As the Olympics get into full swing the families of four budding NI sports stars tell Kerry McKittrick and Laura McGarrity of the sacrifices that are needed to reach the top.
‘It costs £10k a year to keep Laura in the game’
Stephen Reid (47) is the director of a financial services company. He lives in Belfast with his wife, Deirdre, and their daughter, Laura, the Ireland Under-14 tennis champion. He says:
Laura started playing tennis at a summer club called the Bounce Club in the Ozone at Ormeau Park when she was five or six. She enjoyed it so much we decided to enroll her in the after-school club at the Belfast Boat Club, which was right next to her school.
Then the selectors for the Under-10s Ulster team came round. They were looking at things like hand-eye co-ordination and how far the kids could throw a ball. Laura was deemed good enough and |selected.
I brought Laura down to her first tournament in Dublin. I didn't know what to expect because I had no frame of reference as to how good she was. She won the tournament, though, so that wasn't too bad. She also won her next tournament in Scotland so I thought she must be OK.
Laura now goes to Aquinas Grammar School, who have been very good and supportive of her when she's had to be out of class. We've never allowed her to miss exams though — she couldn’t attend a tournament last month because she was sitting her end-of-term exams at school. I think the discipline of sport also teaches young people discipline in other areas of their lives.
We're happy for Laura to carry on with the sport as long as she's happy doing it. Because it's an individual sport, I think that can be a bit hard on young people.
She came back from a tournament in Copenhagen the other week on a journey through five countries in 26 hours so it can be tough.
Laura gets a bit of sponsorship, which helps provide her with clothes and racquets. It requires a lot of travel, though, and fees for organisations such as Tennis Ireland.
All in all, it costs in excess of £10,000 a year to keep Laura playing tennis.
I do see pushy parents on the tennis circuit — parents tend to take it in turns to escort groups of girls to tournaments and so on.
I think you should just want your child to be happy at what they do though.
It's a shame there aren't better facilities for tennis in Northern Ireland. The ones there are, like the tennis centre at Ormeau Park and The Boat Club, have been fantastic. But there are hardly any clay courts in Northern Ireland. That is one of the most popular surfaces for the game.
‘Riding has always been what Tori wanted to do’
Barbara Dixon (50) is a vet for the Department of Agriculture. She lives in Broughshane with her husband Ken and their daughters Charlotte (14) and Tori (17) who is an eventing rider. She says:
Both Ken and myself are horse enthusiasts and we're able to keep horses at home. Tori started riding when she was about two and a half years old. Even before that she was always crawling around the stables — she's always loved horses.
Riding and eventing have never been forced on Tori, it's always been what she wanted. She works very hard with her horses though and she's always in there doing the work herself. She doesn't expect her horse to be presented to her just before she goes into the arena.
Tori started off at pony club where she was quite successful. Then as she grew too old for it we teamed her with a horse called Shadow Light. For eventing you need a special horse as well as a special person and Shadow Light was that horse.
Tori and Shadow Light were in last year's junior European championships in Portugal — the team came fourth. At the moment she's progressing through the qualifying championships and will find out in August if she has made the Irish team this year.
Holidays don't exist for me. Most, if not all weekends Tori and I are up at the crack of dawn loading the horse lorry and driving off to some competition or other. Even when Tori gets to the age where she can drive herself she'll still need someone to go with her to help her out.
We're a horse family and we do a little bit of buying and selling as a sideline to help keep the horses — we have 20 at home at the moment.
Tori gets a little bit of funding but it's very little, particularly as all funding in Ireland is going to the Olympics at the moment.
The costs of saddles, boots, jackets and petrol for travel add up. I would say it costs around £4,000 — £5,000 a year for Tori to event.
I love seeing Tori and her progress but only as long as she wants to do it. I know she's planning on going to university after her A-levels next year and I think she's deciding on something like business.
In term time, Tori and Charlotte don't do the horses first thing — I don't want them falling asleep at their desks because they were up early. However, when she gets home at 4pm Tori is straight out riding for two hours.”
‘I wouldn’t like to think how much we spend on petrol’
Donal O'Neill (56), is self-employed. He lives at Nutts Corner, Co Antrim, with his wife Vivienne and daughter Eorann (16) who competes for the Under-18 Ireland Swimming Team and the Under-18 Ireland Water Polo Team. They also have two grown-up children, Eamon (35) and Michaela (37). He says:
My wife and I sent Eorann to swimming lessons in Andersonstown leisure centre when she started primary school. At the time Eorann had no interest in swimming, but we made her go, just for our own peace of mind that if she were ever near water she would be able to swim.
When she was about 10 her Girls Brigade had a swimming gala and I think this was the first time she started to enjoy it. Eorann decided to go to Belfast Royal Academy because it had a pool and her swimming stepped up a gear. I think that's mostly down to their teacher Elaine Alexander, she is a bundle of enthusiasm and really goes beyond what you expect a teacher to do. She encouraged Eorann to take up water polo.
But the real reason behind Eorann's success is her, she has always been the one driving it all. If she misses training, she makes sure to go to an extra one later. We've never had to push her. Being from a motor sports background I've always been alert to pushy parents.
Vivienne and I have just tried to give her as many opportunities as we can when she is at the right age and that's why we give up so much of our own time. Driving in excess of 250 miles a week, I really wouldn't like to think of how much we spend on petrol. Eorann's swimming fees are around £650 a year, then gala fees which are at least another £200 per year. And then there are accommodation costs with away competitions.
‘She’s had masterclasses with Torvill and Dean’
Nichola Andrews (44) is a carer. She lives in East Belfast with her husband Willy and daughter Dempsey (16) who is a UK ice skating champion and skater for the Russian Ice Stars. They also have two other children, Dempsey's twin brother Blaine (16) and Brooke (14). She says:
Dempsey's training schedule has calmed down a bit over the last couple of months because she has been doing her GCSEs, but at the height of her competing she was at the ice rink seven days a week.
It paid off as she won 16 consecutive UK gold medals for ice skating and 23 podium positions.
Stepping back from competitions has also given her time to study for her coaching degree. Her dream is to open an ice skating school here in Northern Ireland.
Growing up, Dempsey found there isn't the level of coaching here like there is in England, and she would like to change that.
It all started because we live quite close to Dundonald ice rink. When Dempsey was five we sent her to a learn-to-skate class. It was supposed to be a one off.
After the class the teacher approached my husband and I and told us he saw some potential in Dempsey.
We thought it was just a phase that she wanted to skate, but we brought her back a few times and soon enough she was hooked, we couldn't drag her way from the place.
When Dempsey was seven she was talent-spotted by the Russian Ice Stars. They asked her to join them.
Ever since then she has had cameo roles with them.
She went on to attend the UK Ice Skating Academy and has had masterclasses with Torvill and Dean.
All of this has attracted some sponsorship deals with costume makers and boot suppliers.
She doesn't get paid but getting her costumes for free really does help us out.
Last year we got £300 from the Mary Peters trust to help with costs.
It was appreciated but it doesn't come anywhere near what we pay as a family for travel, classes, training sessions and costumes.
Dempsey travels over to Coventry once a month to train in the UK Ice Skating Academy.
She also has master classes with Maria Filippov from Dancing on Ice here in Belfast, so the cost fairly adds up. The minimum amount is about £80 per week and travel to Coventry on top of that.
Dempsey could have gone down the road of competing for the Olympics, but we couldn't justify that as a family because we would have had to relocate to Coventry. It would be too much money and not fair on our other children.
Dempsey has a very competitive nature and that's why she has been so successful. This has helped her in school. She recently got an award for being the top scoring girl in her year at Lagan College.”