Echo Sport Replay: Dunne on blazing a trail for Ireland in Paralympic swimming

By Stephen Leonard

OCCASIONALLY when leafing through the sports pages of a daily newspaper, taking in some of the latest achievements by Irish athletes, Gerry Dunne might afford himself a wry smile.

The Ballyfermot native has a story of his own to tell and one, had it taken place today, would surely have copper-fastened his place among the sporting greats of this country.

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Ballyfermot native Gerry Dunne is one of Ireland’s most decorated Paralympians, competing in no less than five Summer Games and winning nine medals in swimming between Stoke Mandeville 1984 and Seoul ’88 while setting World record times in both. Photo by Paddy Barrett

But at a time when Paralympic sport was hard pressed to garner much in the way of column inches or airtime back in the 1980s, Dunne was blazing a trail for Ireland in international swimming.

Indeed at his first Paralympic Games in Stoke Mandeville, near London in 1984, the Dubliner, without even the benefit of a coach, chalked up no less than four medals, including gold in the 100m Butterfly and Backstroke while setting world records on both counts.

He did it again four years later in Seoul ’88, topping the podium in the same two events and improving on his world record times while also scooping bronze in the 100m and 400m Freestyle and 200m Individual Medley.

In all Dunne, who later came under the tutelage of two-time Olympian and Terenure Swimming Club Head Coach Kevin Williamson, competed in five Paralympic Games, his last one taking place in Sydney 2000 when his good friend and room mate David Malone struck gold in the 100m backstroke.

Dunne, who contracted polio at the age of three, was introduced to the pool soon after and was comfortably swimming by age of six.

Yet while doctors might well have been impressed by the proficiency of the young Cherry Orchard patient in the water, few, if any, could have ever predicted the heights he would reach on the global stage in the years to come.

“I got polio at three and I was quarantined for nine months in Cherry Orchard Hospital” Dunne told The Echo.

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Five-time Paralympian Gerry Dunne from Ballyfermot with former coach Kevin Williamson (left) and fellow Paralympic swimmer David Malone (right) at a reception for the Ireland Paralympic team

“I was one of the last few in Ireland to get polio. I call it 'the unlucky ones'. But look, I got it and my parents dealt with it as best they could.

“We had to wear the calipers and different shoes, going out to Goatstown and later the CRC.

“I learned how to swim in Goatstown. They had a little pool there and the doctors used to come in and watch me doing little dives.

“I think I was like a guinea pig in regards to what people with a disability could do. I could swim easily by six.

“My uncle Ben Kealy, was coach of a club called Half Moon, and he asked my dad, 'Would Gerry like to swim with the club?'

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Gerry with fellow Paralympic medallist David Malone at the World Championships in New Zealand in 1998.

“So that's how I got in to Half Moon. I started to do 25 metres and I would have only been about seven or eight. I was doing lengths at eight years of age.

“He [Ben] was head of the water polo section within the club, but my swim coach was a guy called Eddie Ince and we used to train in the old Tara Street Baths.

“Come 11 or 12 years of age I started to do the club outdoor races down at Half Moon, at the South Wall. The club ran between 12 and 15 club races a year so it was a right gathering, mainly club members.

“After that then I did a time trial for the Liffey Swim. I think I was 14 and I did that in Blackrock Baths. You had to be under a certain time to qualify.

“I got under the qualifying time and I swam my first Liffey Swim when I was around 14. I was very young, but I absolutely loved it.

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The Ballyfermot man continued on to contest no less than five Paralympics for Ireland, his last one coming in Sydney 2000.

“I was still playing water polo and moved on up the ranks. I had a bad leg and I still played National League Division One. I played for Leinster Under 16 and then I played for Ireland Under 19 and 21 teams.

“I'm the only person in Irish water polo to play for Ireland with a disability.

“In 1976 the Ireland team went to the first ever European Junior Water Polo competition at Under 21 in Malta and I was on that squad. Ben Kealy was the national coach then and we played reasonably well

“When I first found out about the Paralympic Games I used to say to my dad 'I think I can do that.

“And he used to say 'There's f**k all wrong with you. How can you do something like that when there's nothing wrong with you?'

“And I'd say 'But Dad, there's different disabilities', not knowing the actual classifications that I suddenly found out about.

“So I was out in Tomangos one night and I met this guy, Sean Kelly, who I used to know years before from the CRC and he asked 'are you still swimming?' and told him 'I am, yeah'.

“And he said 'Have you ever considered the Paralympics?'

“Thinking of what my dad said, I said 'But I'm not entitled to it'. And he said 'Gerry, you go and get classified. You would be in.'

“So I rang the Irish Wheechair Association about it and, I do have to say, they weren't overly helpful in their information.

“I was never a carded athlete. Anything I ever did was at my own expense.

“For every Paralympics I went to, they paid for your trip, but they didn't pay for your training, they didn't pay for medical if you had a sore shoulder or anything.

“But I went over to England, did my classification and I was in. I was 26.

“I had to book my flight and my accommodation, I had to book the classifiers or doctors to see what I was.

“Now my classification was at the higher end, but all I had to do then was show up to the National Championships, do the qualifying time and if I did that, technically I was in.

“When they gave me the classification, I went back to Irish Wheelchair and they were like 'Who the hell are you?' because I didn't go through their system and I went on my own to England to get classified. But that's what I was told I had to do.

“I gave them all the reports that I got and they said 'You know you have to compete at the National Championships?' And I said 'Of course'.

“So that's what I did. I showed up and competed. I did all the events.

“My best stroke was the 100m Butterfly and then it was the 100 Freestyle, and then the 200 IM and the 100 Backstroke. I also swam the 400m Freestyle as well.

“So I had a variety of strokes back then when I was young and fit and I qualified in all of those. I was well inside the time for every one of them.

“They were gobsmacked. Irish Wheelchair were shocked. I'd say their jaw nearly dropped.

“So I had five events for my first Paralympic Games in Stoke Mandeville, just beside London in 1984. All the top teams in the world were there from the likes of Canada, United States, New Zealand, Australia.

“This was my first international. It was a learning curve for everybody I think.

“I certainly wasn't used to being around 800 people with different levels of disability or ability and it took me two or three days to actually get to grips with it. It was a new experience for me definitely. But after a while you don't even notice the disability, you really don't.

“My first event was the 100m Backstroke and all I said to myself was 'I've got to swim fast.'

“I had nothing to compare it with, I didn't know who was on my right, who was on my left. All I looked at was the start sheet and their times and I said 'F**k, they're good.'

“And you must remember, I had no coach there. I had no coach until Kevin Williamson came along in 1989.

“So I said to myself 'Ok, what do I need to do to get into the final?' It was basically win your heat.

“So that's what I did. I had loads of energy in the tank and then after that I just learnt. The 100 Butterfly, I said 'Ok, who's around me? What do I need to do?'

“And I was holding back a good 30 percent of energy on nearly every event.

“I was going in the last heat of every event, so I would have looked at the previous times and I would know what time would get me into the final.

“So all I had to do was get out fast, turn, control the race on the way back and come in first. I had to be in the final then.

“I did medal there and this may seem really daft, but I think I got two gold, a silver and a bronze. I don't even know where those medals are.

“I definitely won gold in the 100m Butterfly and definitely the 100 Backstroke. I think I was second in the 200m IM and I got bronze in the 100 Freestyle.

“I won the 100m Butterfly and Backstroke in London on world record times and I blew Irish Wheelchair away.

“Now I was part of a team and there was a Chef de Mission. But the Chef de Mission only got interested in me when I won my second medal.

“You must remember track and field for disability sport was the big one. But the heads started to turn and it was like 'What are we going to do with this fella?'

“Coming home, the reception at the airport was great, the amount of people that were there. There were a few photographers and I think it did make one or two of the papers, but that would have been it. It was like 'Well done and see ye now.'

“Paralympics wasn't in the minds of people, so that was really it.

“There were Europeans, Worlds and then we moved on to Seoul '88.

“Now I didn't do particularly well at the Europeans. I probably didn't prepare well enough.

“I did reasonably well at World Championships, but I always seemed to really pull it out of the bag when I went to the Paralympics.

“I was still playing water polo and I was now a really serious outdoor swimmer, so I was splitting my time three ways, between outdoor training, water polo and pool training.

“I was playing for the Half Moon first team in water polo and they were one of the top teams in the country for 15 or 20 years.

“I stopped playing National League Division One when I was 42. We won a few Irish Senior Cup medals and loads of Leinster Division One and National League medals, so I enjoyed a huge amount of success with them and in the outdoor swimming.

“They call me Gerry 'White' [of outdoor swimming], like Jimmy White, because I was second three times in the Liffey Swim.

“Once, me and my brother Arthur, we were first and second in I think 1981/82. Arthur won it and I was second. And we call that 'the hand of God' because Arthur beat me by a wrist, it was that close.

“I was also second three times in the Dún Laoghaire Harbour Race. That's why they call me Gerry 'White'.

“After London they brought in a new charter whereby no country would get the Olympic Games without having a Paralympics.

“Going to Seoul you could see that the quality of disability swimming had certainly come up.

“I was now 30 so I was a little bit stronger, fitter, more tuned into racing.

“I went in the same number of events in Seoul. Again I won the 100 Butterfly, again I won the 100 Backstroke and I broke both of the world records that I had set in them myself.

“But trust me, I was nervous competing in Seoul. I was more nervous than in London, because my expectation was that I had to win it, I wanted to win it.

“In London I raced and I said 'Look, you finish wherever you finish.' But my expectation moved up a notch in Seoul.

“I coach Coolmine Swimming Club, I've been coaching there for nearly 15 years and I've always said nerves are good, but you’ve got to control your nerves.

“I finished up with two gold and three bronze in Seoul. I finished third in the 100m and 400m Freestyle and 200m IM.

“My world record in the 100m Butterfly stood for two more years and the 100m Backstroke record also went soon after. These new kids on the block were super good.

“I knew then the writing was on the wall. It was 1990 and I was 32.

“Kevin Williamson came on board as my coach around 1989 and was with me for the next 11 years.

“I went to Barcelona in 1992. I only swam in one event, the 100m Butterfly and I finished fourth.

“But I swam that race with a broken thumb. I broke it six weeks before.

“We went to the World Championships in Malta in '94 and this is where Dave [Malone] comes onto the scene.

“Dave won bronze in the 100m Backstroke and I also got bronze in the 100m Butterfly and it was the same race as it was in Barcelona in '92.

“It was the same line-up, bar, I think, one and I came in third. And that would have told me I could have definitely come in the top three in Barcelona, only for that f**king thumb.

“Dave and I started to room together in '94 and we roomed together until Argentina 2002.

“He was training out of Dundrum when our paths first crossed and I then said to Kevin [Williamson] when I came back 'You’ve got to have a look at this kid.'

“And you must remember these kids [in Terenure] are pretty good, they were one of the top junior squads in the country at the time.

“It might have been classified as a trial and to a certain degree it was, but you could really see Dave's swimming ability.

“I was saying to Kevin 'You've got to look past this disability and see the talent here. You got to watch him before you make any decision.'

“I had been around disability sport for a while now, Kevin wasn't used to it, but Kevin loved him straight away. Dave ended up being team captain and raced all over Ireland for Terenure.

“In 1996 we went to the Atlanta Paralympics and I think I finished ninth in the 100m Butterfly. Myself and Dave then went to the World Championships in New Zealand in '98.

“I only did the two events there, the 100m Fly and 100m Backstroke. I swam well, but my day had passed. I was 40.

“I qualified for Sydney 2000 at the British Games and I didn't even know I had qualified in the 100m Butterfly. That was now my only event and I finished ninth.

“I was 42 and I looked at these two guys, one was from Russia and one was from Ukraine and I asked them 'how old are you?' and they looked at me because they didn't know me and they said '16' and '17'.

“My last major international was in Argentina at the World Championships in 2002.

“I did the 100m Butterfly and I finished tenth in that and then I did the inaugural 5k open sea swim and I finished 12th in that.

“It was the first time that it was run and I thought 'this was great. I'll get another championship, possibly Greece in 2004, but they never put it into the Greek Games.

“I've never officially retired. I'm a renowned outdoor sea swimmer.

“I've done about 49 Liffey Sea Swims and around the same for the Dún Laoghaire Harbour. They're the pedigree races.

“I coached the Tallaght Swim Team for five years, from 1995 to about 2000 and I remember we had three Irish Age Group champions at that time.

“After that I started to coach at Terenure with Kevin and then I got a phone call, 15 years ago now, from the Head Coach of Coolmine, Brian Gibson.

“It's been great. I think I've coached about 10-12 Irish Age Group champions.

“But we’re going to have to rebuild the club from the boots up because of the amount of kids we would have lost [as a result of the Covid crises]” he explained.

Looking at how Paralympic sport has developed over the years since his days as one of the world’s top swimmers on that stage, Dunne is somewhat critical of the direction the Games has taken.

“Technology is coming into everything so Paralympic sport has gone elite, eilte, elite.

“They want to streamline it to TV and the more they do that, the less that people who are pretty good athletes, and I'm not just talking about swimming, don't have a chance of making it to international level.

“The Paralympics has become the elite, elite of disability.

“Do you only want to see the very best of someone with a disability compete or do you want to see people who are genuinely competing, but through a trick of life, their disability is like 10 percent less than the guy who qualifies. It's a very fine line.

“Paralympic sport has now gone into elitist Paralympics. You've got to be elite to be there.

“They've set the standard so high that most of them can't make it and that's very demoralising for them.

“The Paralympics was never designed to be like this. The Paralympics was about inclusion and now it's excluding people from trying to participate.

“How many able-bodied athletes are in Ireland? There's thousands of them. How many disabled athletes are in Ireland? Not many.

“But the standard that they're setting for these people are nearly able-bodied qualification times” he insisted.

While the Paralympic Games, at the time he was competing, may not have reached the later elite levels that Dunne describes, the achievements of the Ballyfermot man still rank him one of Ireland’s great Paralympians.

And yet the nine-time Paralympic medallist is quick to play down his exploits on Sport’s highest stage saying “The way I see it all now is that it’s all in the past, it’s gone.

“But every now and again, I could be reading the newspaper and something comes into my head about sport. I think about it then, what I did, what I achieved and all I do is have a little smile to myself. That’s all, just a little smile.”

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