THE OLYMPIC VILLAGE is a world of its own, a pop-up hamlet which serves as a temporary home away from home for the world’s finest athletes. Disconnected from the proud buzz back in County Wicklow, Helen Kearney had no real idea how much of a stir she was causing.
It was only when she heard that organisers needed a park ‘n’ ride scheme for the 1,500 fans who wanted to welcome her home to Dunlavin that she finally understood.
Triple Paralympic medallist — that had a nice ring to it too. After sneaking into London under most people’s radar, the 23-year-old was now the centre of attention.
There had been no fanfare about Kearney’s medal prospects at her first Games, though bronze at last year’s European Para-Equestrian Dressage Championships gave her quiet confidence. With coach Heike Holstein, she concentrated on getting herself and her horse Mr Cool to Greenwich Arena and then hit the headlines with a brilliant treble: individual silver, individual bronze and a team bronze in the four-person event.
“I knew I was in with a shot and I was really hungry for it,” she explains. “That was my goal: to come home with a medal, but to come home with three medals, that was a shock.”
That hunger first took hold three or four years ago when she sensed a very special opportunity at the London Games, so close to home. At the age of 12 she was diagnosed with Friedrich’s Ataxia, a progressive neuro-muscular disability. As she battled the early stages of the disease, she kept up the only childhood hobby she had any real interest in: horse-riding.
“Everyone else was really upset over it and luckily my mam thought we may as well get her a pony now and she can get the enjoyment out of it while she can, never really thinking that it would escalate into anything.” She laughs. “Little did she know.
It was the making of me. I was about 12 when I was diagnosed, and it’s a big blow at that age. Having something to keep you busy and to be doing something else is good. It really helps you cope with the disability because you’re not sitting at home thinking about it.
In 2008, the worsening nature of her condition forced a switch to para-equestrian events, where she now competes in Class 1a against other athletes with the greatest level of impairment. Even at that stage though, a Paralympic medal was very much a distant dream.
“I was looking back on something that I did three or four years ago. We had to write our overall goal, what we wanted to do, and I put down win a medal at the Paralympics.
At that time, I was nowhere near it but I suppose it was something I really wanted. With a progressive condition, I really felt quite strongly that I wanted to go and give it my best shot when it was in London.
Now she’s enjoying the rewards of that ambition and the dedication it took to bring it to reality even if, in her own words, “life’s still a little bit mad.” There have been a few unavoidable scheduling conflicts along the way; on the day she won her individual bronze, she was due to graduate with a degree in commerce from UCD. “I read afterwards the President of UCD said that graduating in absentia because you’re competing at the Paralympics is probably the best excuse he’s heard,” she laughs.
She’s had her fair share of visits to local schools too (“Kids are really black and white. They don’t really see disability, they just see the medals and the sport so it’s pretty cool.”) as well as the usual end-of-year award ceremonies
By the sounds of it, the frenetic Olympic pace hasn’t died down at all.
“The Games are a phenomenal experience but you wouldn’t want it every week of the year. You work so hard to get there. I haven’t really missed it, everything’s still going on and I’m making the most of the medals that I have.”
To all of that, add some part-time work with Allianz and then five days a week out riding during this, her down time. Though she’ll wait until after Christmas before knuckling down to full training ahead of next year’s main engagement, the European Championships in Denmark, there is a much more important reason for Kearney spending so much of her time off on the horse: it is helping her fight against Friedrich’s.
“The more active you keep, the better chance you have of keeping that for longer. There’s no exact science to it but definitely in my case, that seems to be the way it has gone for me.
“For some people it would be a lot but I love the sport I do and I couldn’t imagine not doing it, Paralympics or not.”