Nearly two years on from her proudest moment as a cyclist at the 2016 Paralympics, Katie-George Dunlevy is back in Rio de Janeiro and gets her Para-cycling Track World Championships campaign underway today.
The English born cyclist with roots in Donegal has been a wonderful ambassador for para cycling and still has plenty more to give.
The tandem racer told Graham Gillespie on the Cycling Ireland website this week that winning the B time trial gold and road race silver feels like a “distant memory” sometimes now, but looking back on that occasion still brings her joy.
“In some ways it feels like it didn’t happen, but then I look at the pictures and I do have those proud feelings quite clearly in my head. I feel proud because I know what we did to get those medals, and only Eve (McCrystal) and I will know that. Whatever happens now we’ll have those medals for the rest of our lives,” she reflected.
Katie-George alongside her pilot Eve McCrystal added two World road titles to their collection in 2017, but the path to those medals was far from easy. The 36-year-old had her life changed irrevocably at the age of just 11, when she was diagnosed with the rare degenerative eye condition Retinitis Pigmentosa which has led to her losing her sight.
What are your memories of those early days after being diagnosed?
I was very low on confidence and self-esteem.
I didn’t like being different at school, and I was given help but refused it. I kind of refused to accept that I couldn’t see and that I had this eye condition. I remember mum said I screamed in the car on the way to school and on the way back that I actually could see. I cried out; ‘I can see. I can see I can see’.
Things began to change though when my parents sent me to a special school. I became immersed in sport. There was nothing that I couldn’t do, because the school I went to did many sports partially sighted blind people can do”.
So sport was transformational for you?
For me, it was just massive really in terms of my confidence and building me up that way.
I was doing something that I loved to do and I really enjoyed. I got a lot of fulfilment out of it, so for me it’s massive what it has done for me as an individual.
I think you get so many key skills out of it, like social skills, and so much more.
But Cycling wasn’t your first love, was it?
I initially hoped to go the London 2012 Paralympics with the Irish squad as a rower. I missed out though on the 2011 World Rowing Championships having done likewise ahead of Beijing.
I was approached by Cycling Ireland Technical Director Brian Nugent, and while I didn’t know much about the sport I thought it was worth exploring.
You know they say one door closes and another one opens, and I thought I’d give it a go.
From that, they said; ‘we want you to go to the World Championships’ which were in six weeks’ time in September 2011, and I said; ‘you haven’t seen me on a bike yet’.
I remember saying to Brian that he hadn’t even seen me on a moving bike but he said ‘from what I’ve seen and what I’ve read you’ll be great’.
I needed something new. I needed a new drive and something to go for as I still had more to give. I loved the freedom on the bike and the feel of speed. I fell in love with it straight away.
How did the partnership with Eve McCrystal come about?
Tandem is a team sport, so a pilot is crucial for your success, because you can’t do it all on your own. My coach Neill Delahaye introduced us and we got off to a brilliant start when we took home a silver in the 2014 World Championships road race.
That was huge. It was a massive boost and achievement for me in cycling, and it really gave us the drive.
I thought I’ve got a chance here with Eve, and we can really go for it, so that’s what we did.
How do you work together as a team?
We have different personalities, but we’re very similar on the bike where we kind of get on with it and work hard. We always try our best and we have that kind of fight in us you know that competitiveness. It’s easy really with Eve on the bike.
In cycling, you have more bad rides than good rides but it’s those bad ones that count. When it’s a team sport, one person might be having a good day and the other person might not be. It’s important for you to know that, and to talk and communicate.
What do you recall from the wins in Rio?
I think the memories that stay in my mind are when we found out we won gold. The actual race itself is a bit of a blur.
As soon as I came back here to England, it was back to normal life which was probably the hardest bit. It was like a high in Rio from getting a gold emotionally for me, and then coming back here it was just back to normal life. It was a rollercoaster of emotions for me during that time.
Now eighteen months on you are back in Rio, how are you feeling about this Championships?
Last year the Road racing World Championships were great. We won the double in the road race and the time trial and that would be my preferred racing.
I love the endurance element of it. I think I’m better suited to endurance riding. I especially love the road racing, because you just don’t know what’s going to happen. There are other bikes involved and there’s a lot of tactics going on.
I think though, if I had more time on the track, I would feel differently about it.
And what’s on the cards for you after you return this time?
I want to move out of my parents and have my own place that would be amazing as the next stage in life.
Working towards forming a career outside of cycling will also take precedence in the next few years, after doing it all over again for Tokyo 2020 of course.
Join us for the Sport for Business Business of Cycling Breakfast in Dublin on April and hear from Katie-George’s team mate Peter Ryan on his inspiring story as well as detailed discussion on Cycling’s place in Ireland today from the workplace to Charity events like the Ring of Kerry Charity Cycle and more. Find out more here.