Sportswomen 2022: Katie O’Brien’s rowing gold medal a culmination of lifetime of determined struggle

Rower was born with spina bifida, which meant that the first 27 years of her life have been punctuated by surgery

Katie O’Brien was about nine when she entered into an arrangement with a wheelchair. The confinement was not forever, but it was for more than a year, and in the full cry of childhood, how could there be a good time? Adjusting her world was a collaborative work; its buoyant mood radiated from her.

And so, the wheelchair became a playground accessory. In the schoolyard games of cops and robbers, she was issued with speeding tickets. In jumpers-for-goalposts soccer matches O’Brien kept goal, tipping up one pedal on the wheelchair, and “swinging my right leg,” with the controlled fury of a fussball player. She refused to be on the sidelines; her friends refused to leave her there.

At the time, her left foot was unavailable for fun, locked in a long, slow, gruelling realignment.

“My foot was quite a funny shape,” she says. “It got to a point where every time I put pressure through my foot, the skin would break down and I’d have an infection. I was quite close to getting it amputated.”


After O’Brien’s foot underwent reconstructive surgery, her leg was put in an external fixator, with bolts on the cage that would manipulate her foot in tiny increments. For 12 months, the bolts needed to be turned four times a day; every turn was painful.

Once every couple of weeks Katie and her mother would travel from Galway to Sheffield for a check-up and return home with a new turn schedule for the bolts – yet another prescription for microscopic progress. She was a child. How did she cope?

“Well, you don’t really have an option. It’s not like I could have said, ‘Ah, do you know what actually, I’m okay, I won’t do that.’ I just had to do it, so that’s probably why I have a good attitude. There was no other way.

“I think maybe as well my determination stemmed from people trying to help me, and wanting to be independent, wanting to do things myself. When you’re looking at a child that has a limp, and wears a splint as an adult, you’re probably wanting to give them a hand with this and that, but I can always remember being very determined – and quite frustrated with people trying to help me.”

O’Brien was born with spina bifida, which meant that the first 27 years of her life have been punctuated by surgery: the first when she was four months old, and after that in clusters, a few years apart.

“It’s funny, they’re almost so normal I don’t really think about it. I go in, get it done and I come out, and that’s it. It’s very normal for me to be in and out of hospital.

“There were definitely difficult times but I don’t look back and say, ‘Wow, I was really struggling.’ There were times when I felt frustrated – and more so because I was such an active child and loved doing stuff. But it probably made me even more determined to go and do it when I could. I lived a really happy, and normal childhood. It wasn’t hugely impacted by having spina bifida.”

After the long rehabilitation of her foot, O’Brien had to learn how to walk again. Other stuff required no stimulation: she wanted to compete.

“I had a moment with my Dad when we were watching the Paralympics in 2012 and I just remember saying, ‘Dad, that could be me. I could be doing this. I really, really want to do that’. Dad got out the laptop and we sent an email off to Paralympics Ireland. They replied after about a week saying there’s a talent ID day in a month’s time, will you come?”

O’Brien went with the notion that horse riding would take her into the arena, and ended up on a blind date with rowing.

“I loved it. I loved being on the water. I loved how freeing it was.”

After the talent ID day, O’Brien was invited to a training camp a few weeks later. In the meantime her father Iain passed away; he had been fighting cancer.

“It’s the toughest thing I ever had to go through. As well as being my Dad he was my best friend. It was one of those daughter-father relationships, we just clicked. I was 16 and I remember getting the call to go and say goodbye to my Dad. At that age you don’t even think death is a thing. I struggled with it for a good few years. It’s only in the last two or three years that I’ve been dealing with it better.”

She stuck with the dream. The single scull was O’Brien’s event, but that class doesn’t exist in the Paralympics. To compete at the Games she needed a male partner for a mixed double scull. For 2016 and 2020, they couldn’t find one.

For a while, that didn’t stop her.

“Every rower will tell you, it’s a total addiction. You know the pain and the suffering that comes with it. It was tough, but I loved it. I loved the challenge of it. I loved the grind of it.”

When O’Brien didn’t make it to the 2016 Games, though, she stepped away. She had started Veterinary in UCD, and for 2½ years college life was enough. But then, in 2018, the single scull was introduced as an event at the World Championships. Martin Kilbane, a rowing coach in the system, called and asked her to reconsider.

“I was sure I was done. Just something in me – a spark, a light switch – went off. I think I’d lost my passion for it because I felt I couldn’t go any further. I felt I’d exhausted every option I had at the time and, out of frustration, I stepped away. But once I heard there was an opportunity for me to chase a goal again, I couldn’t say no.”

At the 2019 World Championships O’Brien won bronze in the single scull. A few months later they resumed the search for a partner for the double scull. Steve McGowan, a young man from Roscommon, answered the advertisement. Bingo.

“It’s unbelievably important to get on. We’re literally attached at the hip. If we didn’t get on, it would have been an absolute disaster. From the off we clicked. He has that glint in his eye, the bit of craic. We have great fun together, but we’re equally as happy to sit in silence when we’re dying after a training session.”

Earlier this year, without any central funding, they both put their careers on pause and started training full-time in Galway. To get through the summer, with training camps and the cost of travelling to regattas, they raised €30,000 through a Go-Fund Me page. O’Brien won gold at the World Championships; as a pair they reached the final of the double sculls.

From here, everything is ramping up. They expect to have funding next year and Rowing Ireland is searching for a high performance coach. Qualifying for the 2024 Paralympics begins at the end of next summer.

“Goals and targets? Always high – always high. My goal [at the World Championships] was to win gold in the single, and get to the A final in the double. It was brilliant to go and do what I had been dreaming.”

Next dream.

Denis Walsh

Denis Walsh

Denis Walsh is a sports writer with The Irish Times