Thursday, January 5, 2012

Catherine Walsh, Paralympic cyclist

Longer post than usual - this interview I did with cyclist Catherine Walsh ran in the Irish Independent today, a supplement for the Irish Paralympic Team. 

Catherine Walsh, with racing partner Fran Meehan

Glance into Catherine Walsh’s windows and you might see her powering on a stationary bike, counting off the miles from her living room. But you’ll have to be fast if you want to spot the Paralympic cyclist out on the roads around North Dublin.

Clocking over 80km an hour on a good day, Walsh says she’s amassed a “collection of bling”. Bronze at the Sydney Olympics, silver and two bronze from the World Championships, World Duathlon champion and she’s not done yet.

Walsh is partially-sighted but shrugs off any suggestion this might be a drawback in high-speed cycling, uses the word “lucky” many times talking about her life.

“You know the board the eye-doctor uses? I can read the top line of that,” she says.

“I’m very sensitive to light so I’d have difficulty in bright conditions. And the changeover - say riding down a road with trees and then back into the sunlight - that might make me hesitate. But in a racing situation I’d just focus on cycling.”

Supported by her sports-coach parents, Walsh’s competitive career started at the Community Games running in ‘able-bodied’ races. She went on to run internationally, doing the 400m without guide-runners she points out.

From there, she made the leap to the Pentathlon at the Paralympics - fencing, swimming, showjumping, running and shooting all done on one day. Winning bronze in this competition from Sydney in 2000 remains one of her most treasured memories.

Having gone as far as she thought she could, Walsh figured the triathlon might fill a gap. But for that, you need to get on your bike.

That was in 2007 and she hasn’t stopped pedalling since. Although she does add she was ‘terrified and not even sure I wanted to do it. But I wanted to compete.”

Walsh (38) competes in tandem-races with team-mate Francine Meehan acting as her eyes at the front of the bike. She says the bond between them has to be strong as one mistake from either could over-turn the heavy bike.

Seemingly not bothered by being unable to see corners coming, Walsh says: “I just look at Fran’s body position. I know if she is moving left or right, I know there is a corner coming up.”

She adds they’re so close that when her teammate crashed in a solo race she couldn’t even look at their bike for a week.

Her own first year in the saddle involved a broken wrist and fractured thumb from two accidents but they weren’t enough to keep her away. Walsh just shrugs narrow shoulders, says you have your helmet so nothing too bad can happen and you just get on with it.

“You have to be committed, you have to squeeze everything out of the corners - you could lose by a fraction of a second. I’m not saying it’s dangerous but there is an element of danger in the sport,” she says.

Away from the glamour of racing, there’s training sessions six days a week on the bike, either indoors or on the road with the tandem. And up to three specialised gym sessions to build power for those explosive starts at the Velodrome.

But what is it really that keeps her out on the road in an Irish winter? 

“Oh, the speed,” she says laughing. “When you run you might feel you’ve done as much as you can. But with cycling there is always another gear, there is always something new to learn.”

She refers to “technical corners”, says you just don’t think about it too much, crank up the speed and power through.

Behind that power is a team of supporters from her husband to the team mechanic Gerry Beggs. A living-room strewn with bike-parts is the norm for her two children, aged five and eight. Apparently Olympic medals don’t impress them much, not big enough or shiny enough they say.

Walsh says the elderly patients she cares for in her other life as a physiotherapist are among her most devoted fans, something she puts down to childhoods spent on bikes.

Not that Walsh’s bike – costing anything from €10,000 to 11,000 - is anything like a High Nelly. Balanced and weighted for two, she says they’re “a real pain” to carry around.

And she carries them a lot. In the next few months Walsh and the squad will hit Holland and Majorca to prepare for the Para-Cycling World Championships in Los Angeles in February.

Joking she would make a great logistics manager, she says balancing training with family and work is “a fantastic nightmare” that’s getting harder as her children grow older. As Walsh is unable to drive, her father is the main driver and using that stationary bike means she spends more time at home than you might think.

Together with Meehan, she races in the 1km and 3km on the track, the time-trial and road race outdoors. Their target is the 3km for February and she says they’re not yet sure which race will suit them best for London 2012.

“It’s great that it’s so close this time. We are really committed to London, we need to get on that podium,” she says. “Hopefully we will be able to ride the course before, we’ll have that preparation. I perform the best when I feel totally prepared.”
But in spite of competing at every Olympics since Barcelona in 1992, Walsh still has room for one more ambition. 

“At the world championships, the winner gets to wear a rainbow jersey. When you race, you can wear it afterwards. I really want to get that in Los Angeles. I have a silver (medal) and two bronze but I still don’t have the rainbow jersey. We’re gunning for that this year,” she says.

If you're in Ireland pick up the supplement, some other really inspiring sports women in it too!

UPDATE: the Irish Independent Paralympics Ireland supplement now online here


Snowcatcher said...

I've been watching for this, so it was very exciting to finally see it and be able to read it. I'm so inspired! And now I have a new favorite to root for in LA and London!!! Amazing story, especially managing a job, a family AND cycling competitively!

niamh said...

@Snowcatcher - the Olympic fever is starting now. It was great talking to Catherine, she made it all seem so natural.