Nicole Turner’s butterfly silver keeps Ireland’s medal tap flowing freely

Dream comes true for Laois woman as she produces a personal best time of 36.30 seconds

For the first time at Paralympic level the competitive core of Nicole Turner took centre stage to what has been defining her this week in Tokyo, infectious, easy drawn laughter.

Behind the doubts and apprehension of the 19-year-old that her best might be a bronze medal, Turner outdid herself and the world class field in the aquatic centre to hold off the late surge and dogged persistence of America's Elizabeth Marks and claim the silver medal behind China's world record setting Yuyan Jiang.

Jiang, who as a three-year-old was run over by a dumper truck forcing the amputation of her right arm and leg, has at 16-years-old become a cause célèbre.

While she redrew the world mark in the heats, her dominance of the women's S6 50m butterfly had been set with a race for the silver medal drawn along the lines of Ireland, Britain and the USA.


That it was Turner who emerged to touch first from that close mesh of talent, she lay at the feet of her mother Bernie, S&C coach Niamh Buffini and coach David Malone.

“It’s not just for me,” said Turner after the race. “I’m only going to name three special people. My coach David Malone has given us every hour of the day coming in all sorts of times to train me.

“My S&C coach Niamh Buffini took me one-to-one for the last two years. My mam and my dad . . . my dad has a full time job but my mam, she’s the one who drives me to and from training every day so without her I wouldn’t be standing here today.”

It was a remarkable performance from Turner, who was just outside the medals in Rio five years ago as a 14-year-old. Since then she has put her education on hold and focusing on her favourite butterfly event over 50m surpassed even her own expectations. In the execution a single-minded, stubborn streak that refused to yield as the field burned up the final 10 metres to the finish line revealed itself.

A swim that was so impressive in the heats had her placed in the decider as the second-fastest was repeated for a new personal best time of 36.30 seconds, a couple behind China’s 34.69 seconds and ahead of the USA, who touched at 36.83 seconds.

“I thought I’d be in a fight for bronze here, so to get silver I’m just in shock,” said Turner. “In those last few strokes all I was thinking was that it hurt badly but just keep going. To be honest it hasn’t sunk in. It feels like a dream come true. This is honestly the best day of my life. This is all for home, it’s not for me.”

Physical distance

It was not a race for the faint-hearted as the nervous attentions of Turner's family and friends gathered around the screen in their home in Portarlington, Co Laois lavishly portrayed. These Games and the pandemic-struck Olympics before them have been ones of apprehensive support electronically reaching across the globe.

That physical distance was further exacerbated by the nature of the race that always had Turner competing from the beginning and always among a bunched group.

Her start was superb and she hit the water long before the winner did, although the long body of Jiang emerged ahead of the field. From there over the closing 40m it was a dogfight, Turner holding her technique but refusing to yield ground as the finish line sped towards them. The final touch had the Irish swimmer marginally ahead, American Marks in bronze position just a few fingers shy of the Irish teen.

“I thought it would be a fight for the bronze medal. To get silver is just insane,” said Turner. “I had no idea where anyone was and I suppose that was the thing that keeps me. I just focused on myself and my stroke. It worked out in the end . .

“It hurt. It did really hurt but I suppose no one will go down without a fight and I certainly gave it a fight in there. In Rio I was half a second away from a bronze medal and at the World Championships just getting on the podium gave me a real taste of what the Paralympics were going to be like.

“It is my preferred and best event. All the eyes were on this event so to do that and come out with a medal.”

It is Ireland’s fourth medal of the Games and second in the pool.

Sprinter Jason Smyth and Katie George Dunlevy and Eve Crystal in cycling have won respective gold and silver medals with 26-year-old Ellen Keane winning breaststroke gold and now Turner's butterfly silver keeping the Ireland medal tap freely flowing.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times