Blind athlete Oliver gears up to represent Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games
A Co Antrim teenager is showing that disability is no barrier to sporting success after storming his way into the World Triathlon Para Rankings.
Registered blind at the age of three, Oliver Gunning was told that he would never be able to ride a bike, learn to swim, drive a car or play any type of competitive sports.
He is now a world-class athlete with his focus set on selection for the Northern Ireland squad at the Commonwealth Games this summer in Birmingham.
Currently ranked 35th in the world, he was the youngest para-competitor in the World Triathlon Championship Finals in Abu Dhabi last November.
He represented Ireland at the 2021 Europe Triathlon Championships in Valencia, achieving a 12th-place finish in a field including six Paralympians.
The Ballyclare High AS pupil spent much of his childhood sitting on the sidelines during PE.
He enjoyed running and cycling on a tandem with his dad, Stuart, and three years ago added swimming to the mix.
His triathlon journey has been meteoric thanks to his dedication to his sport, which sees him rise at 5am three to four days a week to swim two hours before school.
He also puts in two strength building one-hour gym sessions a week, eight hours of cycling and runs around eight hours.
“My short-term dream is the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham this summer and it would be amazing to get to it,” says the 17-year-old.
“If you had have told me three years ago that I would be trying for the NI Team I would have looked at you twice.
“My aim is to be the best athlete I can be and the ultimate goal would be to get to the Paralympics in Paris 2024.”
Oliver’s drive is all the more impressive given the tough medical journey he has come through because of his sight loss.
He was three when he was diagnosed with congenital glaucoma. Since then, he has had 28 operations in Moorfields Eye Hospital in London.
“The condition went undetected for some time, leaving me virtually blind in my left eye and with no peripheral vision in my right eye.
“I was told, from around the age of five, that I’d never be able to live the life of a normal kid: I wouldn’t be able to ride a bike, drive a car or play any type of competitive sports.
“Against all the odds — and advice! — I was taught how to ride a bike wearing a full-face helmet, introduced to guided running and was taught the life-saving skill of learning to swim.
“Triathlons have given me a way to be competitive and still be safe.
“Now, with all these sporting skills in check, I have upped my game and have been in a rigorous training programme with Triathlon Ireland the last few years.”
Oliver has spent the first part of this year fundraising for a very special tandem bike.
He managed to raise the £20,000 needed and is currently having his own bespoke racing bike made in France.
“The tandem bike I currently use to train and race is on loan — it isn’t built for someone of my height and is over 10 years old.
“The last owner was seven inches shorter than me, meaning that I’m training and racing on a bike that doesn’t fit, therefore I am unable to maximise my position and output.”
Mum Karen and dad Stuart are among his biggest fans, having witnessed the challenges he has had to face.
Karen says: “It is very exciting what lies ahead for Oliver. He has a lot to deal with.
“He was always very competitive. He would have raced for a biscuit! He was always doing things he shouldn’t have been doing.
“I remember when the doctors told us he would never ride a bike, swim or take part in sports, we wondered: ‘At what point should we tell him we have already taken the stabilisers off his bike?’”
Oliver, who lives in Ballyclare, has two younger sisters, Katy (16) and Abbie (10). Mum Karen (49) runs her own company, Vision Telecoms, and dad Stuart (50) is sales director of Equiniti ICS.
Karen explains: “We are now absolutely delighted to be supporting him. Everyone we have met in the triathlon community has been so giving of their time and very helpful and supportive.”
Stuart is just as encouraging as he too recalls the obstacles that his son has had to face.
He recalls: “I think there was always an attitude that this kid had an eye condition so you should feel sorry for him, which Oliver rebelled against. It was like his response was: ‘No. I don’t want that. I’m better than you, faster than you and I am going to prove it.’
“There was a period of time when his frustration was apparent, but sport has given him a way out of that. I would get annoyed at people telling him what he couldn’t do. He and I joined Belfast Tandems cycling club when he was still in primary school, as that was something we could do together. He then started guide running and in no time was running further and faster.
“He now has this amazing guide, Kyle Duncan, who gives so much to Oliver and doesn’t get anything out of it.”
Kyle (33), from Belfast, is a top triathlete who competes in the national series across Ireland.
He says: “Because of Oliver’s disability, he faces many extra barriers to accessing the sport. There are three different sports, which is an added barrier for competing at the highest level. My job is to warn him what is ahead in terms of the road, bends, hills, any obstacles.
“For me, it is an amazing way to give back. Oliver has the rest of his career ahead of him and if I can be any support or help on his way, that’s great.
“I really admire his commitment.”
While Oliver hopes to go to university to study architecture, ultimately his dream is to become a full-time athlete.
“I need to be on the circuit to get International Triathlon Union points. And to do that you have to go to good races and all the good races are usually in Europe.
“I’m hoping to compete in France, Spain — there is a race in Swansea this year — and hopefully go back to the world championships again.
“I have been helped along the way so far through Sport NI, Mary Peters Trust and other sponsors.”
You can follow Oliver’s journey on social media @oliver_gunning_triathlete