Seamus Wall vying for place in Rio
'IT would be the crowning achievement of my 40 years doing hand sports if I was to be named in the Irish squad for Rio.'
Fethard-on-Sea handcyclist Seamus Wall, 47, only began the sport in 2013 and he is already in the top three of his division nationally.
Having started out his sporting career as a discus thrower, Seamus went on to become world champion in 1997. His competitive spirit has led him to newfound success now on race tracks around the world.
Seamus said: 'For 30 years I was a paralympic discus thrower. I've always been in a wheelchair as I was born with spina bifida. I've been playing wheelchair sports since I was seven and competed in the Irish Wheelchair Junior Games in Dublin 40 years ago.'
At that time Seamus trained at Bridgetown Vocational College with Pat Furlong who has gone on to become the national field athletics coach. An Irish panel was established in the 1980s and Seamus began his international career.
He trained four times a week while juggling a busy administration and health and safety job with the family business Walls steel fabricators, based in Raheen.
'I went on to become national champion on many occasions.'
Seamus trained with Catherine O'Neill from New Ross, who would go on to win a silver medal in the London Paralympics in discus throwing, and Thomas St Ledger from New Ross.
'We would train together on the track beside the park in New Ross. We were together three times a week and I was doing strength and conditioning work. The highlight of my discus career was being named world champion in 1997 in the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports competition which was held in England.'
Seamus was also the Belgian, UK and Dutch champion over a number of years and his longest throw was an amazing 25 metres.
In 2012 he wound up his discus career. He was 16 stone having done so much weight training. Not one to rest on his laurels, Seamus bought a bike with a view to losing weight.
'The competitive edge started kicking in and I enquired about racing. I discovered that there was an Irish time trial league and I travelled to Northern Ireland in July 2013 for my first time trial.'
Seamus ended up eight minutes behind the leader on his old seven gear touring bike. He was up against racers on 30 gear racing bikes.
Undaunted he started to get in better shape for cycling and lost a lot of weight.
'I started watching what I ate. At the end of that season I bought a secondhand racing bike from one of the other racers.' Within a few races he was finishing less than four minutes behind the winners. He was training four days a week, working on his hill climbing, strength and speed.
'The very first steep hill training I did was on a hill near home. I got half way up and had to turn back. The next week I got three quarters up. I said to myself after that that if I didn't get to the top of the hill I would be cut off from a whole lot of routes. I went back up the hill and made it. It was a brilliant feeling and it gave me the confidence to tackle any other hill.'
Around a year afterwards he competed in his first international race.
'It was great to be back competing at international level. It was July 2014 in Bilbao, Spain. We do a 16 km time trial and a 40 km road race. I did the 40 km in one hour and 34 minutes and I finished 20 minutes behind the winner. At the end of 2014 I bought a state of the art racing bike and I contacted fitness coach Martin Kirwan from Waterford to help me with my training. I loved it as I was given specific weekly targets. I was training with him on training peaks. With the technology there was nowhere to hide.'
Seamus competed in his first Irish league race last year and finished in second place, two minutes behind the winner.
He came in second again to Irish champion Declan Slevin from Moate.
Three Irish paralympian cyclists have been carded for the Rio Olympics but no final decision will be announced until the end of the qualification period in late May. Among those included will be a 'solo' cyclist and a handcyclist. Seamus is hoping to knock one of the prospective cyclists 'off their perch', adding that a fourth 'card' might be awarded to the Irish team.
'I am one of six or seven riders who is going for that final spot or one of the other spots. 2015 started very well for me. In the space of 14 months I went from coming in 12 to 14 minutes behind the leader to 30 seconds. The others were looking over their shoulder at me all of a sudden.'
Seamus competed in Bilboa and despite falling from his bicycle while turning a corner travelling at high speed, injuring himself, he was fifth in the road race afterwards. He also competed at international races in Cologne and Prague.
He said 'serious aggression' is needed to compete at the top level. 'I didn't realise how aggressive you need to be at the start of a race so you don't get boxed in.'
Seamus was second in the national time trials in Northern Ireland in 2015. He says he has an outside chance of travelling with the team to Rio in August.
'I spent 30 years as an international discus thrower trying to make it to the paralympic games and I couldn't. It would be the crowning achievement of my 40 years doing hand sports if I was to be named in the Irish squad for Rio.'
He said the sport is as professional now as any other, adding that the London Paralympics showed Irish people how great the level of competition is in paralympic games.
Seamus was out on his bicycle on December 27 and feels great coming into a busy season which will see him compete on the Yas formula one circuit in Abu Dhabi in April. He will also compete in France and at world cup events in South Africa and France in May. These events carry more ranking points and he is hoping to make a big impression at them.
He said tactics are vitally important in winning the big races, adding that his coach has been using video footage of his races to improve his tactical approach. Before that he has the Barrow Wheelers 100 km sportive on Sunday in New Ross.
He says the support he receives from motorists honking their horns and cheering him on, to people following his Facebook page gives him a great boost as his career can be lonely at times.
Seamus remains philosophical about sport, adding that if he does not get chosen for Rio, he will carry on competing.
He said the world's best handcyclist, former Formula One and cart race car driver Alex Zanardi, is aged 49, so there are many miles to go before he stops competing. He also plays wheelchair basketball with the South East team. 'I only got into this to lose weight and I'm down from 99 kilos to 75. My aim is to get to 70 kilos.'
He thanked Martin for working closely with him, to the extent of going out on cycles on his old bike, to help him train. He also thanked his wife Aisling for her support.