Irish Para-rower Katie O’Brien was born with a severe case of spina bifida. The spine malformation sat lower on her spine which affected her left leg and parts of the left side of her body. Doctors feared she wouldn’t be able to walk and she has undergone multiple operations which almost resulted in the loss of her leg. Refusing to let that set her back, she found a love for rowing and has climbed to the top of her sport. Now, her sights are set on a Paralympic appearance.
O'Brien was immersed in sports growing up. She would play any sport she could while in school. As she got older, her siblings were involved in horse riding which prompted her to attend a Sports Day at the University College Dublin.
"I went with the intentions of looking at the horse riding," O'Brien said, "But when I got there, they only had dressage and I was more into a sport with adrenaline."
When she stopped at the rowing booth, the attendant asked her to sit in the rowing machine. He was impressed and immediately had her participate in a rowing test. O'Brien was invited to a training camp the next month!
She decided to pick up rowing in 2013 and was training at her club at home in Galway. Like most para-sports, she had to take time to adapt. Para-rowing boats are a bit wider, heavier, and more balanced, but require more power with the upper-body. In a rowing machine, the seat does not move, and therefore she cannot use her legs at all.
"It used to be called adaptive rowing," she said. "You find a way around the difficulties."
At the time, Para-rowing was much smaller in Ireland and did not provide her with a high level to compete at. “I was kind of training for nothing,” she said. “I wasn’t going anywhere.”
After only two years, O’Brien decided to take time off from rowing to pursue a degree in veterinary science at UCD. Three years passed before she was itching to jump back into a boat and she resumed her training in December of 2018. Since her absence, the distance for Para-rowing races has increased from one kilometer to two kilometers but she said she enjoyed the change as it made the competition more strategic and athletic.
O’Brien trained every day even while she was finishing up her studies. While at UCD, she would train two hours in the morning before class and was training twice a day in the summer. She said that training with the UCD team was beneficial even though she was not on the team.
“It's helpful when you are not going through the pain yourself,” she said.
During her final year at UCD, she was on rounds for her veterinarian degree and therefore had a few weeks off during the semester which allowed her to train even harder.
In September 2019, O’Brien secured a bronze medal in the PR2 women’s single sculls at the rowing world championships in Linz, Austria. Now looking ahead to a Paralympic appearance, O’Brien just needs one thing to make that dream a reality. A teammate. She was unable to appear at the 2016 Rio Paralympics because she didn’t have a partner and is running into the same issue for Tokyo. While she has her sights set on Paris 2024, the pandemic has given O'Brien extra time to find a partner for Tokyo and qualification is not out of the realms of possibility.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic set many athletes back, it gives O'Brien more opportunity. It has been challenging with the lockdowns, but she still has time to find a potential match and continue her training. She is hoping to find a partner by Christmas to allow time to prepare for her last chance to qualify for Tokyo 2021 which will take place at the Final Olympic Qualifying Regatta in May 2021.
"It (the postponement) gave me a huge opportunity," she said. "It gave me an extra year to find a partner."
Rowing Ireland has been searching for a possible match following the criteria needed to keep up with O’Brien’s speed and perseverance. In order to compete in the Paralympics, the team must consist of a man and a woman, so she is looking for a male athlete. With the amount of hours she trains, the athlete must put in the work. Although she has found no luck in the past, she is still holding on to hope.
One of the biggest challenges O’Brien faced was not being able to go to Rio. She found it difficult to stay motivated sometimes but her podium finish at the World Championships in Austria is driving her on.
“Standing on the podium, my brain was thinking ‘wow I can’t wait to do even better’,” she said.
Now that O’Brien has graduated college, she can focus more time on training and finding a rowing partner. With Tokyo 2021 and Paris 2024 right around the corner, she continues to fight for a chance to show the world her talent.
“Short-term, I want to get a shinier medal at the world championships, but long-term, I want to get a medal at the Paralympics,” O’Brien said.
If you or someone you know would be interested in trying Para-rowing and fits the criteria to be O'Brien's rowing partner, please contact Rowing Ireland at [email protected]