With all roads leading to Rio and now less than six months to go until the Paralympic Games 2016, we caught up with Paralympics Ireland Chef de Mission, Denis Toomey, to hear all about how preparations are going for one of the biggest sporting events in the world.
Denis Towmey, who was born in Mitchelstown in Co Cork and is now living in Cork City, was Para-Cycling manager at the Games in Beijing in 2008, and also at the London Games in 2012 where Irish cyclists secured two gold, one silver and two bronze medals.
It’s not all about medals though for Denis, as he is in charge of the logistics behind getting the team safely to and from Rio – this includes organising a team of 45+ athletes and 30+ support staff across 10 sports as well as transporting horses, boats and bikes all safely to the Games.
“For our athletes, competing at this elite level means that from now until the Games, sport is their life. Every day, their sport comes first,” he stated.
“How they eat, sleep, work, rest and play is governed by their training and competition routine. Many of our athletes are still on the qualification trail and it will be early July before we know all of those who will be on board the plane to Rio.
“Once there, we hope for at least eight to 10 medals for Team Ireland, but we have no doubt there will be some fantastic performances along the way and a number of Lifetime Bests to celebrate.”
Speaking about the highlight of his career to date since becoming involved with Paralympic sport, Denis Toomey added:
“I cried tears of joy singing the national anthem in London after Mark Rohan won Ireland’s first ever para-cycling gold medal at the 2012 Games.”
The full transcript of the interview is below.
You were announced as Chef de Mission for Paralympics Ireland in 2014, how did that feel?
I was honoured, privileged and a little bit shocked that I was the successful candidate!
What are your main responsibilities in the role?
To bring Team Ireland safely to and from the Games in Rio with all the necessary supports to allow the athletes perform to their best.
Speaking of Rio, how are preparations going?
We are on track at the moment and hopefully things will continue to fall into place in the coming months.
With an expected team size of 45 athletes plus another 30+ support staff covering 10 sports, the logistical headaches can certainly give you sleepless nights! Horses, boats, bikes etc all have to reach Rio safely, while we are bringing the athletes to a Holding Camp in Uberlandia around 900km from Rio in advance so that they can acclimatize and get over the jet lag.
We have a great Sports Science and Medical Team led by our Chief Medical Officer Joe Conway, who play a major part in the team’s preparation and care. Our HQ staff at Paralympics Ireland are a huge support to me as we plan everything from kit sizing and supply to flight and logistics arrangements.
What are your hopes/aspirations for team success at Rio?
There is definitely potential for 8 to 10 medals to be won at Rio, but like London, we will hopefully see a few surprises and Irish athletes performing out of their skin.
Can you tell us about the team preparations between now and Rio – what does it take for these athletes to represent their country?
Competing at this elite level means sport is your life, so every day your sport comes first. How you eat, sleep, work, rest and play is governed by your training and competition routine. Many of our athletes are still on the qualification trail and it will be early July before we know all those who will be on board the plane to Rio.
Who would you list as your ‘one(s) to watch’?
Our three big sports of Athletics, Swimming and Cycling will hold some of the most exciting battles – with our current world champions, Jason Smyth, Michael McKillop and Eoghan Clifford all big contenders in their fields.
While we know you are a keen cyclist, what event, aside from cycling, do you look forward to watching the most?
It is great to have our Football 7-A-Side team back at the Games so I’m really looking forward to watching them play and shooting is also one that I look forward to watching closely.
From a personal standpoint, how and when did you yourself get involved in cycling?
I took up cycling in the late 1990s to help to recover from stress fractures of shins picked up from Marathon running. My next door neighbour Jim Keogh, an ex RAS rider, got me involved and I’m now chairman of Tandem Cycling Ireland.
I’ve enjoyed a bit of success over the years including: Munster Hill Climb Vet Champion, National Tandem Champion 2001-2003, Tandem Pilot 2001 Para-Cycling World Champs, 2002 European Champs, 2004 Paralympic Games, Tandem Pilot Cycle Across America 2000, Mizen to Malin Tandem Record of 20 hours and 55 minutes.
How did you get involved in para-cycling?
It all began when I started doing fundraising cycles for the National Council for the Blind in 1994. Joe Bollard, a blind stoker, asked me to act as his pilot for the Cycle Across America in 2000 and that’s how it all began. I went on to be a Tandem Pilot in Athens in 2004, I was the Para-Cycling Manager at Beijing 2008 and I was the Para-Cycling Manager at London 2012 where the Cycling team won 2 gold, 1 silver and 2 bronze medals.
What has been your favourite Paralympic moment to date?
I cried tears of joy as I sang the National Anthem when Mark Rohan won Ireland’s first ever Paralympic Cycling Gold medal at the London Games.
What would you say to inspire people to sit down and watch the Paralympic Games this September?
It is so much better than anything else that will be on TV at the time – better than reality TV, and other big games. The way our athletes overcome – what to most of us would be adversity – to compete at an elite level on the world stage is awesome and mind blowing.
What are you most looking forward to in the coming months?
Celebrating Ireland’s success at the Closing Ceremony in Rio on September 18th.
Paralympics Ireland recently launched a ‘More Than Sport’ campaign to enormous success – what, if possible, could you tell us that ‘More Than Sport’ means for you as Chef de Mission?
Anyone looking at the video that accompanies the More Than Sport campaign will be blown away by it, and get the real meaning of what Paralympic Sport is all about. As Chef de Mission I hope it will encourage all of Ireland to get behind our athletes by ensuring we are adequately resourced to give them the best support we possibly can. You can do this by texting PARA to 50300 to contribute €4.
And finally, what has been your proudest moment to date since being involved with Paralympic sport?
I was very proud to receive the “Best Team Member – non athlete Award” at the 2012 OCS Paralympic Awards. To get voted for this award by all the Irish Sports at the London Games was both humbling and a huge honour.