Gerry Dunne: One of Ireland's most decorated Paralympians you've never heard of

Dunne has seen first hand just how much the Paralympic Games have evolved since he competed

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Image: ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy 

The Paralympic athletes who return home with medals from these Games will spend their first few days sorting through requests for interviews from all forms of media. 

However, it hasn't always been a sporting event that has been given the coverage that it deserves, as Gerry Dunne can attest to. One of Ireland's most decorated Paraylmpians, he began representing his country at a very different time for the Paralympics both at home and internationally.

"I started in 1984 when it was probably known about, but the overall interest within Ireland and England wasn't as great as it is now," he explains. "The coverage that I got would have been snippets in the newspaper about winning something. I won a few medals and stuff, but it wouldn't have been the main topic of conversation on the radio or in the newspaper, and there was definitely no television coverage."

"A few medals and stuff" is one way of describing it, given that Dunne claimed four golds, a silver and three bronze, as well as setting world record times in the 100m butterfly and the 100m back stroke in 1984 and again in 1988. Despite that success, the fantastic performances have not garnered the same recognition and coverage that the exploits of other athletes would years later, but certainly laid the groundwork.   

"The interest from the public probably wasn't there, because disability wouldn't have been as acceptable as it has gradually become over the last 15 years. It's a lot more acceptable and normal to see disabled people out and about.  I saw, over 30 years, the major change in the way disability has been viewed.

"I know when I came back with medals the reception was fabulous, it was fabulous even if you came back without medals. Now that I'm out of the scene, I could turn around to somebody and say 'I won a medal in the Paralympics back in 1984 or 1988', and the reaction is 'wow, did you?'

"It's probably better now than when I won the medals initially, purely because of the coverage."

Image: Gerry Dunne with one of his Paralympic medals - courtesy of Brona Dunne

As Dunne notes, the major change came with the decision in 1984 to ensure that the country which won the bidding process to host the Olympics also committed to hosting the Paralympics. From there, the movement continued to grow. 

"The major breakthrough was probably 1992 in Barcelona," explains Dunne. "The coverage from those Games was a step up, and it just gradually got more popular, it grew from there. The global issue has changed, in 1984, which was my first Olympics, there were about 106 countries. It's up to maybe 170 countries now, and more countries can afford to send athletes.

While London was a huge step forward for the Games as a whole, Dunne notes that the changes which have seen the Paralympics become so different are "down to the public too, the public's awareness and perception of the disabled". 

"The way the public took to it in London was incredible," adds Dunne. "You couldn't get a ticket for the Paralympics, the heats or finals, which was phenomenal. There's no doubt about it, they did an incredible job with the London games, but I think what initially stared all this and what they saw in Sydney in 2000.

"From an Australian perspective, it was virtually wall-to-wall coverage, it was just a phenomenal welcome that the athletes got, and the TV coverage was amazing, and I think they noticed that. 

"Channel 4 were advertising the Paralympics well before the able-bodied games even started for London in 2012, that was a huge sign that it was going to be on, and they were really promoting it to say 'look, we're talking this sport and it's going to be taken as seriously as the able-bodied games'."

That visibility has not only changed the way people look at the Games, but also opened up new pathways for athletes who know that they can participate in the sports they see getting coverage.  

For Dunne, who has gone to a number of schools with his medals to talk about how he got involved in sports, that has been a massive step forward. 

"The funding issue is ongoing for everybody," he explains, "but I think what it shows is that kids with a disability are far more encouraged now to participate, to be up front and be active, and get involved in a sport no matter what your disability is. 

"Whether that means making it to the Paralympics or not, it becomes an achievable goal when they can hear it on the radio or see it on TV. It's something I think family and parents look at and say 'my child can join a club,' and take it from there. 

That was not something that Dunne, who suffered from polio, was aware of himself when he began to compete in sports. In fact, he only took part in his first Paralympic event when he was 26-years-old. 

"My father never encouraged me to think that I would have qualified for the Games, but not in a bad way. I think I mentioned it to him once, when I was 18-years-old, and his answer was 'sure, there's nothing wrong with you'."

"I don't know whether that was something that my dad used to go through himself; in the 1970s and '80s it wouldn't have been as common as it is now to say that you had a son or a daughter with a disability."

However, that wasn't the only obstacle in Dunne's way. Like any athlete, funding is an issue, but competing for Ireland at the Paralympics was a particularly challenging ask. 

"I never got one grant," explains Dunne, despite his success. "I had to beg and plead with my employer to get time off to actually go. It was a different time here. There was no 50m pool in Ireland, no physios, no nutritionist, nothing like that. 

"Every month I made training trips to England, and that came out of my own pocket. I was losing about a week's wage every month to train. I had just gotten married and we had a mortgage to pay. It was a huge sacrifice for myself and my wife, but she was great about it. Without that support, I probably would have given up."

The times have changed in that regard, but there have still been problems with the Games this time out. With just a few weeks to go before the Games, there were rumours that Rio was short on funding, and eventually closed certain venues that had been used for the Olympics.

"For Philip Craven [President of the International Paralympic Committee] to say that the Games might be canceled, that shows the seriousness of it. That would have been a dangerous precedent to set, to allow them to separate it from the Olympics.

"Brazil is still one of the world's biggest economies, and to say they were running out of money is a joke. I think the problem was filling the stadiums, and it was a pricing issue that meant the locals couldn't afford to go."

Still, despite those sour notes, Dunne believes that there are plenty of positives to be taken from these Games, in particular for Ireland, who have had a fantastic medal haul in and out of the pool. 

"For me, to see John Twomey carrying the flag into the stadium was a special moment. I started my journey with him when he was throwing discus, and to see him go to his 11th Games is incredible.

Image: Cork man John Twomey has been competing at the Paralympics since 1984. ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan

"I'm also immensely proud of Ellen Keane for her bronze medal. From an Irish perspective, that has to be my defining moment. James Scully did incredibly well and Nicole Turner, at just 14-years-old, that girl is probably our future in swimming."

Dunne's love of his sport is clear, and the same drive that pushed him to make the incredible sacrifices to get to the Games in the first place hasn't left him yet.

"I've done the Liffey Swim 43 times," he explains, "I compete in open water races in the summer and play water polo in the winter. I still get to the gym for 90 mins every day  and swim around six hours a week. It's probably about 50% of what I used to do, but my times have gotten a little bit slower."

He brings that same energy to his role as a swimming coach, and was clear that he wants to contribute to the success of the Paralympic team in the future: "The system is so much better now than it was when I was competing. You were just left on your own, to make your own way. My goal is to be involved with the the Paralympics, I don't see how someone with my experience, who's won medals, wouldn't be useful in that context."