swimming demands of athletes and their families.

"Some of my friends aren't sporty and they're like 'how do you do it?' and I'm like 'if I didn't swim I'd be so bored with my life!' A couple of months ago I got sick and couldn't swim for 10 days. It was the worst 10 days of my life."

Her coach, Dave Malone, was Paralympic champion and world-record holder at 100m backstroke 18 years ago and is now Paralympic Ireland's Director of High Performance. He has developed a world-class Irish team, led by Paralympic and three-time World bronze medallist Ellen Keane.

As international stars in a minority sport the opportunity to compete in front of a home crowd has special significance for them. "If people don't come to watch us I don't think they'll ever really understand Paralympic sport," says Keane. "This is a really great opportunity to show them it's not just a person with a disability having a swim. It's an elite athlete who just happens to have a disability."

Turner singles out the work being done by Sinéad Burke, an equality advocate for little people, whose campaigning in fashion alone has seen her featured in Vogue this year.

"Sinéad got the term 'little person' put into the Irish language," Turner says admiringingly. "Every year there's a convention in Athlone for all the little people in Ireland and I met her there."

Has Turner personally encountered much prejudice?

"Well there are people who don't know you, who say 'why is she small and she's an adult?' You just kind of give them a death stare and be like 'you should know this!' But it doesn't really bother me.

"Before swimming I was known as 'the small girl' from a little town. Now I'm known as a Paralympic swimmer. My disability really doesn't come into it."

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