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Tokyo in sight for Timothy after watching Rio Games from hospital

‘I didn’t just want to cycle around the place, I wanted to race.’

2016, WHEN THE Olympics and Paralympics took hold of Rio and captured the imagination and attention of sports fans everywhere. A 21-year-old woman watches on from hospital.

Richael Timothy is attempting to rehabilitate what on first inspection resembles a stroke. In fact it’s an acquired brain injury, swelling and damage that came about after surgery on an underlying condition, Hereditary Hemorrhagic Telangiectasia (HHT).

Physios offer supportive, yet unconvinced and unconvincing looks when she expresses her will to make a swift return to inter-county football. Timothy had devoted so much time to standing between the sticks for Roscommon, and could not have known that the path before her would take her on a very different athletic journey.

Three and a half years later, she has her sights set on Tokyo.

“I was so naïve,” Timothy tells The42, “I’d basically had a stroke and thought I’d be back in a few days.

“(After leaving hospital) I still couldn’t walk. If I got out of bed my face would droop. I’d walk and drag my foot. I couldn’t lift a cup with my right hand.

JBS_4383 Richael Timothy. Source: Cycling Ireland

“Basically, I went to see a different physio for a check-up and she was like ‘when did you have the stroke?’”

That blunt presumption served as a wake-up call to rival a morning dip in the River Suck.

“I was asking ‘when would I run again?’ She said: ‘you need to just forget about it. Go from the start.’”

Starting over afresh meant shelving the sport she inadvertently had built her life around. One team WhatsApp group after another grew silent after she hung up her boots. New season, new year, new team, new groups were set up and, unable to call herself a player for either St Croan’s or Roscommon, Timothy was on the outside.

Time for the Ballymoe woman to seek out an alternative pastime. The essential search criteria was that she must be challenged.

Timothy turned to the bike after her GP suggested linking up with Para-Sport on account of her acquired brain injury. Having previously experienced epileptic-style seizures, swimming was out of the question and her right foot continued to curtail her wish to run.

“For months I’d say I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I was working in a gym and everything was sport and I couldn’t do it,” says Timothy.

“I put on normal flat pedals on the bike… my knee was hitting off the bar and I couldn’t balance. But I was able to go places, even if it was only a kilometre.”

It was freedom, movement. But more importantly, soon after she got in touch with Para Sport coaches, it quickly became an outlet for Timothy’s voracious appetite for competition.

“I started doing time trials and after about six months Cathal (Miller, development coach) got in touch with Fran (Meehan, who cycled as a guide fro Catherine Walsh in London and Rio). She started coaching me, seeing how I was getting on, giving me advice and things I could do throughout the week.

I didn’t just want to cycle around the place, I wanted to race.”

It’s a long way down when you stand on a velodrome’s edge and peer over the precipice.

The seven metre-wide track doesn’t appear to curve so much as drop down the maximum 45 degree angel to the painted flat path around the bottom. Once in the saddle, there is no room to coast because speed is required to maintain the centrifugal force that keeps the rider upright and balanced on even the gentler banks.

“I was like, ‘how the hell am I going to cycle,’” laughs the Galway woman as she looks back on her first race with Ireland’s Para-cycling development squad.

There is no velodrome on these shores for Irish riders to acclimatise to the shift in G-force and mechanisms of the sprint bike. So they must maximise opportunities to settle in the sprint setting during short warm-weather training camps.

Timothy has often enjoyed a spin on the outdoor track in Crumlin and Miller moved to assure her that Manchester’s velodrome, host of three World Championship meets, was no more daunting.

He lied.

“Then we got to Manchester and he was like ‘don’t look down!’”

As is her wont, Timothy toughed it out regardless.

“I did a 500m and 3k pursuit: I was at the bottom and on the track on my own. I did it, like, but when I look back now it was so bad. So slow! I don’t even know how I went that slow.”

Once her studies in Sports Science in Athlone IT were completed in 2018, Timothy turned up the intensity on her training. She had a goal now. A marker to chase.

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Often that marker was posted by her own previous struggle. Timothy has not yet felt a setback that she won’t battle back against. And there was ample stiff competition to chew on once she had earned her berth on Ireland’s national Para-cycle squad just over a year ago.

“I’d done my first (international) road race in Italy in April and I was just dropped.

“In my head I’m going, ‘God, I’m so bad, I’ll never catch them. They’re going to catch (lap) me!’

“The next time in Ostend I could stay with a few of them and by the Roads (World Championships) I was only 20 seconds off first place.”

Despair in April, enormous encouragement in May and success in September. An upward spiral pushed along by the former goalkeeper’s gutsy resilience and refusal to ease back from a challenge.

Timothy had finished eighth in the world in the WC3 category and could look back with pride on the long trek behind her. From paying just a passing interest to cycling’s turn at the previous Paralympics, she was amassing points to earn a spot at the next Games.

Along the way, in speaking to fellow riders and colleagues about her condition and ordeal with HHT and acquired brain injury, a team-mate remarked ‘it could be the best thing that ever happened to you’.

She used to be dubious.

“When I finished that (Road World Championships) race, I came eighth, I was like, ‘he’s right’.

“That was when I basically said, cycling is my future. This is what I’m going to do.”

Footballing instincts have not been shaken off.  Richael has found herself standing on sidelines when a stray ball will bobble over. The natural inclination will bring the eye to the rolling leather and the body follows with a swing. Players would stand waiting and calling for a helpful return pass until Timothy stops in her tracks.

“Sometimes you’d forget you can’t use the leg like you used to… even if I tried with my good leg, you wouldn’t have the balance on your bad leg.

“If you were injured with a sore knee, you’d still kick the ball. Brain injury is a lot different. There’s just no communication between your brain and your leg.”

Cycling works for the Ballymoe athlete because the natural rhythm of it can allow her to compete while balancing out a right leg that is reduced to 30% of the power and function of her left. 

I fatigue (quicker) as well on my right hand side. So I’d start 60-40 (effort), but even if I’m only pushing with one leg the other one still goes around. That’s why I don’t have much muscle wastage, because I am using it.

“It’s just about trying to strengthen it so it will work longer. What I end up doing is pedalling down with my good leg and pulling back up, which is pulling the other leg around.

“For people who just do leisure cycling, they just push, push, push… but I’ve learned to get my stroke good enough so that I push and pull. Using my good leg as much as I can but still using my other side.”

So much has changed for Timothy over the past three years since finding cycling. Her ABI can’t be put behind her, but it is being managed and so she has not suffered a seizure since 2016. 

As a result further freedom has come with a return to driving. There is freedom too in the confidence and contentment that immersion in competitive sport has brought. She maintains her own GAA links through a passion for coaching, although initially she was reluctant to take up an offer from Roscommon U16 girls manager Tommy Beirne to join  his backroom team.

“I didn’t like being out and about when I was sick, everyone would see me as a sick person, not a footballer. But he asked me and I couldn’t say no.

I think that got me back to liking football – when I couldn’t play I started to forget about it, not taking it in and was starting to cut that part off.

“It was really good just to be involved, even if you weren’t able to play.”

It has been rewarding work for Timothy and she feels the playing panel respond well to a strong young female in the coaching setup. She has coached the group from U16 and last year at Minor level they reached the All-Ireland B final, but lost out to Longford in the decider.

2020 will be a seriously busy year on the road and on the track for Timothy, however, so she has stepped back from coaching to put maximum effort through her pedals. 

Foremost in her plans is this week’s Para-Cycling Track World Championships in Milton, Canada. Timothy travels along with Katie George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal in an 11-strong group of Irish riders.  She has made a habit of showing rapid rate of improvement through her first year on the international circuit, but the Galway woman will be content if she can hit another PB when she races in the 500M and in the pursuit.

The Road World Championships will then come in June, but unquestionably the ultimate goal stands at the Tokyo Paralympics in August.

At this rate of progression, with such irrepressible motivation to relentlessly push forward, Timothy is well on course to qualify a second bike for Team Ireland’s women and complete a four-year cycle unlike any other.

Ireland’s Para-Cycling Team for Track World Championships in Milton, 30 January to 2 February

Katie George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal – WB 3KM Individual Pursuit, WB 1KM Time Trial.
Richael Timothy – WC3 500M Time Trial, WC3 3KM Individual Pursuit, WC3 F200 Omnium, WC3 10KM Scratch.
Martin Gordon & Eamonn Byrne – MB 1KM Time Trial, MB Sprint.
Peter Ryan and Anthony Walsh – MB 4KM Individual Pursuit, MB 1KM Time Trial.
Damien Vereker and Marcin Mizgajski – MB 4KM Individual Pursuit, MB 1KM Time Trial.
Chris Burns – MC2 1KM Time Trial, MC2 3KM Individual Pursuit, MC2 F200 Omnium, MC2 15KM Scratch.
Ronan Grimes – MC4 1KM Time Trial, MC4 4KM Individual Pursuit, MC4 F200 Omnium, MC4 15KM Scratch.

About the author:

Sean Farrell

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