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'When something is so obvious, it's quite an easy one to pick on. But it turned out to be a blessing'

Leading Irish ParaCyclist and Paralympic hopeful Ronan Grimes shares his story.

RONAN GRIMES CAN’T help but smile as he looks back on his childhood.

The memories come flooding back. Some good, but many bad. He still smiles, though.

paralympics-ireland-tokyo-2020-6-months-to-go Irish ParaCyclist and Paralympic hopeful Ronan Grimes. Source: Harry Murphy/SPORTSFILE

Born with clubfoot, growing up wasn’t exactly the easiest time. And now a top Irish ParaCyclist after taking up the sport later in life, he explains the dynamics to set the scene.

“With a clubfoot, your foot wants to grow down and in,” Grimes tells The42. “If it’s mild enough, they just correct it by putting you into casts but if it’s not, you have to have operations to try and correct the way that the bones are growing.

“I had to have a few operations when I was a baby, and then when I was 11, I had a final one. They wait until you’re older so your foot isn’t going to grow a whole lot more. What happens is they just correct the shape of the foot, they reset it so instead of it facing down and in, it goes out.

“That means though that your ankle doesn’t move, and then your calf muscles don’t develop.”

Operations, appointments, rehabilitation; it was a hectic time. But the worst part of it all was how he felt inside. Especially before that final operation.

He was conscious that this made him different.

And others his age were aware of it too.

“Even walking, you’d walk with a limp,” the Galway native recalls. “I have orthotics now which minimise it an awful lot, but when I was younger you’d walk with a limp and trip over it an awful lot.

“It wasn’t until I got that corrective surgery that it became more normal. It would have been a big part of growing up, having that. When something is so obvious when you’re growing up, for other children, it’s quite an easy one to pick on. 

“But it turned out to be a blessing.”

manchester-paracycling-international-day-two-hsbc-uk-national-cycling-centre Grimes on his way to taking silver in the Mens C4 4000m Pursuit final at the 2020 Manchester Paracycling International. Source: Martin Rickett

It wasn’t all bad at the time, though. There were plenty of other things to smile about, despite the lack of cycling in his life just yet. In Athenry, GAA was their religion.

“It would have been a big hurling town, still is, but when I was growing up that was the big sport there,” Grimes grins.

“They would have been winning All-Ireland hurling club championships when I was nine or 10 so I would have played a bit when I was smaller… but I haven’t touched a hurl in a long time!”

Cycling actually only came on his radar when he started commuting to college. He tipped away at that, and then a friend from Rathfarnham brought him cycling up Montpelier Hill, or the better-known Hell Fire Club, and he well and truly caught the bug.

He had been doing a bit of running on treadmills to stay fit around the same time, but it was too sore on his foot. One or two kilometres in, and he’d have to stop.

But in 2013, Grimes started using the Bike To Work Scheme, and worked on his fitness that way.

“With a clubbed foot, it hurts if you were to run for any length of time,” he says, adding that it’s his left foot and even now, his left leg is much weaker than his right from the knee down.

“Your foot would get sore. I had to find an alternative, and the bike seemed like a good one. Because cycling is non-weight-bearing, it’s the ideal sport to try just to keep fit. It all snowballed from there.”

ronan-grimes Grimes won a Special Achievement Award at the 2019 Cycling Ireland awards. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

One day, a door opened into a whole new world. He didn’t realise that ParaCycling was an option for him until he was getting a bike-fit with Aidan Hammond.

The Wicklow-based expert had fitted Paralympians for Beijing 2008 and London 2012, and he flagged the fact that Grimes could qualify. After taking his suggestion on board, an enthusiastic Grimes reached out to Cycling Ireland and the ParaCycling development manager. And soon after, he found himself in the Irish elite squad.

It all came from that one bike-fit, after never being exposed to ParaCycling before. The visibility just isn’t there, he says, especially not with the solo category. But above all else, he just didn’t realise.

“I never really classified a club foot… running, you’d fall over your foot running so you know that there’s an issue there, but on a bike it’s hard to see how. I wouldn’t have used a parameter at the time so I wouldn’t have known how much weaker my left foot was to my right. I never knew that it was an option.

“It was probably a good attitude to have… when I was getting into cycling, I never thought I was at a disadvantage to anything. You’ve never encountered it as something that should be hindering you, which is a good thing to have. 

“It opened opportunities that before, I’d never think of in a million years. I never thought I’d represent Ireland, I never thought I’d ever get to do any of these photo shoots, getting medals… all of that wouldn’t have existed as a thing without it.”

So really, the whole experience has been nothing short of surreal. 

“Yeah,” he nods. “You get into the bubble quite quickly and you start taking in for granted.

You start doing all these things and it’s just every day, run-of-the-mill stuff, but you take a step back and go, ‘Actually, what I’m doing here is a really, really great opportunity and something that I might never get to experience again.’

paralympics-ireland-tokyo-2020-6-months-to-go At Paralympics Ireland 6 Months to Go event. Source: Harry Murphy/SPORTSFILE

“It’s about taking the time to enjoy this to its fullest.”

We spoke at Paralympics Ireland’s Tokyo 2020 Six Months to Go event last month, and while coronavirus was on the radar then, it hadn’t quite gripped the world like it has now.

At the time, Grimes was working full-time at the Health Products Regulatory Authority [HPRA] around his training, and planned to take unpaid leave in May to put his full focus on this summer’s Paralympics.

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And fresh off landing the bronze medal in the C4 Individual Pursuit Race at the UCI Para-cycling Track World Championships in Milton, Canada, the 31-year-old was understandably in flying form.

“The build-up to that was non-stop from last October, with a lot of time spent over in Majorca and Portugal, and weeks away to Derby just to train in the velodromes there,” he beamed. “It really was busy. 

“To get the bronze in the individual pursuit… I was hoping to get into the gold medal ride-off in the morning, but I missed out on that by, I think it was less than a second. It’s really tight between second, third, fourth, fifth — we’re all within a couple of seconds, even less sometimes, of each other.

“I qualified third fastest, but the guy that was fourth was 0.1 of a second behind my time so it was really tight. I managed to come away with the bronze, but with a time that would have been second fastest overall. It’s small margins! 

“In Tokyo, that will be my target event really so to get a medal now, with six months more preparation for it, it’s going to be exciting.”

Exciting, it may have been at the time, but there’s an air of uncertainty over the Games and preceding qualifiers at the moment. Then, Grimes was targeting the World Road Championships at the start of June for qualification points for qualification slots.

paralympics-ireland-tokyo-2020-6-months-to-go Grimes is eyeing Tokyo 2020, should it go ahead. Source: Harry Murphy/SPORTSFILE

His focus was on switching to the road, and building his base miles level up before contesting local able-bodied races in Ireland. Then it was to training camps in May, and all eyes on the time trial and road racing in June. But now, who knows?

“I finished fourth in the time trial last year, 30 seconds off bronze so hopefully this year I can make up that gap and aim for a medal there,” he adds.

“We don’t know how many bikes will be qualified for Ireland [for Tokyo] yet, so the more points you get the more of a chance there is of more bikes going. It’s kind of a lottery.”

Through the uncertainty, we’ll finish on a high. There’s strength in numbers, and Grimes is surely leaning on those around them through these difficult, uncertain times.

“We have a good, close-knit ParaCyclying group at the moment so when you get away to training camps, there is a really family-feel and nice atmosphere to it,” he smiled.

“Even though it’s an individual result you’re going for, you’re rooting for your team. It pushes you on, it’s a nice environment. It’s such a nice bunch, and a good team.”

That’s what it takes.

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Emma Duffy

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