simon lestrange_28-11-11Elite athletes from Paralympics Ireland gathered with their employers last week in Bewley's Hotel in Ballsbridge to recognise the massive contribution that each athletes' employer has had on their individual performance over the past twelve months.

In all, nine supportive employers were recognised with facilitating their employee with the support needed in order to perform for Ireland in attempting to qualify for next year's Paralympic Games in London.

The event was opened by Paralympics Ireland chief executive Liam Harbison, who began by thanking each employer for supporting Paralympics Ireland.

The success of Irish Paralympic sport became obvious to all present as there have been four Irish world champions crowned in the last year alone. This fact was highlighted by Liam, who recognised that Paralympic Ireland's aim of 'leading elite Paralympic athletes in achieving sustained competitive excellence' would not be possible without the support of an employer who understands the demand of elite sport and is willing to back his employee to succeed in their profession and their sporting lives.

Currently forty athletes across nine different sports are on course or have already qualified for the Paralympic Games next year and central to the success of the Irish team as a whole has been the support of the Irish Institute of Sport (IIS) and its athlete support system.

Daragh Sheridan, head of performance skills at the IIS, spoke of the system's success and the challenges both employers and athletes must overcome to achieve success in a professional and sporting environment.

An elite athlete trains up to 25 hours a week and due to the high training demands Sheridan stated that the role of an athlete's employer becomes "as valid as the psychologist or any member of the coaching team".

Furthermore he revealed that The Athletes Employment Support Scheme seeks to assist athletes to effectively combine work life with training and competition, and without the support of employers, success at the Paralympics would not be possible.

One athlete benefiting through the scheme is current world handcycling champion Mark Rohan.

Mark spoke about his life as a Paralympic athlete at the event and he spoke of his life being "lived in two halves."

The first half being an able bodied athlete who enjoyed playing for both his club and county with the GAA before a road accident left him with four broken bones in his back and damage to his heart.

This resulted in Mark being unable to play football again and after lengthy rehabilitation, some of which he received in France, he began his journey to becoming a world champion.

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Central to his success are his employers, ESB Electric Ireland. In his speech to the assembled athletes, support staff and employers, Mark detailed how both himself and the ESB Electric Ireland were open to change, engaged in positive communication and, vitally, had belief in what could be achieved.

ESB Electric Ireland along with Mark's training and support staff has enabled Mark's success.

However this is just one of the amazing transformations that an employer has made to the life a Paralympic athlete.

Other companies which were recognised at the event included Topaz, FBD, Laois Sports Partnership, the Irish Wheelchair Association, Comreg, the HSE, the Revenue Commission, East Coast FM and the Department of Agriculture, Food & the Marine. The developments within the Athlete Employment Scheme and Paralympics Ireland are very exciting for all involved and that was evident by Damien O'Neill, Head of Group Marketing with Allianz Ireland.

Damien O'Neill and Allianz announced support of Paralympics Ireland some months ago and have added to their already excellent reputation of supporting sport within Ireland. Damien spoke of Allianz's commitment to sport in Ireland and his willingness to do everything within in his power to give profile to Paralympics Ireland and its elite athletes.

Allianz, according to Damien, are "here because we want to be" and also spoke of his desire to establish a legacy within Ireland for Paralympic sport.

He stressed that this partnership was not just a business deal but it connected with himself and Allianz on an emotional level and that Allianz were looking forward to supporting Paralympics Ireland into the future and along with the other supporting sponsors and employers helping Team Ireland reach its set targets.

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Paralympics Ireland have ambitious targets in place for the athletes and Nancy Chillingworth (pictured far left), the performance director, explained the organisations desire to finish in the top 30 in the medals table at next year's Games and also to be the most successful Irish sporting team in 2012.

Each employer in attendance who supported an athlete over the last year was presented with a picture of their employee in action for Ireland. The recognition award was presented to each employer by the President of Paralympics Ireland Jimmy Gradwell and their athlete employee.

The event was very successful and these are truly exciting times for the athletes and the organisation as whole. In the words of Liam Harbison: "the employers are high performance too both" employees and employers face a challenging but hopefully a rewarding year.

Simon LeStrange is a member of the Cerebral Palsy Irish Paralympic football team which came ninth at the 2011 World Championships in Holland.  Despite the huge disappointment of not securing one of the eight places at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, the team have already refocused their goals and have commenced the journey to Rio 2016 Paralympics.