Wednesday, 30 January 2019

The Dreaded "S" Word

Being a competitive athlete is a tough job. And make no mistake about it - it IS a job. For some, it is a second job, on top of their usual 9-to-5 gig working in an office (of some kind). For others, it is their sole focus. The choice to be a full-time or part-time athlete is governed by a multitude of factors ranging from previous work and family commitments to financial support available. And usually for most athletes, it really does come down to money.

If you are able to make a living as an athlete you are probably both very gifted and very lucky. If you are an ‘able-bodied’ athlete, the opportunities to make a living this way are more readily available. Of course, it depends on your chosen sport, the prevailing market and financial rewards available, as well as your personal marketability. But for Paralympic athletes, the opportunities are few and far between.

I am sure there are some Paralympic athletes out there making a decent living off of sponsorship and marketing deals. I don’t think any of us will ever get rich from pursuing our sports, but that is not the aim. The aim (at least for myself) is to merely compete. But even something so seemingly simple is a very expensive proposition.

Most Paralympic athletes rely on national sports funding of some sort. If you are lucky (and talented) enough to obtain access to these funds, your life and career path in your sport will be considerably easier. In Ireland, Sport Ireland are ultimately the provider of such funds. Each year all athletes, able-bodied or Paralympic, must apply for funding based on a set of criteria for their individual sport. Your level of funding is directly tied to your level of performance. It’s a cut-throat system that rewards success and leaves little to no room for failure.

The primary measurement of performance each year (for paracycling) is your performance in the World Championships. Whilst there are several other opportunities to meet funding criteria throughout the season, the main one is World Championships. Get it right and you’re set for another year. Get it wrong, and your whole career can come crashing down around you in an instant. 

The reason funding exists and the way it is monitored and awarded can be a bit contradictory at times. Whilst funding is based on year-to-year performances, it is also primarily there to get you to the next Paralympic Games. Ultimately you are expected to be at your peak every 4 years but at the same time need to prove your worth each and every year. And in my opinion, where the system falls down is that it doesn’t allow you to have an ‘off’ year.

Even the very best athletes in the world can have an off year. Injury, illness, overtraining, undertraining, changes in personal circumstances, pressure, unsuitable courses and a host of other reasons can lead to a bad or unlucky season. When that happens - if you have understanding and supportive backers who see your value over the long term, then you are going to be OK. But if they are short-sighted and just look at you in terms of your last 12 months, you are going to be in trouble.

I have worked within this funding system since 2011 and it has served me well. And I am grateful for the support I have received. I have managed to perform reasonably well year in and year out. Until last year. In 2018 year I had my off year. What went wrong? Everything. 

I wrote about it in an earlier article so I won’t dwell on it again. Mistakes were made and circumstances were unfavourable for me last season. I’ve learned from it and moved on. I have re-focussed my energies in the right places and have returned to my previous best form. And continue to improve each week.

I recently found out that I will not be funded this year. Despite missing the required time by only 10.8 seconds (over a 20 minute race), and despite me STILL being expected to try and race and qualify for Tokyo, I will receive no direct funding this year. I may still get federation support to prepare for and go to some races, but for now, that is it. (For instance, I’m shortly headed to training camp with the team to prepare for the upcoming Track World Champioships, and then to actually go race, so the financial burden for 4 weeks will be significantly less. I still need to buy various bits of equipment and supplies, as well as fund my training and living expenses whilst at home.)

In a good year, when I was fully funded by Sport Ireland, I would still rely on the support of great sponsors. But in the coming year that support, if I can find it, is going to be critical. For me, sponsorship usually comes in the form of discounts on equipment. No one provides actual monetary support but being able to purchase the items I need at a discount is still very useful. 

There ARE companies that provide me with product at no cost. Zipvit gets my biggest thanks for being with me for the last 6 years - and asking virtually nothing in return. Just good performances! Last year Michelin tyres jumped on board providing me with much-needed tyres. And of course, no thank you list would be complete without mentioning 3T. The equipment and support they have provided over the years has made perhaps the greatest impact on my training and racing to date. They have proven to be a partner in all senses – with equipment and social support. I am proud to call them “my friend”.

I have taken to crowd-funding to try and fill the gap for the coming months. I hate it. I hate asking people for a handout and for help. It’s depressing and demeaning. Furthermore, the response has been lukewarm at best which makes me question if it’s even worth continuing. People love to cheer you on and give you the thumbs up on social media… but when you need more than that, it becomes challenging to say the least. But with the current political climate, and the fact people aren’t exactly guaranteed a return on their investment with me, I can sympathise.

I’m doing my utmost to try and focus on the training as it is my surest way back into the team and some sort of financial support (if only in 2020). The next 6 weeks are going to be HARD. My training plan calls for me to perform on a level I haven’t previously achieved. But I’m up for the challenge. If you don’t push yourself to the limit, you’ll never know your true breaking point.

So. If you’ve read this far and want to share in my journey, pop over to my GoFundMe page and drop me a fiver. Or more. I won’t hold it against you if you do! And if all you have to give is a thumbs up… I’m still accepting those. 

Thanks for reading and stay tuned. The best is yet to come.