“I turn up anywhere and people are like ‘where are the medals?’ and I’m like ‘I wasn’t gonna wear them around my neck, I’m coming for a cup of tea like!'”
Two weeks ago in Berlin, Howth native Orla Comerford won two bronze medals for Team Ireland at the European Para-Athletics Championships.
“At the end of the day I’m delighted to come home with two medals, you cannot complain and I was so thrilled,” began Comerford.
“It was my first European’s and I was thinking I’d really like to come away from here, putting my name on the board and winning a medal and to carry that into Dubai next year for a World Championships and into Tokyo then the year after.”
“I’m delighted I have two bronzes at European level now, what can I do next, how is that going to set me up for training and pushing me into a World Championships so yeah it’s been good.”
Comerford competes in the T13 category of Para-athletics, due to her visual impairment. Despite this being her first European Championships, the 19-year old is no stranger to the bright lights, having made her international debut on the grandest stage of them all, the Olympic Games in Rio 2016 where she qualified for two finals.
“It was so exciting I came into Para-sports a couple of years ago and I came into the big leagues, the Paralympic Games,” Comerford explains.
“I’d never done anything like it before I was a bit like ‘holy shit’ but I suppose when you’re thrown in against the best girls in the world, for me it was just about getting through the rounds and making finals.”
“I almost didn’t take it in I had such a crazy couple of years I ended out classifying for Paralympic sport in March or April and then it was a bid to try and get in an A standard.
“The Irish team was such a competitive team to get onto, that was tough, and then trying to fit in a Leaving Cert, but I didn’t really care about that I was like ‘I want to go to Rio.'”
“The team were so strong at European’s that year that I was sitting at home watching them all and I was like ‘oh my God I’m not going to make the team’ I was freaking out and then I made it I was so shocked.”
The strength of Team Ireland is a reoccurring theme when talking to their athletes. In Berlin, they managed to win nine medals from seven athletes. Add this to the three medals won at the World Para-Swimming European Championships last month and it shows how exciting a time it is to be involved in Para-sports in Ireland
Comerford feels that the success of Team Ireland is a key component in helping Para-sports to grow in around the country.
“I think the successes of the team are really something that carry the team.
“It’s the same I suppose with a lot of sports in Ireland not just the Para-sports but for us, in particular, Para-sports is something that people aren’t ever really sure on.
“But with the success of the swimmers, they had three medals and with the competition being in Dublin and then with ourselves with nine medals, they’re the things that are going to grab people’s attention as much as it doesn’t sound great no one really cares if you’re participating.
“If you’re not interested in a sport and you hear there’s an Irish team going somewhere and someone came 5th and someone came 6th, people don’t really notice unless you’re in a sports bubble.
“They know that making it that far is really impressive but for the general public medals say a lot and that’s what people pay attention to because that’s what’s in the news and it’s what they can relate to so then I think with the success of this year it’s something that can really help push Paralympic sport on.”
Pushing Para-sport on is something that Comerford speaks passionately about. Athletics itself has dictated almost everything in her life, as she explains, and she is keen to hammer home how elite, the Paralympics and Para-sports itself is.
The idea that on occasion Para-athletes end up having to actually do more than Olympians.
“People who know me know that everything I do in my life is centred around athletics, whether that’s when I go on holidays, if I go on holidays, when I go out with friends if I go out with friends. Everything I do is caught up in it.
“When I came home from Rio so many people said to me ‘oh my God you’re an Olympian you went to the Olympics’ and I’m like ‘oh it was the Paralympics’ and they’re like ‘oh same thing’, so for people who know me and know how much time I dedicate to a sport like they didn’t see a difference, they were like ‘it’s the same thing.’ I think that’s great like personally, I think some people are like ‘you should be a proud Paralympian’ I’m like ‘no.’
“Most people know the Olympics, they know how much work you have to do just to get there, it’s this all-consuming thing and then for people to say “oh the Paralympics and the Olympics that’s the same thing” for me that’s really nice to hear.
“It’s nice to hear people put them in the same box because there is or maybe there was this assumption that Paralympic sport is just ‘you show up’ and ‘you take part’ and that’s just not at all true. It’s such an elite sport like some athletes end up having to do more work to overcome whatever their impairment is.”
As Para-sports in Ireland continues to grow, so does Comerford as an athlete. Now that she’s tasted the Paralympics and experienced the podium of a European stage, her aspirations turn to Tokyo in 2020.
“It feels nice going into a Championship knowing you’ve 4 years of solid work done with the right people, no uncertainty, things have all been solid and the same.
“Everything is leading up to Tokyo. I hear about World Championships and I’m like ‘how will that effect Tokyo?’ With college, I’m in a four-year course so I’m gonna do my third year this year then take the year off college. Cause no one’s going to get a degree and make it to Tokyo!”
Comerford will unquestionably be chasing medals at her second Paralympics should she make it to Tokyo, but a haul of gold, silver or bronze can, she jokes, has its downside.
“I always get very embarrassed over the medals,” she laughs.
“I don’t like wearing them or taking them out! I’ve gotten a lot of stick over the last few days, I turn up anywhere and they’re like ‘where are the medals’ and I’m like I wasn’t gonna wear them around my neck, I’m coming for a cup of tea like! Then I saw something like ‘oh they’re heavy and my neck can’t take it that’s the reason I didn’t bring them!'”