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Paralympic legend John isnt ready to sail off into the sunset just yet

Thursday, 7th March, 2013 9:21am
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Paralympic legend John isnt ready to sail off into the sunset just yet

IT’S just too good an opportunity to turn down.

A veteran of an astonishing ten successive Paralympics, dating way back to Toronto in 1976, it was expected that John Twomey was going to call it a day after competing in last year’s Games in London.

But the Ballinhassig man (57) has different ideas, especially when the IFDS Disabled Sailing World Championships are being held in his own backyard later this summer, with Kinsale opening its arms to this international sporting event in late August.

For Kinsale Yacht Club member John, who was actually elected as President of the International Association for Disabled Swimming (IFDS) last November, the chance to compete in his home county instantly quelled any talk of retirement, for now.

‘I always had my eye on the fact that the 2013 Worlds would be in my home club, and that’s an opportunity that is too good to miss,’ John explained.

‘There is no way that I could pass up a chance like this when the event is on my own doorstep.

‘I’m still competitive sailing at the moment. What next year brings is another year. We’ll take it as it comes.

‘I will take stock at the end of the year and see where I am.’

Fighting talk indeed from an Irish Paralympic legend whose, fittingly, love affair with sailing blossomed in Kinsale all those years ago following the accident that changed his life.

It was March, 1970. John was just 14 at the time, and like any young Cork teenager, he was sports-mad – hurling with Ballinhassig and cycling with Riverstick Cycling Club.

During a county championship time trial – 43 years ago this month – John came around a corner where there was a parked van on what should have been an empty road.

John broke his neck and his back, and has been in a wheelchair ever since.

Blessed with such a positive mindset, he refused to let this seismic change in his life hold him back.

In fact, it made him even more determined.


‘It was a dramatic change but it’s just a matter of adapting to it and making the best of it,’ said John, who is married to Mary and has two daughters, Mariel and Janice.

‘I am a pretty determined person, and it was a case of adapting my life and my lifestyle to the disability I acquired, and just getting on with it then.

‘I am a firm believer that you get out of life what you put into it.

‘Shortly after the accident, I took up sailing. I was working in Kinsale. Being there, the sailing facilities are second to none.’

And once he started sailing, that was that, he was hooked, as he explains.

‘It’s an ideal sport for someone who is disabled. You get out there on the water and you can compete on an equal footing with everyone else. The chair doesn’t matter then,’ he said.

From his first time on the water to his current role now as IFDS president, it’s been one hell of an adventure for John, who has competed in sailing in four of his ten Paralympics.

Before he took to the water, he competed in, and won, medals in several disciplines, including a gold and bronze medal in Seoul 1988 and New York ’84 respectively, in the discus.

Don’t forget either the table tennis silver medal in Arnhem, Holland in 1970.

In fact, John is a record-breaker, as he is the first Irish person to ever compete in either ten Olympics or Paralympics – a record he is, understandably, hugely proud of.

‘I had a double Paralympic career because I was involved in the athletics (discus throwing) for my first six Paralympics, and for the last four I have been a sailor,’ John explained.

‘I was always involved in sailing, even when I wasn’t competing in it in the Paralympics, because it’s a great sport for fitness. One sport compliments the other.

‘Age was a factor for my change of sports. Discus throwing is a younger man’s sport.’

But now John gets the chance to possibly win a medal in this year’s Worlds in Kinsale – an event that he fully expects to be a massive success.

‘We were granted the combined Worlds for the three Paralympics classes in Kinsale. It will be the first time that a Paralympic world event will take place in Ireland,’ he noted.

‘The rota for the next three years are Nova Scotia in Canada next year, Melbourne in Australia the year after, and in 2016 the worlds will more than likely be in Rio.

‘They are bid for years in advance and it’s a great honour for the country. It’s a mark of international respect for the country’s organisational ability that you would be granted a World Championship.

‘We would be one of the smallest countries that would be sanctioned the Worlds. It’s a great recognition of Ireland’s contribution to national sailing.’

The spin-off from this staging of an event that is expected to attract competitors from a large number of competing countries, and see huge numbers descend on Kinsale in late August, is another great benefit of hosting the championships.

‘It’s a fabulous event for the area because you are going to introduce Kinsale to North America, Canada, South American countries like Brazil and Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Asian countries like Japan, Singapore, Korea and China, and then all the European countries,’ John said.

‘These countries will have a great exposure to Ireland over the next few months and during the event.’

Not only that, but the Ballinhassig man – who competed in the three-person Sonar keelboat class in the Paralympics in London last year – is also expecting the on-water action to thrill the crowds.

‘It’s going to be very competitive because while in the Paralympics you have one boat per country, here you could have two or even three boats from a country,’ he said.

‘Because there is not a qualifying standard to get there, every country that wants to be there will be there.’

Eager to do well in front of his home crowd and his home club, a busy year lies ahead for John, as he must juggle his presidency of the IFDS as well as training for the Worlds.

Does he mind? Not one bit.

‘It’s great to be busy, and it’s shaping up to be a big year,’ he said.

‘Once the daylight improves, then I can train more. During the winter-time here in Ireland, we don’t have the light, and that’s something you need for sailing – daylight.

‘But once the long evenings come in, you’d be looking at four or five times a week during the summer-time.’

A quick question, John – what exactly does your four-year presidency term entail?


‘I am responsible for managing all the commissions and committees that are within the IFDS that deal with all the specific aspects of the sport,’ the former vice-president said.

‘We have a medical and classification committee, a technical committee, a coaches’ commission, an athletes’ commission, Equipment Evaluation Committee, an Events’ Commission.

‘You are responsible for making sure that everything runs as well and as smoothly as it can.’

Among the many roles he has served in in the past includes chairman of the Equipment Evaluation Commission – which decides what equipment is used for sailing in the Paralympics.

In layman’s terms, it’s being responsible for what boats are sailed in the Paralympics – an event that means so much to John, who has noticed an increased support for the Games.

‘The big change that I have seen is that the media recognition of the Paralympics is far greater now than ever before,’ he said.

‘It was always a big event in the part of the world it was in. But now it’s a big event all over the world. You could even see that, though for all the wrong reasons, with this ongoing Oscar Pistorious case.

‘Now, the Paralympics is recognised as a sister sport to the Olympics. It’s a big media brand now. Sponsors, advertisers, television companies, they are all in there.

‘You saw the public response to the Paralympics in London, it was phenomenal. The viewer numbers for the Paralympics was on par with the Olympics, and the public reaction was incredible.’

For now, his focus is on this year’s Worlds and he will let the rest take care of itself. Little point in worrying about what hasn’t even happened yet, but he does add: ‘I’d love to see some new sailors coming through, to see the new age of sailors coming through so us older guys can move on.’

But for a man who had retired from the Paralympics back in 1996 only to be coaxed back into action again, something says that we haven’t heard the last of this Irish Paralympic legend.