Paralympics: Claire Taggart is aiming to hit the high notes in Rio
Claire Taggart is clever, engaging and quite the character. Fellow Team GB members at the Paralympics will love her.
The 21-year-old from Larne is in Rio preparing to compete in boccia. Pronounce that wrong in her company and you will be in for some stick.
Worse, if you aren’t in the know about her favourite bands Snow Patrol and Biffy Clyro she won’t let you hear the end of it!
Claire describes Olympic boxers Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan, who she knows from Sports Institute Northern Ireland (SINI) at Ulster University, as hilarious, but she’s not far behind in the fun stakes.
Come competition time, however, Claire will be deadly serious in her bid to bring a medal home to mum Maggie and dad Stephen, as well as her pet tortoises, one of which is named after Snow Patrol lead singer Gary Lightbody, and her two bearded dragons, all of whom she adores.
The ex-Larne Grammar pupil started playing boccia three years ago at a local club. Now she is at the pinnacle of her sport. Some going. All this after being diagnosed with a condition called dystonia when she was 16.
“At that age I started stumbling and falling and it wasn’t until two years later that I was diagnosed,” she recalls.
“My condition is called dystonia which causes muscle contracture and muscle shortening and abnormal posturing in hands, legs and back. That’s what happens.
“There is no known cause for it. You are just unlucky if you get it.
“In the couple of years before my diagnosis I found it very hard because I didn’t have a name to put to anything or know what it was but when I was diagnosed it was a relief that I wasn’t going mad.
“Once I got the diagnosis I got closure on what it was and then from understanding more about it I was able to adapt.
“I continued at school. At first I used a manual wheelchair to get around. Now I use a powered wheelchair because my hands are affected so I speed around on that,” she said.
“I have a personal assistant who gives my mum and dad some respite from me because I’m a bit of a pain and a bit of a pest!
“The personal assistant is with me 16 hours per week and they help me with training and other things I require.”
This may surprise some but Claire adds that she wouldn’t alter a thing.
“Everything in my life has changed but to be honest I wouldn’t change it back because for starters I wouldn’t be going to the Paralympics.
“If what happened to me hadn’t happened I would probably be at university studying something like many others. Not everyone gets to go to the Paralympics.
“Although the condition is a pest most of the time, without it I wouldn’t be going to the Paralympics and I wouldn’t have met the people I have in terms of team-mates and other friends.
“The hope is my condition will stay the same and not get any worse. It is not life limiting or anything like that. Hopefully I will be playing boccia until I’m 90!”
She smiles and in mock serious tone adds: “I WON’T be playing boccia until I’m 90.”
In Rio Claire, who labels her parents ‘pivotal and amazing’, will play in the team competition for GB, having previously proved her worth in global competitions.
“We were in Brazil last November for a test event and finished with a silver medal. The goal is to come home with a medal and we feel we are capable of it,” says Claire, who through Disability Sport NI is hoping to encourage more young people, especially girls, to take up boccia.
“I wasn’t sporty as a kid. I had no interest in sport. I would rather have sat in my room reading a book, but I love it now.”
Claire has no sporting heroes. It’s music that lifts her up.
“Something that really inspires me is music. I am a massive Snow Patrol and Biffy Clyro fan. I have seen Snow Patrol seven times and Biffy Clyro five. I have met Gary (Lightbody) when I was able bodied and disabled and he was lovely both times. He’s a great performer and a brilliant ambassador for Northern Ireland,” says Claire, who is doing a fine job herself on that front.
With a sparkle in her eyes, ahead of tonight’s opening ceremony, she adds: “I can’t wait to get going in Rio. The Olympics was the test event for the Paralympics. Now it’s our turn.”
Claire Taggart is one of 1,300 elite athletes supported by the National Lottery through UK Sport. National Lottery funding allows athletes access to some of the best coaching, training and medical facilities in the world. National Lottery players raise £36m for good causes each week and for more information see www.lotterygoodcauses.org.uk