It was Manchester airport, March 2008, and the flight to Galway had been delayed. Disgruntled passengers wandered through the departures terminal, concerned that Galway Airport might be closed by the time their plane landed. The complaints grew louder with the announcement of a further two hour delay. ‘All intending passengers’ were impatient and fed up. Well, almost all. There was one exception. In the midst of the unhappy throng, there was one person who would have more reason than most to complain and bemoan their predicament. Accompanied by her mother, Aileen, was a young Clarinbridge girl, who was returning home having just had re-construction surgery performed on her foot in a hospital in Sheffield. This was another staging post in what had been a series of operations carried out over a number of years in the English city. Amidst the doom and gloom of the delayed passengers, she stood out like a beacon of light. Smiling, friendly, warm and chatty, welcome to Katie O’Brien. She was twelve years of age.
She is a star, and so is he
Fast forward fourteen years, and Katie is discussing her double scull rowing partner, Steven McGowan from Ballaghaderreen, Co. Roscommon. Steven is twenty four years of age. Up until the age of twenty, Steven lived the life of any average young man, but four years ago his life changed forever. He was in a very severe car accident, fracturing his vertebrae, which left him with a spinal injury, and in turn, wheelchair bound. Steven has done years of rehabilitation and he returned to work soon after the accident. Ever since, he has been looking for more in life. That is how he discovered rowing. Katie and Steven have helped themselves in ways which have gained them widespread admiration from all who know them, and now they are looking for some help from you. See contact details of how you can help them at the bottom of this article. Host a coffee morning, table quiz, or any type of fundraiser: there will be no more worthy cause looking for your support in the coming year.
A proud member of Galway Rowing Club
Katie was born with a congenital condition called Spinabifida. Her parents were told she would never walk, but she is fortunate enough to be on her two feet with just the help of a leg splint. ‘Going to the hospital was as natural for me as going to school was for other children’, is how Katie, without an ounce of self pity, sums up those early years. She qualified from Veterinary Medicine in 2020, and has been working as a full-time vet with Francis Canavan Vets, Tuam, as well as following an intense training schedule, ever since. She recently gave up her job to chase her Paralympic dream.
She is a proud member of Galway Rowing Club (GRC ). She began para-rowing at the age of 16, back in 2012, after watching the Paralympics that year. Since then, she has had a dream of standing on the podium wearing the Irish Flag with a medal in her fist.
Katie credits Galway Rowing Club, and her coaches since she took up the sport, for all the success she has had to date. She describes ‘an amazing club’, who have given her incredible support over the last few years. ‘From ten year olds, to those who have been members for decades’, she is effusive in her praise of GRC. She is reluctant to mention specific names, as so many have been helpful to her, but when pushed, she speaks in glowing terms of her coaches, Conor Moloney and Mike Gaffney. ‘I’ve worked with so many wonderful people’ she says, and wants them all to know how grateful she is. The respect is shared, ‘Katie is a world class athlete', according to coach Conor, ‘who is at the top of her game’. As with all the best coaches, Conor also speaks with caution about the difficulties and uncertainties ahead, what other contenders may come out of the woodwork and the work required over the next eighteen months to qualify, and possibly become medal contenders. Steven has only been rowing for a year, but is also showing the determination required to succeed at the highest level. ‘You never know when the next Fiona Murtagh is going to come through the doors, and GRC have a welcome for everyone who wishes to take up rowing, able-bodied and para’. ‘We aim to develop people, and our doors are always open’, according to Conor.
World Record Holder
In most para-sport there are different classifications. Katie's classification is PR2, meaning Para Rowing 2. This classification is for those with functional trunk and arms, but reduced use or mobility of the lower limbs. She has been rowing by herself in a single scull for the majority of her rowing career and has really enjoyed each experience in the single. The moments that have stood out for Katie were winning Women's Henley on the Thames back in 2014, and more recently winning a bronze medal in the women's PR2 single scull event at the last World Championships held in Linz, Austria in 2019. She also set a World Record on the indoor rowing machine last year. In achieving this, she broke the record of Lauren Rowles, the current gold medal holder of the mixed double sculls from the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, along with her partner Laurence Whiteley.
Popular Galway family
Katie, who is also an accomplished horsewoman, is from a very well known and popular Galway family. Her brother Seán has recently retired as a player, with Connacht Rugby, on medical grounds. Many hundreds of Galwegians will have studied under Katie's paternal grandmother, the late Peggy Carty O’Brien, at her school of deportment. Another person who has been a significant influence on Katie’s life is her late father, Iain, who passed away in 2012, when Katie was just sixteen years of age. As time passes, Katie realises the truth in her late father’s words, as he encouraged her to chase her dreams: ’Some of us have problems on the inside, and some have problems on the outside, you are lucky yours are on the outside’, Iain would say to her, and these words have stayed with her through the years. Katie describes herself as ‘very lucky’ to have two grandparents living in Galway, who both clearly dote on their wonderful granddaughter. Frank O’Brien, who lives in Salthill and is husband of the late Peggy, is a huge supporter of Katie, along with all his grandchildren. From the hospital visits to the challenges on the water, his words of encouragement are always the most welcome. More comfortable in praising others than talking about herself, this modest athlete will be eternally grateful to her own family, mother Aileen, brother Seán and sister Aoibhinn for their support and encouragement over the years. She has a special mention for Aileen’s mother, Mary McDonnell, of Taylors Hill, her grandmother who is ‘the type of person I really hope I can be, always helping others, looking for nothing in return and the epitome of kindness’.
Looking for a rowing partner
Although Katie has had many successes, unfortunately she has not been able to qualify for any of the Paralympic Games as there is no class for the single scull at the Paralympics. To compete at the games you must be in a mixed double scull, which would require Katie to have a male PR2 rowing partner, which up until last year, she did not have. This is why Katie has not featured in the Paralympics of 2016 or 2020. But now, hopefully, things are going to be different.
After reaching out to the public in November 2020 in search of a rowing partner, Steven McGowan, a Roscommon man, came on the scene and finally this paralympic dream is becoming more and more likely. Steven is now a very proud member of Galway rowing club. ‘Amazing, brilliant and funny’, is Katie’s description of Steven, who spent a number of years in hospital in Galway and in rehabilitation in Dun Laoghaire, after his 2018 accident.
Steven’s rowing career began in GRC in January, 2021, and he fell in love with the sport immediately. He was a quick learner. It is now over a year since he started and he is making more and more progress as the days go by. His commitment is unmatched, even relocating to Galway for 5 days per week to allow him and Katie to train as a team. His extreme determination has got him to where he is today, after a life changing accident, and he believes his commitment will bring him all the way to Paris.
Katie and Steven train eleven times a week. For eight of these sessions they train together. With this level of commitment and their shared stubbornness and desire to succeed, they feel they have a winning formula.
Unfortunately, at the moment there is no Irish para-rowing program. Para-rowing was not awarded any funding from Sport Ireland. This is usually awarded on the basis of how successful an olympic/paralympic athlete or team has been, but to be successful it requires some support, so they are currently in a bit of a catch twenty two.
There is a significant cost associated with building a ‘program’, from coaching staff, to training camps at home and abroad, and essential, adapted equipment. Entries into World Cups, World Championships, Europeans all come with a cost. Katie and Steven are only two people, and the hope would be that while they can pilot this, they will eventually build a full Irish para-rowing team. Athlete talent identification is another essential part of building this programme and allowing it to become something which will perpetuate long into the future, after their own rowing careers have ended. Katie does not see this project as an end in itself, but as leading on to ‘a full paralympic rowing team with people challenging for places in a similar way to how Fintan McCarthy replaced Gary O’Donovan, for the right to row with Gary’s brother Paul, and achieve the Gold medal in the lightweight double sculls in Tokyo 2020’.
Thirty thousand euro is the sum required to allow Katie and Steven begin to build a program and give them a real shot at Paralympic glory. The fundraising has got off to a great start, but much more is required to achieve the sums needed. If Katie and Steven can reach their funding target, the next stop will be the World Championships in Belgrade in September 2023.
At the moment they have set up a ‘go fund me', but to reach their target, they would be extremely grateful to any businesses or individuals who would like to sponsor them, and to share in helping them achieve their dream.
For those interested in becoming a main sponsor, you would have brand association with two strong athletes and individuals, increased "brand awareness" and an opportunity to publicise your company on the national and international stage. Logo inclusion at competition, at pre and post-race interviews, and during televised races at National and International events can also form part of the sponsorship. They can also offer brand recognition and support on all social media, initially Facebook and Instagram.
Katie and Steven would both be more than happy to meet with any businesses to give a short presentation and discuss any possible partnerships. They would appreciate any support you may be in a position to give them. All donations, large and small, are welcome by both athletes. If you would like to host a coffee morning, a table quiz or any type of fundraiser, your support is greatly appreciated. You will struggle to find a more worthy cause than this incredible duo. Contact details are [email protected] and the go fund me link is: https://gofund.me/8619f85c