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Dublin: 7 °C Wednesday 22 January, 2020

'When you're lying in that bed in Dún Laoghaire, it's easy to think it's all over but it's far from it'

Twelve years after he was left paralysed, Westmeath para-cyclist Declan Slevin recounts the journey which has taken him to the Paralympic Games.

Declan Slevin will represent Ireland in the time trial in Rio.
Declan Slevin will represent Ireland in the time trial in Rio.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

IT’S OFTEN SAID sport possesses an empowering ability. An ability to provide an outlet and concentrate the mind. It has the most extraordinary power to make a positive impact. For Declan Slevin, it has changed his life.

Twelve years ago, sport never appealed to him. He had no interest, or time for it. As a self-employed builder and carpenter with a young family, Slevin had other things to occupy his mind.

Then, as he lay stricken in Dún Laoghaire’s National Rehabilitation Hospital, he needed something, anything, to give him hope. Something to focus on during those difficult days of rehab. Cycling gave him a new lease of life.

Before his accident, Slevin was in the prime of his life. He had recently got married and with two young children was working hard to give his family the best future possible.

He had extended their bungalow in Moate, just outside County Westmeath, to accommodate the family’s growing needs and, one afternoon, was preparing to tackle an overgrown tree opposite the house.

“I went up on the ladder to take down a telephone wire which was crossing the tree,” Slevin recalls. “I ended up on my back out on the field. I lay there for five or six minutes. I knew I was in trouble.”

He was rushed to Dublin’s Mater Hospital and two weeks later his worst fears were confirmed; he was paralysed from the chest down and would be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. It was the cruelest twist of fate.

inpho_01072374 Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

For Slevin, his wife Evelyn and their two young girls, Amy (6) and Jessica (4), their world had been turned upside down. There was so much uncertainty.

“They told me ‘this is your life’ and that was hard to take,” he continues. “The house had to be changed again, modified to accommodate my wheelchair. If I didn’t have that initial support I think I’d have packed it in.”

It was during those inconceivably difficult days that Slevin turned to sport.

“I was in the bed in Dún Laoghaire and I was asked to come down and get involved in wheelchair basketball. I said no, I have no interest in sport,” he says.

“They convinced me to come down, even to watch. I eventually got involved and this helped. I started playing that, looking forward to when the guys would come in to play it.

“One of them was there with a bike that you attach onto the front of the wheelchair and I decided to buy one of them off him.

“When I got home, I was trying to get back into working as a carpenter but the best thing that happened to me was the recession because I got to spend more time on my bike. I was cycling more and enjoying life, enjoying my family.

“I wasn’t doing any of that before my accident as I was always too busy working. It was my downfall. Before I wouldn’t even turn the TV on to watch sport. I suddenly got a buzz from watching others and it inspired me. I had missed out on that for the first 35 years of my life.”

Slevin’s cycling career started with a couple of marathons. Nothing too serious, but a social outlet which gave him something to work towards.

In 2012, two of his friends from the local cycling league approached him to ask would he be interested in competing for the team. He jumped at the chance and instantly fell in love with para-cycling. It quickly became his life.

inpho_01072412 Slevin alongside Katie George Dunlevy, Damien Vereker, Ciara Staunton, Eoghan Clifford, Sean Hahessy of the Irish Para-Cycling team. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

But most importantly he showed ambition. He trained religiously, worked hard and dedicated hours on end to advancing the sport. He wasn’t bad on a bike, either.

“If you told me 20 years ago I was preparing for my first Paralympic Games, I would have told you you were mad,” he continues.

“I took up this sport five years ago and now I’m sitting in a room in Portugal on a training camp preparing to go to Rio. When you’re lying in that bed in Dún Laoghaire, it’s easy to think it’s all over — but it’s far from it.”

At 47, Slevin is one of the elder statesmen of Team Ireland for next month’s Games but this is only the start of his journey. He trains three times a week in the gym and a significant chunk of his training regime is spent on the roads with Rosemount Cycling Club.

Being part of the Irish Para-Cycling squad, sponsored by An Post, has paved the way for Slevin’s successes. All the hard work came to fruition in May when he secured his first international medal at the UCI Para-Cycling World Cup in South Africa.

Now, just 10 days from the start of the 2016 Paralympics, Slevin is primed to compete in the H3 Time Trial on the biggest stage of all.

Preparations have gone according to plan and he’s heading out to Rio to represent his country, family, community and everyone who has helped him down through the years.

“From the time my accident the community have been behind me and three years ago I set up our own local cycling club,” he adds. “About a year and a half ago when I started going to a lot of competitions they started getting behind me and doing fundraisers.

Source: anpostcycling/YouTube

“It isn’t easy when you’re a self-funded athlete and you have to go off and fund yourself going to events and all that, so they got behind me that way. If I can do well in Rio it will for all the people that have supported me all along the way.

“If I can finish the race and say I couldn’t have done any better whether I finish last or finish first, as long as I can say to myself that I gave 100% I will come home happy.

“Some people might think the world has been harsh on me but I’ve been given the opportunity to do this and have the most amazing experience. A lot of people have put time and effort into me and I’m doing it for them. My wife, my kids, the people of Rosemount. They’ve helped change my life so I want to reward them.”

The power, and beauty, of sport.

Feeling inspired to get on your bike, then be one of the 2,000 cyclists on An Post Rebel Tour on Saturday 10th September. If you fancy taking in some of the Rebel County’s most scenic cycle routes then head for Glengarriff, Co. Cork. The event is booking up fast so sign up at anpost.ie/cycling.

This event takes in West Cork’s beautiful Caha Pass and Healy Pass and there’s not a traffic light in sight on the entire route.  You can ride the whole Beara Peninsula on the 160km route and all routes include the Southern Peninsula section of the Wild Atlantic Way. Whether you are looking for a fun day out or a serious challenge, there is something for everyone with routes at 85km and 160km and family spins of 2km and 10km.

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