Yesterday I flew to Dublin to be a part of the Paralympics Ireland Media Day. I think initially it had been intended to be a free-for-all for the Irish press to come and meet the athletes, try out some of the sports, take photos and do interviews. As a member of the team, I can assure you that this sort of exposure and publicity is much needed and much appreciated. The more that the general public know about who we are and what we do, the more support we will have when it comes time to compete next September in London.
However, it seems mother nature isn't a sports fan and decided to throw a flood-sized spanner into the works. Dublin experienced some of the worst rain and flooding it has seen in years the night before (and the rain continued into the following day), making it difficult for many people to get to the event – and those that did come may have arrived a little soggy. So while we did get some valuable coverage, not as much as I would have hoped for.
Like the good trained monkey that I am, I dutifully donned my World Champs jersey and mounted a stationary bike so that I could show off the Rainbow Stripes, answer questions and give the press an up-close-and-personal look at my carbon leg (courtesy of www.pacerehab.com). Not that I mind of course – I am ALWAYS happy to talk about the Paralympic movement and my goals for 2012. I think it's important that we get the message out that we are Elite athletes competing at the highest levels of our sports and deserve to be treated with the same respect and admiration as our able-bodied compatriots. Hopefully London 2012 will go a long way to to opening people's eyes and raising the collective profile of all our sports.
One of the questions that came up during my interviews was, 'what will it mean to me to compete in these Games for Ireland'? It's actually an excellent question that has two important components for myself. I'll see if I can answer them both.
The first part of the question for me, relates to competing 'for Ireland'. My ties to the country and nationality are both life-long and tenuous. My father is Irish and lives in Ireland, I have an Irish passport, an Irish name, I ride in Irish colours, etc. – but I've never lived in Ireland. In fact, I was born in Singapore (on an Air Force base) and spent most of my life living in Canada. Even 'worse' is that I currently live in England. So how can I call myself an Irishman?!
I suppose it comes down to this: I am Irish by birthright. And my loyalty to the Irish team is because when I got into paracycling and decided to compete internationally, I first approached the Irish team and they were the ones that gave me a chance. They were the ones that stuck by me, even when it looked like I wasn't going to amount to much. Someone must have seen the glimmer of talent and decided I was worth the effort to keep training. And (so far) it has paid off. I am a loyal person – and I will always support those that support me. Ireland gave me my shot, and I will always remain true to them. I miss my friends, family and life back in Canada at times, and call England my home, but Ireland is my country. So to compete in these Games for Ireland is my chance to say thank you to all the people that have been behind me the last few years and helped me get to where I am now. I will do them all proud.
The other part of the question is what it will mean to compete in the Games in general. I won't say it's been a lifelong dream. I won't give an X-Factor style answer and say "it will mean the world to me". I can't even say that as of right now I'm excited about the prospect. That may sound cold and callous – but one thing I've learned in the past year, is that you must take one day at a time. Focus on your next race and not the one a year from now. Before the Paralympics arrive next September, I have a year of training and racing to get through. I have another World Championships in February (on the track) that is currently my main focus, followed by a season of road races and time trials all next summer. It's all building towards London but I'm trying to stay grounded and focussed on each race as they come up on my calendar – and not look past them to the 'big one' in September.
Don't get me wrong – I AM guardedly excited about the whole thing and it IS a big deal. I just haven't allowed myself to think about it too much as of yet. Winning the World Championships means that I have achieved the Paralympics Ireland criteria for selection to the team for London, but until the final selections are made and ratified (sometime next July), I am not 100% certain of going to the Games. So I guess until I get that letter from 'the boss' I won't believe it's really happening!
I recall watching the cycling events in the last Paralympics in Beijing and thinking to myself that I could do that. That was when the seed was first planted for me and I first had dreams of competing on the highest stage in the sport. At the time I remember thinking – if I can just get a try out with the team, I think I can make it. And then, if I can get on the team, my goal would be to make it to a World Championships. Even back then I had the belief that I could win a World Championships. And deep, deep down inside... I knew that I had what it takes to make it to the Paralympics.
So what will it mean to compete in the Paralympics? It will be a justification for all my hard work. An affirmation that I am a worthy sportsman and one of the best in the world. In Paralympic sport, we so often compete in front of a handful of people. To compete in London in front of thousands of people (and potentially many, many more watching on TV) will be the thrill of a lifetime. I want to open people's eyes and show them that we ride just as hard and fast as anyone else. It's just that our artificial limbs slow us down, not our hearts.