Laois Sports Partnership is keeping Paralympic flame lit
Motivation, funding and resources needed to sustain Ireland’s enviable Paralympic record for future generations
Garrett Culleton, Laois Sports Partnership and Paralympian Ailish Dunne. Photograph: Jeff Harvey/HR Photo
Ireland’s Paralympic exploits of recent years have seen our athletes become as renowned and celebrated as their able-bodied counterparts on the track and field.
The summer was a perfect illustration of our increasing awareness, involvement and success in Paralympic sports as Team Ireland brought home no less than five medals - four of which were gold - from the International Paralympic Council European Championships in Swansea.
Having initially stemmed from small-scale sporting gatherings for veterans who had sustained injuries in World War II, the nascent Paralympic movement flourished into what became the world’s first Paralympic Games in 1960. From humble beginnings half a century ago, participation numbers have increased from 400 competitors representing just a handful of nations in the first games in Rome, to around 4,000 at the 2012 games in London.
Although it’s natural that decorated athletes such as Jason Smyth and Michael McKillop, who between them have amassed seven gold medals at the last two Paralympic Games in London and in Beijing, continue to dominate coverage of their sports, fellow Paralympian Garrett Culliton is more concerned with sustaining Ireland’s enviable record over future generations.
After competing in his first games in Atlanta in 1996, Culliton went on to represent his country at two further games over the course of an auspicious career. Following the 2004 games in Athens, he became heavily involved in the recruitment and coaching of fellow athletes both in the Laois Sports Partnership (LSP) and through his role as a disability officer with the Irish Sports Council (ISC).
“The concern is to try to bring up the younger group. Standards are getting tougher every time, so it’s a job in itself to keep people motivated,” says Clonaslee man Culliton, who manages an extensive network of athletes from Laois and further afield from the LSP office in Portlaoise.
“You could probably say there was a time when somebody could take up a sport and fairly quickly be in range for getting a qualifying standard, whereas nowadays to start in a sport they have to commit a couple of years to hard training before they can hit those high standards.”
A veritable sports all-rounder when he was younger, Culliton became wheelchair-bound following a spinal cord injury sustained during a rugby match when he was 22. Eager to turn tragedy into opportunity, he immersed himself in the world of wheelchair sports following his rehabilitation process.
“I got involved in sport more to help my balance and fitness in the chair, then it progressed that I got the standards to qualify for the big games… It’s kind of a cliché but the main thing is just to get healthy and active, then move into the more competitive side of things ,” says Culliton, who has been instrumental in the founding of various wheelchair rugby and basketball teams alongside his exploits as an accomplished discus thrower and table tennis player at international level.
The world had seemed a dark and unforgiving place for Ailish Dunne after a severe bout of vasculitis left her fully blind in 2004. Having initially struggled with her disability, Mountmellick native Dunne would go on to become one of Culliton’s greatest protégés after he contacted her to get involved in tandem cycling, discus and shotput events ongoing in her local area.
“He [GARRETT]brought me over to a competition in Tullamore in 2009, and the Paralympics manager of the time was there. What I threw in the shotput that day was the same kind of measurement as what the top people in the world were doing at the time, which I didn’t know, so by the end of that year I was put on a panel and started going off to competitions abroad,” says Dunne, who is viewed as a serious medal prospect for Rio 2016 having diverted her attentions more to discus throwing.
Despite the undoubted popularity of Paralympic sports here, a lack of funding and resources is yet another obstacle that disabled athletes must overcome. Since starting eight years ago, Culliton says the number of disability officers appointed by the ISC has dropped from 19 to 14.
“You get the funding when you’ve reached the required standard, whereas in an ideal world it should go into the grassroots to bring athletes up. It can be very difficult to reach the standard but you do get the funding to support you when you get to the top,” says Culliton.
Dunne, who has witnessed first-hand the Trojan effort put in by officers such as Cullliton, her mentor and long-time friend, is quick to pay tribute to their efforts.
“All the different achievements I’ve had, getting to go to my first games in London and everything else was because of Laois Sports Partnership and especially Garrett,” she says.
“He’s taken a job that had two people doing it at the start but now it’s only him, and you can see that he is still organising things with people from other counties not alone Laois in his own time. If he sees talent or interest, he’ll make sure they keep turning up. He just helps everybody.”