Ciara Staunton Q&A: Reaching for Rio in a tough new discipline
For handcyclist Ciara Staunton, taking part isn’t enough, she wants to win
Ciara Staunton has competed in athletics, swimming and wheelchair rugby, but her Paralympics ambitions are directed at handcycling
Ciara Staunton is a handcyclist and recently took home a silver medal in the WH 2 Time Trial at a World Cup event in Ostend, Belgium. She is the overall leader in the World Cup series and is hoping to represent Ireland at the Paralympics in Rio.
What sports did you compete in when you were young?
I swam all the way through primary school (St Mark’s, Tallaght) and secondary school (St MacDara’s, Tallaght). I could get up for a 5am swim quicker than I could get up for school.
Your life changed irrevocably in December 2006. Do you mind discussing the accident and the circumstances surrounding it?
A tree fell on my car on a country road between Baltinglass and Castledermot. It was a really stormy, miserable night, lashing rain. I was due in work early the next morning and my boyfriend at the time said he would drive. It was my car we were in.
I got in the passenger seat and the last thing I remember is coming on to the road, telling him to watch a few puddles. A tree struck the car, catching me on the head, and it left me with a C7 spinal injury, which means I am a quadriplegic. I was going on 21.
How did you come to terms with the accident?
People deal with it in different ways. There is no easy answer, or one that fits neatly. I was hugely grateful for the support structure that I had. There were very few days I was without a visitor, and that helped me to come to terms with my change in circumstances.
Was wheelchair rugby the first sport to which you turned after the accident?
Yes. The lads came and did a demonstration in the Rehabilitation Hospital on Rochestown Avenue and I was hooked. It was an eye opener to see I could still get involved in sport.
Can you explain a little bit about wheelchair rugby?
It is a quadriplegic sport. You have to have an impairment in all four limbs.The teams are mixed, men and women. The number of women with those kind of injuries is quite small, so there wouldn’t be enough of us to make teams, plus it’s not exactly a sport that a lot of girls would go into either. For that reason, we all play together on the same court, a basketball one.
You sought out other sports too? I
tried athletics and I tried swimming. The classification for every sport is different. When I was going for athletics they had combined my classification with a lower one. I figured that with the lower classification there, I wasn’t going to make it to a very high level.
Swimming seems like a logical choice given your proficiency as a child but did that invoke difficult memories? I
trained under Dave Malone [former Paralympics gold medallist and current performance director at Paralympics Ireland].
I was hoping to be classed S3 but I got an S4. I didn’t have the time to appeal it. I found that being a swimmer before, it was psychologically a bit difficult to commit to that sport.
A chance meeting saw you divert your attention to handcycling. Why change sports again?
Paralympics has been a real goal for me. In disability sport, it wasn’t about simply finding a sport that I liked. I wanted one in which I could compete at a high level and that is what directed me to handcycling.
When did you take it up?
I have my bike since January, 2015. My first proper race was in February in Moate. I was scared witless. I hadn’t even cycled 16km until that point. I have just been progressing since then. It’s been a steep learning curve.
You’ve done remarkably well in a short period but if Rio was two years down the line would you be more confident of a medal?
It’s hard to say, because every new event brings new insight; into myself, my bike and the other competitors.
Can you describe handcycling to the uninitiated and its difficulties as a sport?
Initially getting in and out of the bike was a challenge and then having no knowledge about the bike and gears. Every other sport I have tried, I have been the only engine behind it.
But there is a lot of technique that comes with handcycling. If you go into a hill in the wrong gear, you’re fecked. All the momentum you had going into that hill is lost. Learning about that, changing gears, cornering, about different courses...
What are your medal prospects?
I am in a very tough category. They have combined the women. The men have their individual categories within a race but perhaps because they are less women doing it, they have combined the categories and I will be up against women who have stronger [physical] function than me.
After Rio, if selected, I will be looking to the Worlds in South Africa next year. I think that is where I have more possibilities because I’ll have more knowledge and experience.