Katie O’Brien’s Rio quest takes a new twist

Young pararower Katie O’Brien seeks new partner to try to compete in Rio

Of all the talented sportswomen targeting Rio 2016, Katie O’Brien’s has to have one of the most extraordinary stories. But one crucial chapter has yet to be written.

The 18-year-old Galway woman has spina bifida. She has had multiple operations, and came very close to losing her left leg.

Through all this her attitude has been stunningly positive. At the beginning of 2013 she took up pararowing, and it yielded before her. She competes in the trunk and arms category, where the emphasis is solely on upper-body strength and boat movement.

There is a family history of strength: her brother Seán captained the Ireland under-20 rugby team last year during the Six Nations championships before being sidelined by injury.


O'Brien's odyssey led her to Henley Women's Regatta last year, where she was the sole Irish winner, and the Home International Regatta, where she took gold.

Now she does seven training sessions a week, combining it with studying for her Leaving Cert. It is a tough schedule, with ups and downs, but she loves rowing. “When you can get a boat moving it is a great feeling. In a double, when you are moving together, tipping along, it’s great.”

The trunk and arms mixed double is the boat in which O’Brien must compete if she is to negotiate the hard road to next year’s Paralympics.

Qualification regatta

The first qualification regatta for the Paralympics is at the World Championships in August in


, and O’Brien had teamed up with

Martin Enright

, a Corkman who was setting records on the ergometer (rowing machine). If qualification was achieved, O’Brien hoped to row full-time next year. But late last month Enright pulled out. Now O’Brien is seeking a new partner.

The new man must have a disability or an amputation which makes him unable to move a boat using the standard sliding seat. The classification can be done originally in Ireland, but then must be done at a Fisa event. It is a complication which limits the available candidates.

“Really, the main thing is someone willing to give their best. And someone strong,” O’Brien says.

Her mother, Aileen, tells of a childhood and adolescence of operation after operation; infections, procedures. There was a year in Sheffield in England when a leg that might have been lost was rebuilt.

Her smile

“She is an amazing kid. Nothing gets her down. From the very start the nurses would always comment on her smile. She has such determination.

“ In fairness, her late father [Iain, who died in 2012] always said: ‘This child is not a victim. We will tell her she will do anything she wants to do and we will get her there.’ And that has always been our policy with Katie.”

And this did not mean cossetting her. “The physiotherapist, when she was little, said ‘if she falls over in the playground turn your back, let her pick herself up’. I could see other mothers looking at me in the playground, going ‘what a cow!’

“She was black and blue. I used to be scared to bring her to the hospital in case they thought we were beating her. Because she was always falling over. But it was great advice because it gave her great strength of character. You pick yourself up and get on with it.”

Now all is needed is someone of similar strength to complete the picture.

Is that someone out there?

Liam Gorman

Liam Gorman

Liam Gorman is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in rowing