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Saturday 28 January 2023 Dublin: 6°C
# Paralympic Flame
'People probably look at it that it's about participation more than elite sport, but it's definitely not the case'
Kildare wheelchair racer Patrick Monahan on the Paralympics, his experience through the pandemic, and starting his impossible.

THEIR WHOLE MOTTO around Starting Your Impossible. That’s me all over because I had to start my impossible after my accident again.

It was completely impossible in my mind to even compete in sport back then. It was something that I just couldn’t fathom.

paralympics-ireland-tokyo-2020-6-months-to-go Harry Murphy / SPORTSFILE Patrick Monahan, Toyota ambassador and Paralympian, is pictured as Toyota Ireland looks forward to the Paralympic Games in Tokyo. Harry Murphy / SPORTSFILE / SPORTSFILE

As the conversation winds down and parting words are shared, Irish Paralympian Patrick Monahan makes sure to get a mention in for Toyota, their incredible support, and the campaign he is promoting.

The Kildare wheelchair racer’s story is well documented at this stage, a life-changing car accident turning his world upside down almost 16 years ago now as he was left paralysed from below the chest.

But Monahan started his impossible, and here he is, on the verge of qualifying to represent his country at a second Paralympic Games, having also won back-to-back Dublin Marathons and the 2015 Columbus Ohio Marathon — breaking the Irish record by seven minutes there.

An overwhelmingly positive person, Monahan made peace with the card he was dealt a long time ago and has taken life by the scruff of the neck, with sport as a constant.

His passion shines through with each and every word he utters, his gratitude for how much sport has given him ever-present. Watching London 2012 led him to take up wheelchair racing, and he has been inspired by the Paralympic movement ever since.

It’s interesting to hear his take on an ongoing talking point, one hammered home on these shores by Ellen Keane. The Rio 2016 bronze medallist has always been quick to speak out when she felt Paralympians haven’t got the credit or recognition they deserve, and it’s something she touched on in an interview with The Irish Independent last week.

“A Paralympic gold isn’t viewed the same as an Olympic gold medal and that’s a sad fact I know because Jason Smyth has spent 13 years unbeaten, he’s won every single gold medal and he’s never won RTÉ Sportsperson of the Year,” she said.

Monahan echoes those sentiments, which are a general feeling across the board.

“I would think it’s still lagging behind. I agree with Ellen, definitely,” he tells The42, using the same example of an athlete.

“You see Jason Smith, the fastest Paralympian in the world, and does he get the recognition he deserves? I don’t think he does. One of the most high-profile Paralympians and he just doesn’t get the recognition that he deserves.

jason-smyth-celebrates-winning-the-final Kieran Galvin / INPHO Jason Smyth. Kieran Galvin / INPHO / INPHO

“I’m sure a lot of people in Ireland would know who the fastest Olympian in the world is. Probably a lot of people in Ireland maybe do [know Smyth] but I think on a global level, how many people would know Jason? And then you look at Usain Bolt or someone like that in the past. You can’t even compare them.”

Yes, there is more coverage and conversation closer to the Games, but in non-Paralympic years, there’s a huge disparity. Monahan can “kind of understand it,” especially given his background in wheelchair racing.

“Sure people just don’t get the sport,” he concedes. “I’m just talking about my own sport.

“It’s not a big thing here. But the amount of people, when I say I do a marathon in a wheelchair, they say, ‘How long is your marathon?’ I’m like, ‘Well it’s the same marathon as everyone else.’ And they’re like, ‘Ah Jesus, you do 20-something miles in your chair!?’

“It probably just doesn’t get enough exposure. There’s no personal blame or that against anyone.

“I just feel that it’s still probably lagging a little bit behind. People still look at it like the kind of the pat on the back, or the inspiration type of thing. People probably look at it that it’s about participation more than elite sport, but it’s definitely not the case.”

The plan is to keep showcasing it, especially on the biggest stage, should all go to plan for Tokyo in August. These are elite athletes, and that’s important to drive home, Monahan says.

In a piece for The Sports Chronicle entitled, ‘Chasing Time,’ last May, he encouraged people to experience Paralympic sport, or even watch one of the many montage videos available online.

“It’s amazing to see what people have done with their lives and what they have managed to achieve,” he wrote. “There’s no such thing as feeling sorry for yourself and your situation.”

He’s never been one to do that.

Obviously there’s inspirational stories behind how people got to where they are or that,” he continues. “I think that’s really important, but it’s not an inspiration to compete, like.

“If people see behind the scenes, the training that we do… I suppose at the end of the day like there’s not as many [athletes] participation-wise and that. Even at a non-elite level, people know what marathon runners do to compete, where they probably don’t really know what I do.

“It’s a hard one to gauge but I just believe that we’re every way as worthy as the Olympians.”

paralympics-ireland-tokyo-2020-6-months-to-go Harry Murphy / SPORTSFILE Monahan is hoping to qualify for his second Games. Harry Murphy / SPORTSFILE / SPORTSFILE

Both sets of athletes have travelled bumpy roads over the last year or so, left in the dark about the status of the Tokyo Games time and time again. As of now, it’s full steam ahead despite the regular emergence of “fresh doubts have been raised” headlines.

Training remains a constant throughout — “a nice distraction,” and something Monahan has found has helped, though the general uncertainty of the world is challenging. 

“I’ve been lucky enough,” he says, discussing his experience through the Covid-19 pandemic so far. “I’m sure there’s people that have been a lot worse than me.

“It’s been a tough enough winter. Not that I’ve been down or anything over it, but I thought it would be a positive start to the year and we could kind of leave 2020 behind.

I’d say I’m coming out of it now but the first couple of months of this year, I have found the toughest of the last 12 months by far. Just the uncertainty of everything really, going into a New Year and cases going up. It’s been up and down, but training has been pretty good.”

He lives a stone’s throw away from Mondello Park, enjoying free rein of the track with motorsport shut down for the most part. Nearby roads, as always, have also been the perfect stages for long pushes, despite 2km and 5km limits at times. “It’s probably one of the benefits of an individual sport, I can find a road somewhere to train on,” he grins, also availing of gyms with the support of Sport Ireland.

He balances his rigorous training schedule with online college, coming towards the end of his first year of Community and Youth Development in TU Blanchardstown. While challenging, it’s a nice balance and the broad course comes as an interesting new chapter after working as a plumber before his accident, and in a bank afterwards, while doing talks in the National Rehabilitation Hospital [NRH] before the pandemic hit.

“It’s been really good for me. I’m not competing now, but before, if I had a bad race, it would weigh heavy on me because I was just fully invested in it. I was doing the NRH, but that was really it.

“I haven’t raced since, but I kind of feel that I can put things in perspective and move on from it quicker where I used to really beat myself up over a bad performance before — because all my eggs were in one basket. It’s what I want to do, I want to help people and that. It’s my passion.” 

patrick-monahan-on-his-way-to-finishing-6th Kieran Galvin / INPHO Competing at the 2017 Para Ahtletics World Championships. Kieran Galvin / INPHO / INPHO

He also has the small matter of building a house on his plate, so life is certainly hectic but he’s happy out. “Jesus, I wouldn’t change for anything,” Monahan smiles. “It can be tough at times, managing everything, but I’d definitely take that over sitting at home with my mind racing and negative thoughts possibly creeping in or that. I haven’t had a chance for that to even come into my mind, being honest.”

Something that is certainly in the back of his mind, however, is the severe lack of competition he’s endured.

He’s in a strong position in terms of qualification for the Games thanks to a fast time he clocked at his last competitive outing, the Dubai Marathon in January 2020, but the concern is he doesn’t know where he’s at compared to others. He’ll always look on the bright side, though.

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“I’m lucky I have the time posted. It often goes through my mind, I’m not sure what position I’d be in [otherwise].

“It’s all about timing really and there’s not many fast marathons on the circuit. The time required for the high-performance standard, not many lads go under it at the moment. Races end up being tactical because there’s big prize money in wheelchair racing.

I’m very lucky that I have that. I don’t know where I’d be because I haven’t had an opportunity to race.”

Best case scenario now is a marathon Stateside in June, should he be fully vaccinated by then. But should that not happen, and all goes to plan in terms of qualifying for the Games, he’ll be heading to Tokyo without competition in 18 or 19 months.

“I didn’t know at the time, Dubai would be the only race I’d have in 2020 and I’m still here. Without that, it would be very close to two years without a race for me.

“But it’s the same for everyone, I suppose. Well, in my sport, I’m seeing that there’s not many guys getting to compete bar countries having their own national trials or that. That’s the only comfort I can take from it as well, that a lot of people are in the same boat.”

It’s a strange one, he agrees, unsure of what lies ahead, but he’s just counting himself lucky to be able to keep doing what he’s doing; preparing for — hopefully — a Paralympic Games, all going to plan, with a strong time posted in the background.

He reflects on his “quite different” experience at the Rio 2016 Games, finishing 16th in the grueling heat after a week of being sick in bed. Tokyo will be even warmer, with a very hilly course in situ compared to the flat five years ago.

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As he says time and time again, he’s not there yet. But it’s clear he’s eyeing big things if he gets the chance to.

“Hopefully, I’ll be able to give a true account of myself,” he nods. “It’s very hard to know what sort of experience Tokyo will be. But whatever experience it will be, I’m hoping to go and that we get the go-ahead, the green light.

“At the end of the day, it’s about competing and giving my best so that’s the most important thing anyway. If it means no spectators, I’m fine with that. I’m there to put the work that I’ve done over  what ended up being a five-year cycle into place.

“It’s very hard to know performance-wise, I don’t really know what to expect being honest because I don’t know what competition I’m gonna face, but I just know that the conditions are going to be really tough.”

Tough is nothing Monahan hasn’t faced before, starting his impossible and keeping it going ever since.

The biggest stage is one he’ll certainly relish after a crazy time.

“Hopefully things are starting to come right anyway,” he concludes.

“We’ll take it week by week but it’s all systems go, hoping that things go to plan.”

*******************

Patrick Monahan, Toyota ambassador and Paralympian, is pictured as Toyota Ireland looks forward to the Paralympic Games in Tokyo.

Toyota is an official partner to Paralympics Ireland and worldwide mobility partner to the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Toyota’s Start Your Impossible campaign celebrates the best of human performance and can be viewed on www.toyota.ie

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