Róisín Ní Riain: ‘I was very young, for Tokyo, I’ll be much more familiar when Paris comes around’

Para Swimming World Champion gunning for medals in Paris after tasting the Paralympics experience in Tokyo

Not many world-class athletes would suggest 9.30am as a good time to talk training, medal hopes and chasing more world records. Yet for Róisín Ní Riain, it’s the only brief downtime in day with her main training session already long completed.

After that it’s off to lectures, a bite of lunch, a quick nap, before her second training session of the day. Then it’s dinnertime, some study and off to bed. The early morning alarm sets itself.

No surprise so that Ní Riain, the 18-year-old from Limerick, is a world-class swimmer, the training for which is always utterly exhausting compared to most other sports – and that’s just hearing about it.

“Right now, it’s 6.30am to 8.30am every morning, except Sunday morning,” she says, chirpy despite the early hour. “And four evenings a week, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, 4pm to 6pm. Sometimes 7pm.”


Her rise has been early and fast. In her first term at the University of Limerick studying for a science teaching degree, her training routine which has already paid dividends. Ní Riain won gold and silver at the World Para Swimming Championships in Manchester last July after breaking her first long-course world record at the World Series in Berlin in May.

In between that she completed her Leaving Cert at the all-Irish secondary school Gaelcholaiste Luimnigh.

Her Manchester performance also secured a Team Ireland qualifying spot for the Paralympics in Paris next summer and Ní Riain already has experience from Tokyo, when aged 16 – the youngest team member – she swam in six events, making five finals.

Early in Jason Smyth’s career, the world’s fastest Paralympian and one of Ireland’s most decorated athletes declared that he wanted to be a world-class sprinter who happens to have a visual impairment. Not the other way around.

Ní Riain has a similar philosophy. Born with coloboma, an area of missing tissue in the eye which reduces her visual acuity and periphery, she wants to be a world-class swimmer who also happens to have a visual impairment. She has some distance to go to rival Smyth’s medal tally (which included six Paralympic golds, another six European golds, plus eight at the World Championships), although she’s already on her way.

She was named Swim Ireland’s Para Swimmer of the year last month, her world 100m backstroke gold and 100m butterfly silver in the S13 category, both achieved in personal best times, adding to the bronze medals she won in those events in 2022 - plus a European bronze in 2021.

That raised her potential and excitement for next year’s Paralympics, given she’s equally capable in all four strokes, plus the 200m individual medley.

“Definitely, I wasn’t quite expecting that,” she says of her World Para Swimming gold. “Of course I had goals, heading into the competition, but it was a big year, finding that balance between my school and my swimming. But I definitely did not think I would come out of it with a gold medal.

“And it did secure a slot in that event, for Team Ireland, and the coming year will decide who exactly will get that slot, and then I’ll have to do the qualification time again next year.”

She’s in the perfect environment to keep progressing as part of the Swim Ireland elite group based at UL, under coach John Szaranek, which includes Finn McGeever, who made the Tokyo Olympics in the 4x200m freestyle relay.

Ní Riain is in the sort of company she relishes: “We’d all have similar end goals, in terms of where we want to get to, what we’re striving towards. But it’s a really great group, about 20 of us. It helps as well that I’m training in an able-bodied programme, get treated the exact same as everyone else I’m swimming beside.

“I may be slightly slower, at times, but unless there’s something I need done differently, we’re all doing the same training, and I think that helps me considerably.

“I was very young, for Tokyo, but it was absolutely the experience of a lifetime. I suppose those games for me were about trying to take in the experience as much as possible, so hopefully I’ll be much more familiar when Paris comes around.

“But making five finals, I was really happy with the outcome of that, especially going in not know what to expect, and it being Covid times as well. Being so young, it was definitely the longest I’ve ever been from home, six weeks in all, but there were plenty of people on the team who had experienced all this in the past.”

Like many other world-class swimmers, Ní Riain first started out with basic swimming lessons, aged around four, which soon morphed into something else.

“I think I’ve always been competitive, as a child I always had that side to me. I was doing a lot of sports but realised swimming was the sport I loved, that I wanted to pursue, see where I could get with it.

“So around nine or 10, I got into competitive swimming, then when I was 15 I first got into international Paralympic swimming.

“Having coloboma from birth, you learn to live with it, and for me, impacts two aspects to my vision. There’s my visual acuity, which impacts how far I can see, then my visual field, which is how far I can see to my side, my peripheral vision. They’re both affected, so when I’m swimming, seeing the flags or the finish, little things like that I can’t do. So there are little adjustments I have to make, like counting my strokes, knowing how far I am out.

“Those are some of the changes I’ve made and adapted to over the years to help me get my turns and my finishes as spot on as a I can. But I’d say I’m actually more aware than others when I’m swimming along, like if I’m sharing a lane with another swimmer, I wouldn’t be able to see them, so I know that I stick to my side of the lane.

“Little things like that, but having grown up with that all my life, I’ve just gotten used to it and adapted over the years.”

Seeing the success of Ellen Keane and Nicole Turner at the 2019 World Para Swimming Championships inspired her further, and the prospect of joining them again at the Paralympics next summer helps get her through those early rises every morning.

Not that she doesn’t occasionally dream of a lie in.

“You definitely do have those mornings, probably once a week. The alarm goes off and you think ‘God, why do I have to get up this morning?’

“That’s when the discipline kicks in, you do get up, and that’s what sets you apart from everybody else. It’s often still dark when you’re finished, that’s a good feeling too, coming back when it’s still dark, everyone is still in bed, there’s something nice about that.”

Which still, just hearing about, sounds utterly exhausting.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics