Vision Sports Ireland is delighted to announce and launch our Member Mondays, showcasing our members, allowing them to share their stories and experiences to date. Kicking off week one is:
1. Introduce yourself?
My name is Oliver Gunning, I am 17 years old, and I live in a town called Ballyclare in Northern Ireland. I compete in paratriathlon in the visually impaired category.
2. How did you first get into involved in sport?
I’ve always loved sport, but as I grew older found it harder to compete on a level playing field with peers. I had numerous eye operations as a child and wasn’t allowed to take part in contact sport or team sports. Finding a sport to keep safe and compete was difficult. Our family bought a tandem about 7 years ago for exercise, and I got involved with that. Then I was fortunate to be introduced to guided running. Around the same time our local Parkrun started up and I really enjoyed running each Saturday – each week challenging the guides to keep up. I joined the local athletics club, was fortunate to be supported here by great coaches, one of them is a Triathlon Ireland Coach. Then came the questions can you swim, and can you cycle? Before I knew it, I was training hard with a training plan from Triathlon Ireland, lockdown gave me the perfect opportunity to get stronger and fitter.
3. What is it that you enjoy most about sports and physical activity?
My favourite thing about my sport is that I race with a guide. Triathlon can be quite a selfish sport but paratriathlon is a very enjoyable sport, as I compete and hopefully succeed with my guide. It’s a joint effort by both of us. To compete fairly in paratriathlon is important. The guide gives up a lot of their time to assist, but hopefully the rewards for both of us far outweigh that, good guides are ones that you can build good friendships with. I’m still only 17, but have been introduced to a number of very experienced guides, who have helped me reach international races.
4. Were you previously or are you still involved with any other sports?
I did get involved with Athletics NI and Disability Sport NI while I was young, had taster days to see about pursuing a sport. But the opportunity didn’t really arise until I joined a club. I did cycle on Saturday mornings with Belfast Tandem Club and played VI tennis for about a year, and my school was always good at redesigning sports – like badminton with a balloon etc.. I was fortunate to be involved with RNIB in the North and was challenged to many different taster days, driving experiences, music lessons, confidence building sessions, activity breaks, various sports days, etc..
5. What challenges and or obstacles did you face, if any, getting involved in sport and leisure?
For me, the main challenge was finding a sport that I enjoyed and could compete safely. Primary school was tough, team sports, no real opportunity to join in fairly. When I found triathlon, I was really happy. There is still a lack of support and recognition for paratriathlon, and I think para sport in general should have the same exposure as other sports get. The athletes involved in para sports at a high level are training just as hard as other athletes, and most of the time have more obstacles to overcome.
6. What would you consider to be your biggest sporting achievement to date, big or small.
My most recent competition was in the World Triathlon Grand Final in Abu Dhabi, competing in such a field of elite Para triathletes, many of them Paralympians – really humbling waiting on the start line of this race with my guide Stephan Teeling-Lynch. My first European race was special too, with my guide Tom Flaherty, such a positive first experience, super atmosphere, hard work through lockdown got results – 12th place in this race. Other sporting achievements like my first triathlon, Duke of Edinburgh expedition and training days with the team are also high up there.
7. What advice would you give to someone in the vision impaired community who would like to get involved in sports?
To a person younger than me I would say, keep trying all sports that you can, the right door will open for you. You’ll know what you enjoy best, what feels right. There are opportunities out there, Vision Sports can help point you in the right direction – although sometimes just jumping in, taking a leap of faith and joining a club with support is the best way forward. Sports is so important for your mental health as well as your physical health, it’s not about being the best – its knowing that you are giving your best. Then you get enjoyment, support and all the benefits that sport can bring.
8. What athlete do you admire most and why?
More recently I have encountered para-athletes, many of whom have had disabilities from birth, some who have suffered illness or a life changing incident and are facing huge challenges. Donnacha McCarthy would be one of those athletes who would lend support to me and I respect his experience and achievements. Alex Yee is really exciting to watch, his rise to the top of British Triathlon has been an inspiration
9. Outside of sport what do you do in your leisure time?
I’m in sixth form studying for A-levels, training does take up a lot of time around that. I fit swims in before school mostly and train early evening. Free time for me revolves around BB, church youth fellowship, playing guitar and chatting to friends.
10. What does sport mean to you?
Sport has always been a good way to stay fit and have fun with friends – and an excuse to get my head cleared. More recently I have gained many more friends through triathlon, and the team around me. There are many people who volunteer their time and resources to help the para triathlon team, including my family, it really is a whole team effort. I couldn’t do what I do without them. Sport now is a huge part of my life, finally a chance to be good at something and compete fairly – that means a lot.
Oliver is currently fundraising for a racing tandem which will allow him to compete against the best para triathletes at the Commonwealth & Paralympic Games. More information around the fundraiser and to donate can be found at the link below.