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'Breaking my back taught me what was worth fighting for in life'

Two of Ireland’s Paralympic athletes on not letting a disability define them and how they got tough in the face of adversity.

slevin1 Declan Slevin with wife Evelyn, daughters Amy and Jessica and son Graham at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Source: Diarmaid Greene/Sportsfile via IWA

IF YOU HAD told Declan Slevin in 2004 that he’d be an Olympic athlete at the age of 47, he would have laughed and gone back to work.

But 12 years, a broken back and a wheelchair later, the Westmeath man is challenging the very best in the world at paracycling.

The proud father described how living and competing as a Paralympian has changed his whole perspective, giving him a new lease on life.

Where once the daily pressures of making ends meet meant he’d work every hour available, he now says he realises what is truly important in life; his wife and kids.

And in a way, Slevin said he looks back to that day in 2004 when he fell from a telephone pole as the moment his life changed – and not necessarily for the worse.

As a member of the Irish Wheelchair Association (IWA), he’s challenging perceptions of disability as a full stop to the life he wants to lead.

Determination

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, he said: “When it happened, I was lying in a bed in the rehab hospital in Dun Laoghaire and I was thinking, ‘Why did God leave me with a pair of legs that didn’t work?’ But then you start moving again.

“You think of your kids, your wife and the whole lot. You get back home for them.

I’m lucky to have family to push me on. It is worth fighting for. You have to embrace life.

“I was a builder and a carpenter so it’s hard to adapt back into a different way of life.”

Not only did Slevin have to adjust to getting around in a wheelchair, he also had to contend with accessibility issues which he had never faced before.

And now instead of being the person who’d hold the door for someone in a wheelchair, he found himself dependent on others to open doors for him despite being an elite athlete.

However, Ireland is a country which is streaks ahead of many of its European counterparts, according to Slevin.

Frustration

He explained: “You go into any hotel you’ll find a wheelchair accessible bathroom. Footpaths and doorways into our own local restaurant in Moate is grand and accessible except for the double doors going in. So unless someone opens the second door, you’re snookered.

“It’s very frustrating. There’s no need for it to be that way.”

Despite his cycling credentials, Slevin has told how he has had to put up with people mocking him over being in a wheelchair. But he says it doesn’t get to him.

He added:

You’d always have a lad tapping you on the head telling you you’re great. But no matter who you talk to when you’re in a wheelchair, nearly everyone has had a pain in their back they want to tell you about. I’m sick of the war stories.

“Without sport I’d be in a darker place. It’s done a lot for me and my family. I wasn’t involved in it before my accident. It gave me a whole new lease of life. Before my accident, it was all work, work and more work. Now, I’m spending more time with my children than I did before. They drive me on.

“There’s not a lot of people who have the same luck as me. I could have dropped down dead and I wouldn’t see my kids grow up.

“Before my accident I didn’t spend enough time with them. I went to Rio. I went to the Olympics. I would never have gone had this not happened to me.”

Rio bronze medalist Ellen Keane is another member of the IWA. Despite not needing a chair, the swimmer has been involved in the organisation since she was eight years old.

She has been competing in the Olympics since 2008.

Ireland Paralympic Team Announcement Ellen Keane Source: PA Wire/PA Images

But it was getting out of her own head and fighting her own insecurities which made life tough for the 21-year-old from Clontarf.

She said: “Growing up and going through teenage years, you have so many insecurities. It’s a bit worse when you have a disability. There’s not enough disabled people in the spotlight you can see as a role model.

I used to hide my arm in the sleeve. The pool was the only place I couldn’t hide. All I had was my togs hat and goggles.

12/10/2016. Paralympic Teams at Aras President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina with swimmer Ellen Keane. Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

But Keane said she now knows it is healthier for her to embrace the fact she has one arm and not let it hold her back. In fact, she has found herself poking fun at those who walk on eggshells around her.

She explained: “It was all in my head. Once its out there it doesn’t matter anymore. Once they see I have one arm, they won’t have to worry. It was literally all in my head.

“What I find is people don’t know how to take disability.

I joke about it now. For example, I’m studying culinary entrepreneurship and we were in the kitchen and one of the chefs was telling the girls to be careful because she’d take her arm off and then I was like ‘then she could be like me’ and it was really funny and it makes people feel not so uncomfortable when you take the piss out of yourself.

Keane, who hopes to compete in Tokyo in 2020, also described how important sport is in her world and how without it, she might have developed very differently.

She concluded: “I got into sport because everyone else did. I was treated like anyone else.

“If you’re someone with a disability and you’re put in bubble wrap, that’s the worst possible thing that can happen because you restrict yourself from growing. Because of sport, I’ve travelled the world and met so many amazing people.”

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