Wheelchair racing isn’t for the fainthearted. The sport is a physically demanding blend of strength, endurance and coordination, with racers reaching speeds of 30 km/h, propelling a fast-spinning wheel with just a small hand rim and a pair of gloves.
To reach the highest levels of the sport requires a strong mindset, rigorous training regime, dogged determination and meticulous attention to detail, finetuning technique and racing strategy.
Many would shy away from such a challenge, but one athlete who is determined to succeed in the sport is Cillian Dunne.
Born with spina bifida, a condition that affects the development of the spinal cord and surrounding bones, Cillian fell in love with athletics after his dad took him to a para-sport open day at the age of 5. He was initially drawn to the seated javelin and discuss throwing disciplines, competing internationally for Ireland, before major bowel surgery resulted in him losing the majority of his weight and forced him to reassess his options. Rather than giving up on his sporting ambitions, he switched to wheelchair racing and hasn’t looked back since, racking up a whole host of records and major titles in the pursuit of his paralympic dream.
“As a young athlete, just starting on my sporting journey, I remember watching greats such as David Weir and Marcel Hug competing at the London 2012 Paralympics and dreamed that one day I would be in their place, representing my country at the highest level.”
Cillian is well on his way to achieving this dream. He already has six World Championship medals to his name, is the first Irish T54 wheelchair racer to hold national records in the 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m distances at the same time and has held the position of Irish number one since 2014, but rather than rest on his laurels, he now has his sights set on the biggest stage.
“My short-term goal is to attain the qualifying standards for international competitions such as the Grand Prix series and further improve on my national record times, but ultimately, my aim is to represent Ireland at the Paralympics”.
One suspects that with Cillian’s work ethic, talent and determination, he’ll accomplish his goal, but despite having such high aspirations, he’s realistic about the challenges ahead.
“The biggest challenge for me to date has been financial. Wheelchair racing is a very expensive sport, especially racing equipment. A good racing chair can cost £15,000. I also need custom made racing gloves which are made in Japan and the UK and cost approx. £250 per pair. In Ireland there is no financial support available to me from the state, so I also have to fund travel, accommodation and competition fees myself”.
With major obstacles like these, it’s little wonder that so many talented para-athletes are forced to give up on their professional sporting aspirations. In Ireland alone, over one quarter of para-athletes are entirely self-funded and only 10% have access to private funding or commercial sponsorships.
Statistics like these demonstrate the challenge para-athletes face in succeeding at the elite levels. Reaching the Paralympics is a full-time job with limited compensation, and while money is rarely the end goal or main motivation for Paralympic athletes, it’s often the only way for them to keep doing what they love and progressing to the highest levels of the sport.
In most cases, obtaining funding through commercial sponsorship or private funding are the primary ways to ease the financial burden and help athletes realise their sporting aspirations, so when Katerina Pawlowska Hanafin, Co-Founder of Huriya Private and Chairperson of Huriya Foundation learned of Cillian’s situation, she knew she wanted to help.
“Cillian is a remarkable athlete and excellent ambassador for para sports. His hard work and dedication is admirable and it’s an honour to be able to play a part in furthering his sporting career. We hope that through our partnership, he can continue to climb up the ranks and realise the amazing potential that he has”.
For Cillian, the sponsorship has come at a great time. With several key competitions coming up, his racing schedule is very busy, and the sponsorship will help go towards the expenses he’ll have.
“The Sponsorship from Huriya Foundation will help immensely this year and I’m so grateful to have been awarded this funding. I’ll use it to maintain my racing chair, purchase tyres and pay entry fees to a number of upcoming competitions as well as fund travel and accommodation for these competitions. I’m looking forward to a great year’s racing and I hope to make my sponsors at Huriya Foundation proud”.