Eve McCrystal keeping her eyes on Paralympic goal
Able-bodied cyclist hoping to steer her vision-impaired team-mate to medal in Rio
Eve McCrystal with her silver medal from the 2014 UCI Paracycling Road World Championships in Greenville, USA, which she won with Katie-George Dunlevy. Photograph: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal in action. Photograph: Oliver Kremer at Pixolli Studios/Getty Images
The image is of a multitasking uber mum keeping all the plates spinning. A stationary bike is parked in front of the television and Eve McCrystal’s two children Nessa (6) and Ava (7) are part of the backup team, filling and ferrying mammy’s water bottle as she bangs out the miles in her home. McCrystal’s is a family of proper little domestiques.
Eve is a pilot, a tandem bike pilot. Her job in the upcoming World Championships and later in August is to steer visually impaired partner Katie-George Dunlevy to a Paralympic medal in Rio.
A former triathlete, she is now the eyes for one of Ireland’s medal hopes. Dunlevy, who is also a talented rower and swimmer, is second-generation Irish – she is based in England and has strong ties to Donegal.
Just back from a training stint in Spain, the tyranny of lunch boxes and the school run has by necessity made Eve’s sitting room an frequent training ground. For a week of her time in Spain the children were there too.
“I give them jobs. It’s amazing,” says the Monaghan-based garda now almost half way through a year’s leave. “Bribery. It always works . . . I’m mammy number one and an athlete number two. There’s no forgiveness with kids.”
It’s not a job people grow up dreaming about but with the growing interest in Paralympic sport and its move towards television, it has earned its stripes in a crowded sporting landscape. Katie is an elite athlete. Eve must be too.
She had completed two ironman triathlons when the suggestion to become a pilot fell her way. In her mind she had always known that the cycling leg of triathlon, not the swim or run, was her favourite part. The idea that she should become the eyes of an Olympic team instantly sparked her interest.
“It wasn’t a goal. It wasn’t in my head,” she says. “Late 2013 I got a phone call from my [triathlon] coach and he asked me would I be interested in trying out for the position of the pilot on the bike.
“So I did. I jumped at it. I went to the Institute of Sport and I was tested to see if I was physically up to it. A couple of weeks later they asked if I would try out with Katie. Of course I did. I met up with Katie in November 2013 and we had our first competition in Mexico on the track in March 2014.”
No professional cyclists
Strict rules apply in Paralympic tandem bike racing and no professional cyclists are permitted to become tandem pilots. The sport doesn’t want accusations levelled at it of having powerful athletes at the front hauling the bike around the track. There’s also a ‘decontamination’ period of two years for those who were once members of professional cycling teams. Each visually impaired athlete can have just one pilot for any competition and Eve will go to Rio.
Once on the seat, both athletes must maintain the same tempo or the enterprise falls apart. Katie is also expected to bring the most pedal power since Eve does the steering at the front of the bike. It requires discipline and a co-ordinated effort by the two team-mates. And for Eve, in the early going, also learning how a tandem performed.
“There is a big difference,” she says. “I have to be aware Katie is with me, so I am always aware of that. It’s a big responsibility. It’s very important for me that the team aspect of this also comes across. People can see a tandem and you get the odd comment from the side of the road ‘oh, isn’t it well for her at the back, you know, doing nothing. That’s not the case.
“They might think that way. That’s not what it is about for us. Obviously you want the strongest team. You have to work together. You are not going to have a non-athlete on the back. It is not going to work that way. Katie is an elite athlete with impaired vision. The two of us are an equal partnership on that bike. The only difference is that I can see and Katie can’t.
“I know where you are coming from when you say put an ex-professional on the bike. It’s not for us. I can’t really speak for other countries. It’s not for us. Obviously we both have different strengths and weaknesses. I love the track. I love the time trial. She’s fantastic on the road. Katie races so well, better than I do. We kind of balance each other out very well. I think that’s what makes us a very good team.”
Good is understating their early success. The pair have won two World Championship medals. Last year in Amsterdam they took bronze on the track and in 2014 in Greenville, USA, they were narrowly beaten into second place by Great Britain in a sprint finish at the Para-cycling Road World Championships.
In the last two years they have been close to or in the medals at world events. Winning a medal in Rio is a realistic target, not hopeful ambition.
“Oh, absolutely. There is always a goal. It’s a medal,” she says. “That’s what we are going for. On the track it’s a three-k [kilometre] pursuit and a one-k pursuit. On the road we have a time trial and a road race, four disciplines. Realistically, our goal for medalling would be in the three-k pursuit and the time trial.
“The road race is always a lottery. We are well capable of medalling on the road as well, and we have done. We were silver medallists in Greenville. We are going for medals. We are not going to make up the numbers.”
The recent training camp was in Mallorca because Ireland does not have a velodrome, a detail that makes their success all the more impressive. Now preparing for the World Championships in Italy, which begin on March 17th, they are looking for medals, but also for an early indication of their form and that of their opponents.
For McCrystal, it’s another chance to confirm that the two belong at the sharp end of the sport and that after just over two years the pairing has gelled. Although able-bodied, she is regarded as a Paralympic athlete and will also receive an Olympic medal if they make the top three in Rio.
It’s a dual role and a complex one, where the very idea of teammate takes on extraordinary dimensions and given the absolute trust involved maybe defines the term better than any other sport can. While Katie is totally reliant on Eve’s decision-making and her steady hand at the rudder, the pilot also shares in the power load going into the back wheel.
“When I started cycling with Katie I just fell in love with it,” she says. “There is something very special about being a pilot on the bike. I’m not just doing it for me. I am doing it for Katie and for me to steer her to the gold medal in Rio would be a fantastic achievement.
“That’s what I want to do. I want to be the best I can be. For myself and for my children.”