I was born with a disability called hypochondroplasia, a form of dwarfism. At the age of five my parents sent me to have swimming lessons for safety reasons and then I joined a local swimming club in Portarlington, Piranha Swim Club where I trained three times a week.
When I was seven years of age, in order to meet other people with dwarfism, I attended the World Dwarf Games in Belfast. This was the first time I had competed against people with a similar disability and I won eight medals in both swimming and athletics: five gold, one silver and two bronze. I got to meet Paralympic swimmer Eleanor Simmonds who had won Paralymnpic and World Championship medals which inspired me to believe that I could also be successful at swimming.
Following the success of the World Dwarf Games, I was selected to join the national development programme for both swimming and athletics, and would attend training once a month in Dublin.
It was around this time that I realised that one day I wanted to represent Ireland in the Paralympic Games.
To gain experience in competitive swimming I would travel to competitions every year in Birmingham, London, Lisburn, Northern Ireland, and I was invited to train with Eleanor Simmonds in Swansea for one weekend.
In 2013 (aged 11) I represented Ireland at the World Dwarf Games in Michigan (USA) and I won 19 medals in total in both swimming, athletics and team events meeting Erin Popovich, a successful USA Paralympic swimmer
I received a local hero’s welcome when I returned home and there were many young children there. This makes you realise how being successful can be inspiring to other children and since then many of them have taken up sports.
In 2015 I was selected for Ireland’s senior Paralympic swimming team for the World Championship in Glasgow and qualified for six finals in the six events I entered. Whilst also achieving the qualification time for all six events for the Rio Paralympic Games.
The Paralympic Games journey started in August when the Paralympic Swimming Team travelled to Uberlandia in Brazil to get used to the climate and overcome jetlag. The team then travelled to the athlete’s village in Rio at the beginning of September a couple of days before the games began. I was entered into all six events qualified for, which is more than any other Irish athlete.
My first event was my best, the 50m fly, and I was half a second off a bronze medal place. It was a great swim and I achieved a lifetime best. Of the remaining events I swam, I managed to get into the final of each event and was called the ‘Queen of Finals’ by my Paralympic Ireland colleagues.
Near the end of the games a reception was held by the Irish Ambassador in Rio for the Irish Paralympic Team where athletes were honoured for their performances during the games and it was announced that I would be the flag bearer for the closing ceremony.
It was an incredible honour to be given, to carry the tricolour at the world famous Maracanna Stadium in Rio and one I will never forget. Next year is the European Championships in Dublin, but all my efforts are clearly focused towards Tokyo in 2020, where I will be hoping to reach the podium
The level of training required to compete at this level is very challenging. I am currently in the process of changing clubs from Portlaoise to Dublin. This means every day when I leave school I travel to Dublin on a two-hour train, then I swim about 5km and drive back home, doing my homework and having my dinner in the car.
I do this Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. I also have strength and conditioning training twice a week on Wednesdays and Saturdays, with a day’s rest on a Sunday
Representing your country, your local community, your school, your swim club and your family brings responsibility and makes you want to perform to your best.
Also being in the media so much, you realise that there are so many people who look up to you and who you inspire, who also want to participate in swimming, sports, disability sports and represent a club, school, country. Just like I was inspired when I was only seven years of age at my first games in Belfast.
My motto in life is “Dream it, believe it, achieve it”.
Dreams do come true. But they just don’t happen, you have to make them happen. You only get out of life what you put in, so the harder you work the more successful you will become.
The more successful you become, the more responsibility you will have, and the more people look up to you. The more people will then want to follow you.
This is called ‘leadership’.
Nicole Turner is a pupil at Colaiste Isogain in Portarlington and this is an edited version of her opening address to the Ceist Leadership Conference.