Frank Callery meets one of Ireland’s Paralympians, Damien Vereker.
Damien Vereker, greets me at the hall door of his Waterford City home. In the hallway I am also greeted by a beautiful black guide dog, Iggy who belongs to Damien’s wife, Jenny. Damien is one of Ireland’s leading tandem cyclists, who represented Ireland at the Rio 16 Paralympics. The road to Rio was a hard struggle, one of disappointment, fortitude and perseverance.
But let’s start back in Kilmacow, Co. Kilkenny, where Damien comes from. There, growing up, he always realised that he had a vision problem — particularly with night vision. When he sought a medical opinion, he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP). The next day he was back at work serving his apprenticeship with his father at block laying. This continued for about three years until his lack of vision was making it dangerous and impossible to continue his chosen career.
In 2001 Damien attended Roslyn Park, five days a week, traveling to and from Waterford each weekend. He trained in computer skills and completed his ECDL. He also did a Business Administration course there. He was invited back to Roslyn Park on a year’s CE scheme, assisting other students with their courses. He followed this by working at reception there for another year. Having done other bits of jobs, in 2008 he decided that he would like to work with visually impaired people, which set him on course to complete his Level 8 Degree in Social Care at Waterford DIT in 2012.
“When I came home from Roslyn Park in 2009 I was at a loose end. In Dublin there had been lots of activities on offer. There were practically none in rural Ireland. I contacted the Waterford Sports Partnership and they told me that the Comeragh Cycling Club was starting tandem cycling for vision impaired people. Cathrina Brazil, who is also vision impaired got involved and our pilots were Ciarán Power, for Cathrina, and Tommy Fanning for me. We did the 50K Sean Kelly ‘Tour of Waterford’ that year — which had been our goal from the start. I also completed it the following year, with Dermot Blount as my pilot. That progressed to the 90K tour and the following year, 2011, we did the 160K tour and the same distance in the Three County Challenge.”
Damien took a break from cycling in 2012, his last year in college and the year when he and Jennifer married. When they returned from honeymoon, Dermot asked him if he would be interested in trying to qualify for the Paralympics. The London games were just over and there was a great buzz about. Damien didn’t have a clue about what was involved and what a commitment it would be. He had to sit down with Jenny and discuss the whole thing.
“Qualification is based on points accumulated at European Cup and World Cup events. It was a long arduous process. I first did the INVACARE League time trials here on a touring tandem. When we saw the standard required, we knew we had to up the game. We got in touch with Martin Kirwan of, Focus on Fitness, in Waterford, and he came on board as coach. Through diet, nutrition and proper training we really progressed and I lost four stone in weight. I was awarded the ‘Best New Rider’ for 2013 with Brian Healy and Martin Kirwan as pilots.”
The following year Damien won the INVACARE League; in 2015 he was runner-up and a winner again in 2016. He has had different pilots, such as Mark Kirwan, and Polish cyclist Marcin Mizgajski, with whom he won Bronze in the time trials and Gold in the road race at the World Cup in South Africa. He also competed in World Cup events in Ostend, Bilbao and Prague. After this performance he was selected to represent Ireland in the Rio 16 Paralympics with a new pilot, Séan Hassey, of the famous Carrick Wheelers Club. In preparation they attended intensive Cycling Ireland training camps in Mallorca and Lisborn, prior to their departure for the Team Ireland holding camp at Uberlandia 1,200 Kilometres from Rio in Brazil.
“We competed in the Tandem B events, the 30 Km. Time Trial, the 140 Km. Road Race, and two track events, the four Km pursuit and the one Km. track sprint. In the Time Trials we came 6th, and 8th in the two track events. The road race was stopped 8 Km out because there was no ambulance in attendance, and had to be restarted. It was a bit of a shambles at the second start with bunching and pushing, and we moved out in front for comfort, for about 50 Km. with a gap of about 1:40 minutes. Towards the top of the climb, the effort we had put in took its toll and we decided, for safety sake, that we had better stop. We had acquitted ourselves well and were very happy with our performance, It was a great honour to represent Ireland”.
After Rio it was time for a major wind-down for Damien. But they say you can’t keep a good thing down! And, in February 2017 he was back in the competitive saddle with Ian Inglis as pilot, coming second to Peter Ryan and Dermot Radford in Round One of the INVACARE Paracycling League held at Kilcullen. On it goes!