Belfast Telegraph

He hadn't even skied on snow until this year... now special Olympian Caolan has medals

By Claire McNeilly

Caolan McConville deserves a medal.

He was hardly out of nappies when he was diagnosed with autism, and many challenges lay ahead.

But Caolan is a determined young man and, when he finds something he really enjoys doing, there's no stopping him.

That's why, aged just 13, he has arrived home with silver and bronze skiing gongs from the recent Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria.

Not bad for a lad who up until this year had never skied on snow before.

The Aghagallon teenager's remarkable achievements, however, came as no surprise to his wider family, 13 of whom travelled to watch him compete on Schladming's Alpine slopes.

Some 3,000 competitors from 107 countries took part in the largest sporting event of 2017, but few shone brighter than Team Ireland's youngest member.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph at their Co Antrim home, Caolan's mother Edel (53) and his 53-year-old father Peadar said they couldn't be any more proud of their youngest child, whose successes came in the Slalom and Giant Slalom events.

"To us, he's a real superstar," said Peadar, who is well aware that, in the past, other sports have proved overwhelming for his youngest child.

Caolan's condition often led to complex sensory issues, and meant that he couldn't embrace team sports. Edel, however, knew immediately that he was onto a winner with skiing.

"He has certainly found his niche," she said.

"He had tried other sports and was a great wee swimmer, but I think he found it too challenging. He also tried judo but he didn't like the feel of the outfits, so it's all about finding the right sport to suit all his needs.

"He would tell you he feels free coming down the slope and it's just that sense of freedom that he loves."

Caolan was one of six Team Ireland athletes - including fellow Ulster skiers Sean McCartan from Carryduff, Co Down and Cyril Walker from Markethill in Co Armagh - who competed in alpine skiing events.

Although he only started skiing on dry slopes in 2014, prior to last week he had already notched up an impressive collection of medals, including two golds at last year's Special Olympics Ireland Winter Games.

And when he arrived home last Saturday, he was treated to the sort of welcome party that one of our major-winning golfers or world title winning boxers would have been proud of.

Over 300 people packed the small cul-de-sac where he lives with his parents. The event, which had been organised by Edel's nieces, was hailed as a fitting tribute to the village's new Special Olympics hero.

For Caolan, who is in second year at St Joseph's College in Coalisland, Co Tyrone, his achievements so far have almost surpassed his wildest dreams.

"It was really good fun and I found it exciting," he said, adding that it was "a shock" to get two medals, secured after being moved from the novice category into intermediate.

"When I started skiing two years ago at Ski Ability NI at Craigavon Ski Slope it was just fun. I quickly found that I was naturally good at it. But I never thought I would be going to the Olympics. The first I heard about it was when the coach rang me. I was really excited."

The front room of the house is filled with 'Congratulations' cards, and there is a banner bearing the same sentiments on the mantelpiece above the fire.

Taking pride of place in the middle of the hearth is a basket filled with Easter eggs that says 'Well Done Caolan' from his aunt Ursuala and uncle Ivan.

But he didn't have to come home to know his family and friends were firmly behind him.

"There were 13 of us out there with him, including my grandson Jude, who's two," said Edel.

Among his travelling support were his three sisters - Carol Govett (31), an IT project manager, sales executive Lianne (28) and Patrice (24), who is an accounts officer.

Although Caolan is the only one in the family with the condition, Edel said his family found it relatively easy to adapt to his needs when he was diagnosed at the age of two-and-a-half.

"If your child is diagnosed with any difficulty it's just a matter of embracing that and dealing with it," she said.

"It is hard, but you can't hide your head in the sand. It's about getting the right support, which we got. It's about embracing that. It's a learning experience.

"At times it was hard but you get the hard times, you get the good times and you just cross those bridges whenever you come to them.

"We didn't really realise he had autism; it was actually pointed out to us because everybody's child to them is their child and then he got diagnosed and we got early intervention. We got expert help."

Caolan went to an autism specific unit at Edenderry Primary School and then to a unit at St Anthony's in Craigavon and now he is in St Joseph's ASD unit, but his mum said there is nothing life-limiting about his condition.

After starting out on dry slopes and only switching to real snow in January, when he went out to Austria for a week's training, Caolan took to the new surface with ease, she said.

"He loved the snow. He said it was easier," added shop assistant Edel, who realised he had a talent for the sport when they took him to Ski Ability.

"Jill Sloan, head coach of the Alpine Olympics, said that Caolan was going to get medals. She said he had a special talent because he embraced it."

There were six in the team -three from Kilternan Ski Club in Co Dublin and three from Ulster - and his dad said it was a massive coup to get selected.

"We're all so proud of Caolan; everyone is buzzing about him but I must admit that I'm glad it's all over - because of the intensity of it all," said Peadar.

Despite Caolan's personal ski success story, there are mixed feelings in the McConville household about the alpine sport.

"I wouldn't put planks of wood on my feet - absolutely no chance," said videographer Peadar, while Edel replied: "I would try it... just to see how hard it is. It does look difficult."

Meanwhile, their daredevil son has no qualms about his future, saying: "I want to go the next Olympics. I have my heart set on it - and next time I'll bring home gold."

Belfast Telegraph


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