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Q&A with Katie-George Dunlevy, paracylist and woman to inspire

sportswomen.ie recently caught up with multiple World Medallists Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal, who will be competing in the women’s tandem at the UCI Para-cycling Track World Championships in Montichiari, Italy, 17-20 March. 34 year old Katie-George Dunlevy has been part of the Irish paracyling team since 2011.

Katie-George, tell us about your early experiences of sport: I became involved in sports at a young age. It has been a big part of my life. I struggled at school, I was told I couldn’t do things and thought I couldn’t. A memory that I will always remember was being left out of ball sports, sitting at the side of the pitch/hall because I couldn’t do it, unaware it was due to my sight loss. At the age of 11 I was diagnosed with the eye disease Retinitous Pigmentosa (RP). RP is a chronic hereditary eye disease in which abnormalities of the photoreceptors of the retina lead to progressive visual loss. People with RP first experience defective dark adaptation (night blindness), then constriction of the visual field (tunnel vision), and eventually, late in the course of the disease, loss of central vision.

How did you cope with the news of your diagnosis: I changed school shortly after finding out I had RP, to a school for the blind. I didn’t cope well with the change and the news at first. However it turned out to be the right decision as the students were the same as me, I quickly got involved with sports and activities and it was something I could do and turned out to be naturally very good at. With this my confidence grew and I began to enjoy school.

What sports have you been involved with in the past: I did a variety of sports when I was younger. School and college gave me the opportunities and were very encouraging and my parents were so supportive, without them I wouldn’t be where I am now. I got involved with swimming and athletics competitively and started rowing in my second year at university, where Katie-George studied Marine Environmental Science. I fell in love with competitive sports and got so much from it. As a teenager I won national swimming and athletic competitions, a cross country race in Prague and at the International Blind Sports Association European Athletic Championships I won bronze in the 400m as a 17 year old in the women’s senior event against more experienced runners. In rowing I was noticed and fast tracked into the national Great Britain squad, I saw what could be achieved and set my sights high after a year in the sport. In my 7 years of rowing, I became World Champion for Great Britain in 2004 in Spain and 2005 in Japan.

How did you get involved with cycling: It was during a multi sports camp whilst I was trialling for the Irish boat in 2011 that I got approached by the head coach of para cycling and asked if I would like to try cycling. It had never crossed my mind to try out this sport as I had my heart set on going to London 2012 paralympic games in rowing. At first I was hesitant about trying cycling and had to be persuaded to go over to Dublin to meet with the coach, manager and do some fitness testing at the Institute of Sport.

What convinced you to take the next step: They asked if I would like to represent Ireland at the Road World Championships in three weeks time! Shocked I answered “really?! of course! but you haven’t seen me on a bike yet!” I had to learn how to ride a tandem with Louise Moriarty, my first pilot who had never ridden a tandem before. We both had to race in the time trial and road race at the Championships in Denmark in the middle of September. I was petrified, exhausted physically and mentally and in a whole world of pain on and off the bike, in those three weeks and during the competition, but I found that I loved it! The feel of the speed and the excitement of the road race thrilled me and I just wanted to do it again.

Did you regret leaving the rowing behind you: Cycling came at the right time for me. Emotionally I was worn out and I had started to lose my motivation and drive for rowing. They say one door closes and another one opens and this is what happened to me. I quickly realised that I could potentially go further in cycling and achieve my dream of going to the Paralympics. From then on I committed to it 110% and stopped rowing completely and I haven’t looked back since.

While you were very successful with GB why did you decide to represent Ireland: At the time of becoming World Champion with GB there wasn’t any funding in para rowing and after 2006 I had significant injuries and struggled to get back into the squad. I was rowing with my local club Maidenhead rowing club and continued to try for selection. In 2010 I heard that Ireland were trying to put a squad together for the World Championships in 2011 and to qualify for London 2012 Paralympics. I got in touch with the coach and manager and came over to Ireland for some training camps. My dad was born in a small village called Mountcharles, on the coast of South Donegal. My five sisters and I spent all our family holidays in Donegal as a child. Ireland is very dear to my heart as are the people and I am very proud to represent Ireland.

What was your progression in your new sport: I was thrown in to cycling quickly, into the deep end as they say. At the end of 2011 I had a new pilot, Sandra Fitzgerald, and we constantly improved during our training and the competitions of 2012 leading up to the London Paralympics. We won the World Cup Road Race in Sergovia, Spain in June 2012 and at the games, we did ourselves proud gaining three 5th places and a 7th place. It was an amazing experience, but I wanted to medal and even though I was extremely happy with how we did, I knew that if we had a bit more time together we would have medalled and that’s what spurred me on after the games. I had two other pilots in 2013 after Sandra stepped down, Anne Dalton and Fiona Guihen. I won bronze in the Spanish World Cup in the time trial with Anne and in August won a bronze in the Canadian World Cup in the time trial with Fiona.

When did you meet up with Eve: I met Eve for the first time and went on the tandem with her in November 2013. In February 2014 we both went on a training camp as a pairing to Mallorca with the Irish para-cycling squad. We had our first race together at the Track World Championships in Mexico in April 2014 coming 5th in the 3k pursuit and have been together since. In May we medalled at the Road World Cup in Italy with a bronze in the time trial and a bronze in the road race and in August we won silver in the road race at the Road World Championships in Greenville, USA narrowly missing out on the Gold in a sprint finish with Great Britain. To add to a great first year together we also became Irish National tandem time trial champions in June.

With such a great first year behind you both, how did 2015 go: In January 2015 I badly injured my ankle which made it a difficult year for both of us. However we managed to win bronze in the 3k pursuit at the Track World Championships in March beating Great Britain by 0.001 of a second. We look back and still don’t know how we did it! I had only been walking for a few weeks at the time of competing after being on crutches for 4 weeks. We also suffered two crashes, one in June at the Italy Road World Cup and another four weeks later, re injuring healing wounds. At the Road World Championships in July, on a challenging hilly road race course in Switzerland we narrowly missed out on the bronze with a sprint for the line against the Netherlands. We knew though that with our past record on the track and road we were a great pairing and would be in the mix for medals against the best in the world.

How would you describe YOU as a team: We are both very driven individuals, competitive and want to be the best we can be. Eve has a bigger personality and I am much quieter but we are both stubborn, highly competitive, and want the same thing, that is to medal at the Rio Paralympics. We get on well, on and off the bike, and support each other. I trust her 100% and that is really important as a stoker, but she trusts me as well and knows I have her back. This is what will make the difference when it comes to winning or losing by the point of a second.

How does communication work on the bike between you both: During training spins Eve will be communicating to me whether it is to tell me that we are stopping, to get out off the saddle, to keep the pressure on the pedals, to give a bit more (so we can stay on someone’s wheel or make up a gap). She is the eyes on the bike and takes control but we work together to make the bike efficient, Eve will be concentrating on what is ahead, what moves to make but I will be concentrating on feeling what she is doing through the pedals and reacting to change through these (our cranks are connected by a chain or belt drive).

In a time trial and on the track there wouldn’t be much talking going on! Only if it is useful information. In a road race more will be said but the communication and training that goes on together out of competition is put into practice here. We want and need to be putting all our energy into the bike. Both our power drives the back wheel in the same way as it does on a solo bike. So our overall power moves the bike. We both have different strengths on and off the bike, but complement each other well. We are both really good and enjoy time trialling, Eve loves the track and I love the road. I am really vocal during them!

What is the best thing about tandem racing: There is something special about it. The relationship between two riders, the challenges that comes with it, and the fact that one elite rider is visually impaired and the other is able bodied. There is nothing else quite like it. We have had bumps along the way, huge tests to our individual characters but to have someone to share the highs and the lows with is very special.

What is your day to day training like: We are training hard to improve our power, aerobic and anaerobic capacity on the bike but we also train in the gym to do rehab, strength and conditioning. Even when not in the gym or off the bike we are continuously doing rehab, stretching and maintenance for injury prevention. We also have to be good nutritionally for recovery, keeping our immune system running well and to get the best out of ourselves when we train and race.

What is the support team like around you: We have great support from the Irish Institute of Sport who provide strength and conditioning, physiotherapy, sports Psychology and a nutritionist. I am based in the UK and the Institute of Sport communicate with a team I have in the UK who are Aaron Nicholson at the Drummond Clinic providing physiotherapy and David Bint in David Lloyds gym overseeing my gym work. Johnny Loughrey is a physiotherapist who comes away with the squad on training camps and competitions. Neill Delahaye is our performance coach and Tommy McGowan is the team manager.

What are the disadvantages of being a track cyclist in Ireland: Our top competitors all have a track in their country, and have more time on the track then us. With the cold and wet weather in Ireland and the UK at the moment we do a lot of training indoors. I am also limited in the times I can get out on the road, most of my training is on a stationary bike, as I require a pilot to train on the road. It’s also crucial for us to have warm weather training. We have recently returned from a camp in Mallorca which went really well. This allows us to train on a track, as Ireland doesn’t have a track and prepare for the World Champs but also to get some road time in together.

What are the great benefits of training away together: When we get together for training, I get a lot out of having a succession of long rides, in a short period that I wouldn’t get at home. In that time it brings us both on together as a team, we can carry on working on basic fitness, strength but also on moving the bike as one. In Majorca we would have long road rides, gym sessions and on a track day, an hour ride to and from the track sometimes longer, followed by a 2-3 hour track session. On average we would spend 20-25 hours training in the week not including self maintenance. We were on camp with the rest of the Irish Paracycling squad preparing for the World Champs but it’s also a heavy training block for the year looking ahead to Rio.

Can you tell us what events you will be competing in at the World Championships: We race in the 3k pursuit on Friday 18th, 1k time trial on Saturday 19th and the sprint on Sunday 20th. The standard distance of a track is 250m. Therefore the 3k pursuit involves racing 12 times around the track from a gate standing start, this will be against another country on the opposite side of the track. The top four fastest will ride off against each other for the medals later on that day.

What are your hopes for the World Championships: We are going into the competition after a very good winter and successful training camps. We are both in a good place and are looking forward to the competition. This is the only track competition we have this year before we compete at the Rio Paralympics in September. We are aiming to medal in the 3k pursuit. We are bronze medalists from last year and always aim to medal. The competition isn’t the be all and end all though. It is a dress rehearsal for the games, a chance to see what the competition is like and see the areas we need to work on. However we won’t be happy if we don’t medal ! As well as that we are aiming to get the national record for the 3k pursuit and 1k time trial at sea level and the flying 200m. The flying 200m is what seeds you for the sprint (who you are drawn against). The 1k time trial is something realistically we won’t medal in, with the lack of time we have on the track and us both fundamentally endurance athletes we can’t compete against the pure sprinters. However don’t get me wrong we will go for it, the sprint has more luck and tactics involved in it and you never know what will happen on the day. New Zealand, Japan and Great Britain are the ones to beat in the 3k pursuit, in the 1k time trial, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands are top and in the sprint Japan, Great Britain and the Netherlands are top, but in a Paralympic year every one is stepping up, the competition is getting fierce and new bikes may come into the equation.

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