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'Swimming isn’t going to last forever. I want to excel in my sport' - deferring the Leaving Cert twice for Tokyo

18-year-old Nicole Turner is targeting the podium at this summer’s Paralympic Games.

LITTLE DID NICOLE Turner think that one year off school would turn into two.

_66A3188 Nicole Turner launching Paralympics Ireland’s new fundraising campaign ‘The Next Level’. Source: Simon Burch 00353872754849 Ireland

Having made her Paralympic debut at the age of just 14 in Rio, the teenage sensation made a real statement of intent by deferring her Leaving Cert to focus on Tokyo 2020.

Turner was going to make a splash on the world’s biggest stage, no question about that.

But like every other Paralympic and Olympic athlete across the world, her dream was dashed in late March 2020 with the news of the postponements.

As the news sunk in, she knew another deferral would more than likely be in order. “I think it will be another case of not going to school next year,” she told the Paralympics Ireland Youtube channel at the time.

That indeed has been the case, with Turner continuing her intense training schedule and endless hours of travelling between her native Laois and Dublin.

It’s hard to believe that she’s just 18, as she explains her reasoning and logic behind the entire decision and what’s happened since, her maturity shining through with every word she utters.

“After my first year of school I was training in Portlaoise so that didn’t really have a massive effect on me,” she begins.

“But when I came home from Rio I decided to switch clubs and swim with the NAC in Dublin. The way the NAC swim, they swim 5-7 every evening and I wouldn’t be finished school ’til four o’clock and obviously I wouldn’t be up here for five o’clock.

“So from the middle of second year right up until the end of transition year, my school agreed for me to skip the last class of the day. But then at the end of transition year, they said that it wouldn’t be possible for me to do that because obviously I’d have my seven core subjects.

“Another reason was the amount of work piled on me, I didn’t really want that stress as well as training for Tokyo. Little did I know it was going to be two years!”

Of course, though, she’s happy to make the sacrifice given the short sporting window — and opportunity for success on the world stage.

“Completely,” she nods. “Obviously education is important but swimming isn’t going to last forever. I’m in my youth now and I want to excel in my sport. So that’s why I decided to put a hold on my education to focus on swimming.”

What about her parents, though? That’s the big question. Many wouldn’t be too pleased to see school falling by the wayside in favour of sport.

_66A3139 Turner is targeting the podium in Tokyo. Source: Simon Burch 00353872754849 Ireland

Turner understands that, but the support shown to her from day one in sport, and life itself, has been second to none.

“To be honest, they took it very, very well,” she smiles.

“It was, obviously, my decision, but it was a collective – even if I was to do school and swimming, obviously studying… I wouldn’t get the best out of school, obviously, because of the swimming, but I wouldn’t get the best out of swimming because I’d have school to focus on. So my parents were 100% behind me.

“Obviously education is a massive thing and I did get a huge amount of support from the Sport Ireland Institute and my coaching staff that are still working with me around education, but obviously just not in school.

“It was a big decision but it’s a decision I don’t regret.”

And one she’ll be even more grateful for should all go to plan over the coming months as the clock runs down to Tokyo, take two.

Like the statement of intent with her Ard Teist deferral, Turner won’t shy away from her goal at the Games. Rio was a taste of what could be achieved, and after just missing out on a medal in the S6 50m butterfly final there, she’s ready to go one better.

“To be honest, I’m hoping to get on the podium. At the time, I didn’t realise how big Rio was. Now, going into my second Paralympic Games, I wouldn’t say that I have expectation but I have a drive that I want to get on that podium.” 

Beaming with positivity, Turner is counting the time down. Just under six months, which is insane, she grins. But the time will surely fly in.  

She’s hopeful that it will go ahead, and will think about little else between now and August. With a clearer end goal in mind and with training in full flow, lockdown 3.0 has been easier than the others.

Casting her mind back to the first, that period away from the water was a strange one.

“When Tokyo got postponed, we stopped swimming. Obviously, we still trained but we did it in a different way. We weren’t fortunate enough to have swimming pools in the back of our gardens!

“It was very strange but we had to adapt and I’m in a much better place 12 months on.”

The break from commuting, for one, was certainly welcome at the start, though odd.

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“It was very strange for me. Back in normal times, we’d train 5-7 in the evening so I’d eat my dinner in a food flask in the back of the car going home from training. So the first few weeks of lockdown I thought it was so strange eating dinner off a plate,” she laughs.

nicole-turner Turner on the big screen at Rio 2016. Source: Dan Behr/INPHO

Back to a relatively normal sporting life in a bubble with other para-athletes, contesting in-house competitions, and back to eating most of her dinners in lunchboxes, Turner couldn’t be happier. 

“Most of us got quite a nice surprise of how well we swam,” she notes of the return. “It was nice to just have something to look forward to as well.”

Having her team behind her once again is certainly one of the best parts. All of the struggles and sacrifices of the past year and beyond have been worth it.

Forget the medals, forget the success; sport is all about the people you meet along the way.

“Oh, that’s it completely,” Turner smiles. “Obviously I’ve made best friends that I will cherish for life with my teammates. But even across the world.

“People think, ‘Oh, you compete against girls, you might not like them’ – you know, like the jealousy or whatever, but you don’t. You do compete against them and you are fierce against them in the pool, it’s just the friendships that you make.

“I’ll give you an example. My biggest rival is Ellie Robinson from GB and people would think, obviously we have game face on when we’re behind the blocks, but behind the scenes, like, in the call room, in the swim down pool, we are best friends.

“Obviously, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity if it wasn’t for my sport and the sacrifices I make to get to the Games. So, it can be special for absolutely everyone.”

***

Irish Paralympic swimmer, Nicole Turner, was speaking following the announcement of Paralympics Ireland’s new fundraising campaign ‘The Next Level’. You can get behind the team now at: https://paralympics.ie/ 

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

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Emma Duffy

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