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New Talent Search by Paralympics Ireland

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The search is on countrywide to identify a new wave of top talent to compete in Paralympic competition writes Cliona Foley.

Could your club have a talented member to train and compete in the great tradition set by Paralympic athletes – Jason Smyth, Michael McKillop, Orla Barry or Niamh McCarthy?

That is the question being asked by Paralympics Ireland’s athletics’ programme (Para Athletics Ireland) as it sets up its first specialist ‘Academy’.

Paralympics Ireland is currently on a major recruitment drive to identify young talent and feel that some athletes already involved in club athletics may not even be aware that they meet the eligibility criteria to compete in Para athletics.

They also want to widen their talent base by helping clubs become more inclusive and empowering coaches with the knowledge and confidence to work with athletes who have impairments.

Dr Alison O’Riordan on Paralympics Ireland new Academy

On the potential for clubs to identify and drive the next great generation of Ireland’s Para athletes, Dr Alison O’Riordan (Para Athletics’ Technical Lead) says: “We haven’t even scratched the surface yet.

“Some clubs are really inclusive, but many aren’t yet, so we are doing a big piece with Athletics Ireland to try and improve inclusive opportunities within the club system. 

“That involves upskilling clubs to be more inclusive and welcoming to people with impairments while also upskilling coaches so that they can be more inclusive in their coaching.”

This will run in tandem with Para Athletics Ireland launching its new Academy this Autumn, in association with UCD.

Dr O’Riordan stresses that this first Track and Field pathway for young and new Para athletes (minimum age is 14) is only for those who can meet established performance standards and demonstrate serious potential.

Almost two dozen athletes have already had their athletic potential and eligibility assessed through two Academy TRY-OUT days and been given this summer season to see if they can meet those standards and make it into the Academy.

“It will be an athlete and coach development programme, so the athlete, coaches and their parents will have access to performance education, as well as testing and monitoring and coaching for the athletes by UCD performance and national Para athletics coaches respectively,” Dr O’Riordan said.

“This has never happened within Para athletics in Ireland before. We will now have athletes receiving performance support and education much earlier on their athletic journey, potentially six years of it, before they reach the performance end of the pathway.”

Aided by a three-year research grant from Sport Ireland, Professor Kate Pumpa from UCD’s School of Public Health, Physiotherapy and Sports Science, is also collaborating on research that will focus on creating talent identification, profiling and monitoring protocols in Para athletics that will help showcase how NGBs and third level institutions can support and enhance athlete performance. 

Dr O’Riordan emphasises that coach education is just as important as talent identification as athletes cannot succeed without them.

“All really effective coaches should be able to adapt to every athlete,” she said. “Some athletes are tall, some are less so, no one should be receiving a generic training program anyway as every athlete is unique.

“Para athletics is just another strand of athletics; it doesn’t need to be treated differently. What needs to be recognised is that it has certain requirements, just like ‘Juveniles’ or ‘Masters’, that there are slightly different rules based on the cohort, but it is all just athletics.

“It’s not about lack of knowledge or ability in coaching, it’s usually about confidence. I’ve actually become a much better coach by working with athletes who have an impairment,” she said. “It makes you think outside the box and makes you become more creative. These are all really good qualities in a coach.”

Athletics Ireland already has a Sports Inclusion Disability Officer (Triona Shalloe) who can offer support and advice to coaches and clubs, including information on specialist grant-aid available from Sport Ireland.

Swimming and cycling have had some notable recent successes yet Track and Field has already produced almost four times more Paralympic champions (37 gold medals) than any other Irish sport.

But standards, like all international athletics, are soaring exponentially – so Para Athletics in Ireland now needs a more robust recruitment and development system to produce its next superstars and wants clubs to be at the heart of that.

If you know of any talented athletes with an eligible impairment or want to know more on the Para Athletics Talent Pathway, please contact para-athletics@paralympics.ie.

Photo: Mark Kavanagh Photography

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