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'When I woke up this morning I was like ‘was I in a crazy dream, did that really just happen?''

A day after claiming Paralympic silver for Ireland in the 50m butterfly, Nicole Turner reflects on the achievement and discusses her rivalry with friend Ellie Robinson.

Nicole Turner receiving her silver medal yesterday.
Nicole Turner receiving her silver medal yesterday.
Image: Delly Carr/INPHO

LIKE SO MANY Irish sporting success stories, past heartbreak was a key driving force behind Nicole Turner’s podium finish in the Women’s S6 50 metre butterfly final at the Tokyo Paralympics yesterday.

Clocking a time of 36.30, the Portarlington native secured a silver medal in the Japanese capital – just under two seconds behind China’s Yuyan Jiang.

She was perilously close to a similar accomplishment in the same event at the Rio Games in 2016 and used this as motivation coming into her second Paralympics.

“Looking back on Rio, I was a half-second away from a bronze medal. At the time in Rio, it was heartbreaking,” Turner acknowledged in a Zoom call earlier today.

It was so tough to take, but I just learnt from it and it made me want the medal in Tokyo even more. From Rio, I just went home, became a proper athlete and trained for Tokyo then.”

Still only 19 years of age, Turner is slowly – but surely – coming to terms with being a Paralympic medallist.

“Even from the minute I finished my race, I was with the media for about 20 minutes before I even got back to my coaches. For the first few hours it is crazy. Everyone is coming up to you, congratulating you. Everyone wants an interview, but then it suddenly just dies down and you go back to your room.

“That was the moment that it hit me. It still hasn’t hit me that I won a medal, but it did hit me that I actually did do it. We have bedside lockers and there’s drawers in them. I put it in there all night. Even when I woke up this morning I was like ‘was I in a crazy dream, did that really just happen!?”

When Turner finished fifth in the S6 50m butterfly showpiece five years ago, it was Ellie Robinson of Great Britain who came away with the category’s coveted gold medal. On this occasion, the Northampton native was the one to come home in fifth place.

In a raw and emotional interview with Channel 4 in the aftermath of the race, Robinson described how the past year has been one of the hardest of her life due to the agony caused by Perthes disease in her hip.

While they have been rivals in the pool for quite some time, Turner and Robinson are also good friends outside of it. Even as she basked in glory, Turner was quick to empathise with one of her most-revered contemporaries.

“We’ve been racing against each other since 2015. Europeans, Worlds, Paralympics and now the Paralympics again. She’s honestly one of my best friends. We get on like a house on fire and it was hard for me, because straight after my race Ellie was doing an interview beside me.

She broke down in tears and I had to try my damn hardest not to go over and give her a hug while I was still doing an interview. It was hard. I know I said going into it the aim was to always beat her.

“I’m glad that I beat her, but I would have liked her to get a success and be happy for her as well. It was quite challenging to see that. Unfortunately she is injured and that’s just sport at the end of the day.”

nicole-turner-celebrates-winning-a-silver-medal Turner celebrating after the race. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Even though there is no doubt that Portarlington is the town Turner calls home, the question of which county she comes from is less straightforward. Given she lives so close to the Laois-Offaly border, it is little surprise the residents of both places are fighting to call her their own.

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“I’m not saying I’m a Laois or an Offaly woman! I’ve always said I’ve been a Laois woman. Simply because Laois is the bigger county, and some would say it’s the better county, for the football and the hurling.

I live right on the border, so technically I do live in Offaly. So I am an Offaly woman. If I say I’m not an Offaly woman, everyone in Offaly will be killing me! Officially the address is Offaly, but I was born in Portlaoise Hospital. So I was born in Laois!”

Since electing to defer her secondary school studies in 2019 – upon completion of transition year – swimming has been the one constant in Turner’s life. She is now set for a return to education, but insists she will be able to strike the right balance as she bids for further glory at the Paris Paralympics in three years’ time.

“We’ve a nice little break just to rewind, spend a bit of time with friends and family. Paris is only three years away and I’m still only 19. Paris is definitely on the horizon. Education wise, I think I’m going to do a PLC rather than go back to my Leaving Cert.

“Just because it will be less stressful. The next year, we have a few weeks off and then we’re back in training. The World Championships are next year, in Madeira in June. It’s a very early season next year,” Turner added.

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