Paris 2024: Ireland's Katie O'Brien looks forward to Paralympic debut

Katie O'Brien is preparing for her Paralympic debut at Paris 2024, 12 years after watching the London 2012 Games 14 May 2024
A female and male Para rowers competing.
Katie O'Brien started Para rowing after watching the London 2012 Paralympics.
ⒸWorld Rowing / Benedict Tufnell

Para rower Katie O'Brien still remembers watching the Paralympic Games for the first time. With her father, she watched Irish star Helen Kearney win one of her three medals in Para equestrian and sprinter Jason Smyth taking the spotlight at the London 2012 Games.

"We were watching on TV, and I was like, 'Wow, the athletes are like me. I could be like them," O'Brien said. "It dawned on me, and I was like, 'That's something that I can do, and that's something that I really, really want to do."

"I've always loved sports. But it had never really occurred to me that that option was out there for me. I had always played sport at a disadvantage," she said. "So that day, I sent an email to Paralympics Ireland and asked them how I can get involved."

O'Brien tried Para rowing later that year. Twelve years later, she is preparing to make her Paralympic debut at Paris 2024. 

"The Paralympics are the pinnacle. It's where everybody wants to go," the 27-year-old athlete said. "It's something I've wanted to do for a long time - just getting to go and represent my country and be so proud to be Irish, wearing the tricolour and meeting (athletes from) other nations. That's what I'm looking forward to at Paris 2024."

O'Brien tried Para rowing for the first time in 2012. @World Rowing / Benedict Tufnell


Winter miles make summer smiles

O'Brien, who was born with spina bifida, which affects her legs and hips, trains twice a day at the National Rowing Centre in Cork. She usually arrives at the rowing centre by 8 a.m. and trains on the water or at the gym for about two or three hours. She repeats the same session in the afternoon.

Long sessions involve rowing between 18,000 and 20,000 metres. The athlete says that is the key to success.

"We put emphasis on getting in as much mileage as possible. We say, 'Winter miles make summer smiles.' The focus does change throughout the year, but it's important to get as much rowing as possible.

"The weather in Ireland can be missed, so we often are indoors, but we row outside as much as we can."

O'Brien trains at the National Rowing Centre in Cork. @World Rowing / Benedict Tufnell


A badge of honour

Looking back at the 12 years since she took up Para rowing, O'Brien says her journey has been a bit of a battle. Her father passed away a month after they watched the London 2012 Paralympic and Olympic Games together.

She participated in her first training camp in January 2013 and made her World Cup debut later that year. While she finished last in her event, participating in her first international competition was a life-changing experience. 

"I will never, to the day I die, forget arriving at the World Cup in 2013 and seeing all the people around me with disabilities. I came from a very small village in Ireland, and there wasn't a huge number of people with disabilities," O'Brien said. 

"I was seeing all these people with disabilities who were like me. What stood out to me was that nobody saw these people as people with disabilities – everybody saw them as athletes."

O'Brien won the PR2 Women's Single Sculls event at the World Championships in 2022. @World Rowing / Benedict Tufnell

As a teenager, O'Brien says she lacked confidence in herself. She wanted to hide her disability until competing in the World Cup event in Great Britain.

"It was the first time that I was literally pulling my pants up and being proud of my splint. I was proud that I had a disability. That was a turning point for me with my disability," O'Brien said. "I wore it with a badge of honour, instead of something that I wanted to hide and pretend that wasn't there."

"The best part about Para rowing is the complete diversity of people within the sport. You see, there are so many different types of disabilities and you watch them all in the same boat," she said. 

"(Athletes) may be moving in a slightly different way, but they are all racing and they are all elite athletes. It's a really cool sport."


Twelve years since London 2012

However, O'Brien stopped rowing after her rowing partner left the sport. After years of training, she chose a different path and studied veterinary medicine at college.

"My partner gave up, and I stayed training for another two or three years. But at that time, there wasn't a singles event at the World Championships, and it just got to the point where I was like, 'I don't know why I'm doing this because there was no one there, and I was training for nothing."  

She returned to rowing in 2019 after her coach told her that new events were introduced at the Worlds. "I then sat in the boat, and it was like a red rag to a bull. Again, I wanted to go for it."  


O'Brien and Steven McGowan finished fifth in the PR2 Mixed Double Sculls event at the 2023 World Championships. @World Rowing / Benedict Tufnell

She won bronze in the PR2 Women's Single Sculls at the 2019 World Championships and a gold at the 2022 Worlds. She also started competing with Steven McGowan, who answered an online search for a PR2 rower.

Last year, the pair finished fifth in the PR2 Mixed Double Sculls at the 2023 World Championships, qualifying a boat for the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games.

"It was just relief because I've put so much time into it, and I've wanted to do this since 2012. It's now 2024. It felt like it's finally happening for me," she said.


Rowing to Paris 2024

The Paris 2024 Paralympics, which will open on 28 August, will feature as many as 104 Para rowers competing in five medal events. 

"I'd absolutely love to be on that podium. But everybody wants to, and it's a tight field. You never know what can happen on the day. So we are keeping our hopes up and doing our best, and hopefully, things work."

Twelve years since London 2012, O'Brien also wants to inspire people with disabilities to take up sports. 

"Para rowing in Ireland is slowly growing, and when I see that, it makes me so happy because I know what it has done for me, and I would like that for other people," O'Brien said. 

"If we can build awareness around the options out there for children in Ireland that there is a sport for everybody, it will be a huge win." 


Book your tickets for the Paralympic Games by visiting the Paris 2024 ticketing website.