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'You go through the suffering of being stared at, looked at, pointed at, but at the end of the day, you’re you'

Nicole Turner on growing up with dwarfism and winning a bronze medal at the World Championships earlier this year.

Nicole Turner won a bronze medal at the World Championships last September.
Nicole Turner won a bronze medal at the World Championships last September.
Image: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Updated at 14.19

NICOLE TURNER WAS seven years old when she was diagnosed with hypochondroplasia, one of over 200 different types of dwarfism.

It is caused by a mutation in the FGFR3 gene and affects the conversion of cartilage in to bone growth.

According to littlepeopleuk.org, a child with dwarfism is born once per 25,000 births, while very few doctors know much about the various dwarfism conditions.

It can be inherited from one or both parents, though 80% of people with dwarfism have average height parents and siblings, and it is sometimes attributed to a genetic change at conception.

“When I was born, I was a really sick baby,” Turner tells The42. “My mum’s a nurse, so obviously, she’d know her stuff.

“My mam always told the nurses: ‘There’s something wrong with her, this isn’t a normal child’ and everything. They were like: ‘No, she’s fine.’

“I went for several blood tests and scans, and eventually, when I was seven, they found out I had dwarfism. When I got this information, my mam and dad thought I was the only little person in Ireland. My mum was so scared. She didn’t know what to do with me.

Eventually she found the Little People of Ireland. This is an organisation for all the small people with dwarfism around Ireland. That just lifted her. It gave her the boost to think: ‘Okay, there are more people like this, I can manage.’ And then obviously, she did. They really got behind her and told her it was going to be okay. She believed them, and it is okay [now].”

Turner continues: “Little People of Ireland have a convention once a year where all the little people in Ireland get together. There’s a party and everything. And people are in the same boat as you. You go through the suffering of being stared at, looked at, pointed at, but at the end of the day, you’re you. So you can’t change anything. And I don’t want to change anything.”

The first person that Turner met who also had dwarfism was Sinéad Burke, a popular Irish writer and activist, who last year became a contributing editor at fashion magazine Vogue UK.

“Her mam and dad own the Little People of Ireland, so they organise it every year,” Turner explains.

“When I found out I had dwarfism, Sinéad and all the little people came to visit me in my house. She just reassured me that it is going to be okay and it’ll all work out in the end.

“You think at the time the world’s going to end, but it’s not. You do get great support. So if you want to do something, do it. Don’t let anyone tell you ‘you can’t,’ just because you’re a bit smaller than them.

“What Sinéad’s trying to do at the moment, she’s trying to make it a norm to see a small person walking down the street.”

2016-rio-paralympic-games-paralympics-gb-homecoming-heathrow-airport British star Ellie Simmonds inspired Nicole Turner to become a swimmer. Source: Steve Parsons

Like Burke, Turner also tries to be a role model for little people everywhere. She herself was inspired to become an athlete by Ellie Simmonds, the British Paralympian who won two gold medals in the Beijing Games in 2008 — the same year Turner was diagnosed with dwarfism.

A year later, she met Simmonds at the World Championships and dreamed of one day emulating her.

“When I saw her and her gold medal, I was so inspired. I was like: ‘I want one of these when I’m older.’

“Obviously, every little kid’s going to say that and I didn’t realise the commitment required. When I was younger, if I was asked to swim seven times a week, I’d be like, ‘no chance, I’m not doing that’. But swimming was always something I did.

“It was mad. I’ve been looking up to Ellie since 2008. Then, in 2015, I started competing against her, so I was just thinking: ‘God, I looked up to you, and now you’re on the block beside me.’”

Turner’s rise has been pretty remarkable. By the age of 12, she was on the Irish senior team. From there, she won two silvers and a bronze medal at the European Championships and at 14, she competed in the Rio Paralympics, qualifying via the 2015 World Championships.

“Everyone around me was getting all nervous and stressed about their races. But I was just treating it like anything else. I just went out and had a bit of fun. So that was very serious, but I didn’t take it very seriously.

“I missed out on a medal by half a second. If that was now, I would have bawled my eyes out, whereas then I was only 14, it was my first Paralympic Games, so I was fifth in the world at the Paralympics — not many people can do that.”

Still only 17, Turner has taken a year off school with the 2020 Paralympics on the horizon.

The regular journeys up to the National Aquatic Centre from Portarlington are consequently less pressurised given the extra free time she has.

“I’ve been swimming up in the NAC seven times a week now since the middle of second year. When I did that, we’d train at 5 to 7 every evening. Originally, my school didn’t finish until 10 to 4. So it’d mean me leaving school at 10 to 4 and I wouldn’t get up here on time.

“I sat down with my school and said would it be a problem, and they let me finish early. They let me off a class every day. I finished school 40 minutes early, so I could come up to train. And then last year, I was in Transition Year, so that was a nice break.

“This year, I should be going into fifth year. It just wouldn’t have been possible to get off early and come to swimming and do three hours, so I just decided it was best to take off the year, focus on my swimming and then go back to school after Tokyo.

Doing the Junior Cert was a struggle, because then I was coming up to Dublin every day. So I’d leave for school at 8.30am, be in school from 9 till 3.20, my mam would pick me up, we’d drive to Dublin, I’d get to do my training sessions. I’d do an hour of gym from 7.15 to 8.15. Then I’d eat my dinner in the car on my way home and I could be doing homework until 11 o’clock at night.

“That was just out of my control, and I had to deal with it. It was hard, but I got through it.

“Not having to study, I get about 12 hours sleep a night. Swimming’s my number one now.

“There is the negative side. I don’t get to go out or see my friends that often. But my friends are very understanding and they’ll try to work around me.” 

Source: paralympicsire/YouTube

The teen’s success has continued in 2019. She was on the original longlist for RTÉ Sportsperson of the Year and also got a nomination for Young Sportsperson of the Year. She was additionally named Para-Swimmer of the Year at the Swim Ireland awards, while her coach, Dave Malone, was rewarded with the Performance Coach of the Year accolade.

Her standout achievement this year was undoubtedly a bronze medal at the World Para Swimming Championships in London in the 50m Butterfly S6 following a spectacular come-from-behind finish.

She had actually been ranked second in the world going into the event, but Chinese athlete Jiang Yuyan’s sudden arrival on the scene threw a spanner in the works.

“She had just come into my classification,” Turner explains. “Throughout that week, she was breaking records in other events and she actually broke the world record [in my event], but I still got a bronze medal.”

Britain’s Ellie Robinson also finished ahead of Turner, claiming silver, but the Irish athlete makes no secret of the fact that her aim is to win gold in Tokyo.

Ireland are not yet actually guaranteed any places at the Paralympics in her event, though the situation will become clearer in February, when more team slots are confirmed dependent on world rankings. 

For Turner, it is hoped Tokyo will be the culmination of years of dedication and practice.

My dad works five days a week. Then my two older brothers work. And mam gave up her career to drive me to swimming. The family are a real help to me. They never question it, or say ‘it’s all about you’. They’re just really understanding of what I do.

“It’s five to seven from Monday to Friday. And then on a Saturday morning, I’m up at 5.20 for a 7am training session.

“I do about 14 hours in the pool a week and then three hours of gym on top of that.”

With the youngster’s profile rising in conjunction with her growing list of achievements, Turner says people stopping, staring and pointing in bewilderment is no longer as commonplace as before.

“Nowadays, no. Because I’m known to people. I’m not known as a small person, I’m known as a Paralympic swimmer. But it can be such a negative. Especially young children, they don’t really understand. They’re like: ‘Oh look, that’s a little woman.’ They’re very confused why I am a human that’s smaller than I should be. But that’s just a lack of knowledge, they don’t want to bully me or be against me, they’re just very confused why I’m like that and they’re not.”  

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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