By Richard Hartmann
KATIE O’Brien and Steven McGowan are an unlikely pairing. She won a World Rowing Championship medal in 2019 but he never sat in a rowing boat before this year.
She loved sport from a young age, and he was never really into it. She was born with a disability, but he became disabled in a car accident three years ago. Yet, somehow, together they are now chasing an Olympic dream.
“We get on really well. We have weirdly similar personalities. We describe ourselves as bull-thick and stubborn which is a great way to be in rowing because if you weren’t, you wouldn’t get anywhere,” says O’Brien.
She was born with spina bifida, a condition that affects the spine, and competes for Ireland in the PR2 category of Para-Rowing. She is as determined and confident as athletes come.
“Spina bifida affects people in different ways, so you might not be able to walk at all, or you can be really lucky like me where it only affects one of my legs,” says O’Brien.
“I have reduced muscle and sensation in my left leg from my foot up to my hip. That’s how it affects me, but 70 to 80 per cent are wheelchair users so I’m very lucky in that sense.”
McGowan had never been much into sport and never rowed before, but after he had been left with a partially fractured vertebrae following a car accident, he answered Rowing Ireland’s call and started training with Katie in the hope of being ready for Tokyo this year.
Katie took up rowing eight years ago when she was 16 and has already achieved incredible heights, including a bronze medal at the 2019 World Championships and a win at the world famous Henley regatta. Her dream is to win an Paralympic medal in Paris in 2024.
“I have massive aspirations. I’m getting a medal in Paris,” she says. For the first three years of her career, O’Brien competed in singles but singles rowing is not a Paralympic event in her category.
After competing for three years as a single, Katie decided to give up the sport at age 19 when she started college.
“When I was 21, they brought the singles into the World Championships and my old coach called me. He said, ‘at least now you can go to the World Championships. You still can’t go to the Paralympics, but at least you can do the Worlds’. So I got back into it and started training again,” she says.
“That’s nearly three years ago. A year later I won bronze in the World Championships after only 12 months back in the boat. I suppose it’s like riding a bike. Once I got back in the swing of things I picked back up where I left off.
“Then, last year, I decided to really try and hone in on the Paralympics and try to find a partner. I was training twice a day and working at it full time. By January this year, it started to look like I wasn’t going to find a partner.”
Rowing Ireland had been advertising for an athlete who would fit into the same category as O’Brien and McGowan came to try out. Straight away O’Brien was impressed with his strength and determination and the decision was taken to put them together.
After working incredibly hard for 12 weeks to try to be ready for the 2021 Paralympics, the pair came to the conclusion that they weren’t ready this time around. While Katie aims to continue competing in singles she is really enjoying the new dynamic in the doubles boat and intends to keep working with McGowan to pursue their lofty goal.
“My plan now is to go to the World Championships in October in Shanghai. I want to do it in singles and doubles. We have a lot of work to do in the doubles but I feel confident we will get there.
“After that, the focus will be Paris 2024. I told Steven the very day I met him, that he has to produce a medal in Paris and I haven’t scared him off yet, thank God.”
Funding remains elusive, however. Katie is not a professional athlete and relies on Rowing Ireland for support.
“At the moment there is no funding. I’m not carded. There isn’t much para funding. The Director of Rowing Ireland is really good and really interested in para rowing. He has applied for loads of funding so the hope is to get a full-time coach,” she explains.
“I haven’t raced in two years, but I’ve put in a lot of hours since then. The bronze medal was only 12 months after coming back into the sport but now I’ve two years of hard work done in preparation for these Worlds so hopefully, I can go even better.”
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