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From Leaving Cert points to Paralympics: teen sprint sensation living the athletics dream

Dubliner Orla Comerford is preparing to represent Ireland in the Paralympics. This is her story.

Comerford training in Rio this week.
Comerford training in Rio this week.
Image: Orla Comerford/The42

AS RECENTLY AS six months ago, Orla Comerford had never even contemplated the idea of racing for Ireland. Athletics had always been a part of her life and she’d always dreamt one day of pulling on the green vest but she never fully believed in those dreams.

Next week, the 18-year-old will realise them and make her international debut at the Paralympic Games in Rio. It will mark the start of her fledgling career but also the culmination of a whirlwind journey.

It all began seven years ago.

As Comerford advanced towards her teenage years, her eyesight began to deteriorate at an alarming rate — but there had been no previous indication that she was about to be diagnosed with Stargardt’s disease.

At such a tender age, such a life-changing disorder could have thrown Comerford’s world upside down. Everything had suddenly changed.

“I’ve always been quite an independent person, it was something that wasn’t going to shake me,” she tells The42.

“I’ve always been a half glass full type of person and I made sure it didn’t change my life. I just had to get on with it. There was nothing I could do so I copped that pretty quickly.

“I’m sure I was upset at the time but I genuinely can’t remember being upset. All I can remember was that I continued to do all the things I had loved doing and had done before my eyesight got worse.”

Part of that was running. For as long as Comerford can remember, she has run. As an active kid brought up in a sports-mad family, the Howth native was involved in a number of sports — but she always preferred running, mainly because she was faster than everyone else.

After 15 hours we made it 🇧🇷🇧🇷🇧🇷

A photo posted by Orla Comerford (@orla_comerford) on

“I remember asking my mum was there a sport where I could just run,” she recalls. “I joined Raheny Shamrocks Athletics Club when I was six and it just went from there. A friend of my mum’s was the coach and I would train in St Anne’s Park and just moved up through the groups.

“I suppose from that point on it was always a dream to run at a high level. When I was younger I always wanted to tell people I wanted to be a runner when I grew up but I never really believed it. I knew people would said I could do it but I never thought I could.”

So when Comerford was diagnosed at the age of 11, she wasn’t prepared to allow the hand she had been dealt rule her life. So many young people in that situation would have given it up, surrendering to the challenges they were about to be presented with.

But Comerford has a steely determination. Along with her coaches and extended support network, they made small changes to her running style and training regime that would ensure giving up simply wasn’t an option. She just embraced it.

Then came the possibility of becoming a Paralympian.

“At the time, my auntie’s best friend was involved in Paralympics Ireland and he told my parents I should get involved,” she explains. “Initially I thought I was a bit young.

“They or I have never been in denial about my eyesight. I’ve never had a problem with it but I never thought I was bad enough, like I’m not blind. I wasn’t sure I would classify for the Paralympics.

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“I continued to run for my club and school [Loreto on the Green] and Paralympics Ireland knew about me. They were kind of after me so about two years ago I went to the doctor to have my eyesight checked. He did all the tests and sent the details to Paralympics Ireland.”

But with her Leaving Certificate year approaching, athletics, and the possibility of going to Rio, took a backseat. That was until April, when Paralympics Ireland gave Comerford the chance to go to Italy for a classification event.

It was there where her road to Rio began.

“I was classified as T13, the same as Jason Smyth,” she continues. “I have that licence for the next two years now. I’ve never stopped training or running in my life, I was always training with a goal in mind but now that something has just changed.

“I was eligible to race at the European Championships but I had my Leaving Cert so Rio will be my first taste. The biggest crowd I’ve run in-front of is probably 200 people in Athlone for the indoors so it’s a massive step-up but one I’m incredibly excited for.”

Following her exams, Comerford’s focus has been centered solely on preparations for the Games to such an extent she forgot to go online to check her CAO offers a couple of Mondays ago.

“I had a couple of people asking me how I got on,” she recalls, laughing. “I had been training and it slipped my mind like.”

Back on track #sprints #drills #rio2016

A photo posted by Orla Comerford (@orla_comerford) on

Thankfully, good news was waiting for her as she was accepted into the National College of Art and Design to study Art and Education for four years.

“It’s not a college known for it’s sporting pedigree,” she jokes. “But they’ve been brilliant in facilitating me and letting me start late in October. I’m used to balancing study and training after the last little while. This year has been crazy to say the least.”

And it’s set to get even crazier. This day next week, Comerford’s dream will come to fruition in Rio’s Olympic stadium when she takes to the track for the T13 100m heats.

The Dubliner will have her family in the stands lending their support on a night, a few shorts months ago, nobody even entertained the thought of.

“I’m not nervous at all, just really excited about it,” the teenager adds.

“It’s always been a dream to do it. It was always something I wanted to do so to be actually able to do it is an absolute dream come true.”

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The Paralympic Games takes place between 7 and 18 September. Follow The42′s coverage from Rio here.

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Ryan Bailey

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