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'That's what I liked: When I was in the water, I was as good as all the able-bodied guys'

Irish Paralympic hopeful Patrick Flanagan shares his story with The42.

Paralympic swimming hopeful Patrick Flanagan launching a new partnership between The Vision Group and Paralymics Ireland.
Paralympic swimming hopeful Patrick Flanagan launching a new partnership between The Vision Group and Paralymics Ireland.
Image: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

IT’S A WAITING game right now, but one that should end in a favourable result.

That being a ticket to the Paralympic Games in Tokyo next month.

Irish swimmer Patrick Flanagan has hit the qualification standard ahead of what would be his first Paralympics, so essentially, his name is in the hat for selection.

In limbo at the minute, it’s a strange situation but one he’s taking in his stride as he awaits the imminent news patiently.

“It’s tough, but we’ve been living in uncertainty for a long time now so we do have some sense of familiarity with it,” the 23-year-old tells The42.

“You’ve got to just act professionally and train as if you’re going to the Games, and just hope to get selected. I’ve put myself in a good position and I’m happy with that

“Hopefully, in a couple of weeks, we get told we’re on Team Ireland. You don’t want to leave anything until then. We just put our heads on every day, we get into the pool, we get our work in, we push ourselves as a team every day. And you just get through it. We’re just prepping as we should do.”

It’s a fine balance.

There’s cautionary excitement, though one must stay level-headed and grounded.

“I think in a way, it’s nice to get excited about it because it motivates you,” Flanagan nods.

“If you let your mind wander that little bit, you can get that extra percent or two out of yourself. It would be just such a massive achievement to to make the team and I would just be so proud of that. That’s what kind of gets me through it every day at the moment.”

He vividly remembers watching British Para swimmer Ellie Simmonds and Ireland’s Darragh McDonald win gold at London 2012, and has fond memories of being more heavily invested in the 2016 Games, following each and every move of his training partners and friends in Rio.

To think now, it could be him at the Tokyo edition.

Japan, east Asia; a long way from where it all began.

***

Sligo and Lonford are two centre-points in Flanagan’s life; his wider family all hail from the former, though he lived in the latter until he was 18. When he moved to Dublin for college, his family relocated to Sligo, so when he’s “going home,” it’s to the Yeats county.

Longford is where his love for swimming was fostered.

Born with Spina Bifida, Flanagan couldn’t follow the family sporting tradition when he came of age.

“My family are big into golf, that kind of came from my Dad’s side of family,” he explains.

“They’ve always been mad into it, die-hard golfers. That was just never going to work for me, obviously, being a wheelchair user. I like watching the sport, but I’m not going to be going playing it.

“We used to just go swimming a lot of days after school. My Mum was the one who actually taught me to swim. She just was really encouraging me to have a sport because my brothers did and she just felt it was important for me that I had some form of exercise and some form of outlet after school.

“I just took to it quite quickly, I was well able to swim. One of my really good friends was a good swimmer in Longford at the time, and he encouraged me to join. I was like, ‘Yeah, why not?’ He convinced me to join it, and then it just kind of took from there. I progressed up through the club, and I just kind of fell in love with it straightaway.”

That immediate love for the sport married with support from home meant everything to a young boy growing up, feeling a little different to his peers.

His brothers, who followed the golf pathway, were always on hand to offer encouragement. In alternative ways.

That pushed him on. If they could do it, why couldn’t he?

patrick-flanagan Flanagan at the Swim Ireland National Team Trials in April. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“It was really massive,” he nods. “Not even that they were like supportive, because, we were kids at the time. We’re brothers, you know, they’re not going to think you’re great. They’re hating me as much as I’m hating them at that age!

“It’s almost the competitiveness, isn’t it? Say if my brother’s going to play for Connacht or Leinster, whichever was at the time, I want to do that in swimming. You want to be as good as your siblings, pretty much.

“That’s what I liked about the pool: When I was in the water, I was as good as all the able-bodied guys at that age when we were kids. I wasn’t slower than anyone when I first joined the club.

“Obviously, when I got older, that’s always gonna happen naturally. But that was such a huge part of it when I was a kid is that I got in and I was good at it. When you’re good at something, you generally like it when you’re a kid.”

Just how good Flanagan was started to become apparent through his teens.

Everything went up a few notches; the competition, the commitment, the sacrifices.

Early morning pool sessions took over, and he was forced to juggle swimming with school, study and of course, a social life.

“Once you do love it enough, you get over it. It is tough, especially from the age of 16 to 20 when you felt like people are starting to go out a lot more. You have to be smart about it because you have to go training in the morning and stuff.

“You need to get that life balance. It takes a while to figure that out and understand how to do it right and stuff, because you still want to have a social life obviously. I think certain other sports are a bit more forgiving in that regard.

“It was good, some of my close [swimming] friends, they were in school with me and everything, going through the same stuff. People kind of understood that we were the swimmers, there was that kind of understanding around what we were doing so going through it with other people made it easier.”

It took some trial and error, but he got there.

Around the same time, Flanagan came to a realisation in himself. Others from the outside looking in may have been aware sooner, but it clicked that this was something he could pursue at the highest level, with big opportunities down the line should he do so.

Whatever it was, he had it.

“I’d say coming towards the end of secondary school, that’s kind of when I realised, ‘No, this is definitely something I want to pursue further.’

“I kind of had to make that decision around college and my academics. I always wanted to prioritise my academics, I knew I was going to do that but I also realised that I’d like to be able to swim at college.

“Making those decisions was maybe the moment I realised that this was something I’m going to pursue really seriously. When you start to really factor it into your life decisions, that’s when you kind of know, ‘Okay, well, this is more than just a pastime.’”

***

From there, Flanagan’s rise was a pretty meteoric one.

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He won several medals at the European Para Youth Games in 2015, before making his senior international debut three years later at the 2018 Para Swimming European Championships on home soil in Dublin.

He balanced his incredible exploits in the pool with those away from it, studying Economics and Finance at UCD.

Flanagan’s individual rise has gone hand-in-hand with that of Para sport in general in recent times. The upward trajectory and growth is something he is acutely aware of.

“It’s improved massively in the last couple years,” he smiles. “I think when you look around – back when I was in Sligo during that lockdown, we eventually got out of our 2k, 5k, whatever, I’m going to town I’m seeing billboards with Ellen Keane on them.

“It’s amazing, that’s the person I train with. She’s probably the most famous swimmer in Ireland, and the most famous swimmer in Ireland then is a swimmer. That speaks for itself.

“It’s brilliant for Para sport. There’s that respect there amongst the Olympic athletes, that they respect the Para athletes, that they know that we’re putting in the work that they’re putting in, which I think has really come on, and is massive as well.”

ellen-keane Ellen Keane. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

The two teams are a tight-knit bunch, with excitement on another level in recent weeks after the Olympic announcement. “Seeing those guys achieve [and make Team Ireland],” Flanagan beams, “they’re guys I’ve been friends with 10 years. The sense of community at the moment in particular is through the roof.

“There’s also the flip side of it; guys that haven’t made it that were so close, and so deserving of it but unfortunately, it didn’t happen for them. That’s really tough to see, because they’re good friends of ours as well.

“We’re just going through it together, everyone, and this is the culmination of all our lives’ work. The sense community is really nice. You know that you’ve got someone watching your back and you’re watching somebody else’s back.”

That was the case right through the highs and lows of the past 15 months or so, motivating one another through the Covid-19 pandemic and postponements which stuttered so much progress.

It was tough, there’s no two ways about it, but Flanagan and co. got through it. 

The Games was always the focus. “You couldn’t let this pandemic ruin my goal that I’ve been working on for my whole life now,” he stresses.

And here they are, mere weeks away from that lifetime goal. Better late than never, with the delayed Paralympics likely to be even more special.

“I don’t know, the wait adds to it, doesn’t it? You’re adding to the hype, the emotion, everything. This might never, ever happen again. So I think we just have to take it in.

“I remember when it all got postponed a year ago, just thinking, ‘Okay, this is going to be a Games now that no one will ever forget.’ That’s kind of what we have to tell ourselves. That we would hopefully be competing at what will probably be one of the most famous-ever Games. I think that kind of does sum it up, that it will be one to remember anyway.”

That it absolutely will, with Flanagan hoping to represent his locality and country with pride once again, this time on the biggest stage possible in the world.

To conclude, it’s fair to say it’s something he never thought he would do.

“No, it is absolutely insane when you think about it. Sometimes you kind of just have to pinch yourself and realise you’re actually doing it because even at the moment, all the focus is on getting to the Games and trying to get picked for this team and stuff.

“But when I look back and think, ‘Well, I’ve gone to Europeans, I’ve made European finals, I’ve gone to a world champs, I’ve had a really, really good career.’ Obviously hopefully I get to the Games and I’ll be able to add more to it, but you just kind of have to sit back and realise, ‘I’ve done so much, and I’ve got to do it all with an Irish cap on my head, which is just fantastic.

“When I was a kid, I would have killed for a cap. Now I have 20 of them in my swimming bag right beside me. It’s class, it really is so unique. And it’s something I just have to, every so often, realise that I’ve put myself in this position and be proud of myself that I’ve done it. I love it. I love being Irish and I love representing us.”

Paralympics Ireland recently announced that The Vision Group have become the Official Supplier of Medical and Sports Rehabilitation Products to Paralympics Ireland.

About the author:

Emma Duffy

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