My name is Kerrie Leonard, I’m 29 and I’m from County Meath. I am a para-archer who has represented Ireland at the last three World Archery World Championships and hope to represent Ireland at the Tokyo Paralympics. I am from a farming background and in my spare time I also have a keen interest in horse breeding and horse racing.
Throughout my life I’ve been interested in a lot of different sports and I have adapted a lot of sports to suit me so I could take part in my PE class, or just to fit in with those around me. This is probably because my father was a professional jockey and my family is pretty sporty. I’ve tried lots of sports like swimming, basketball, kayaking, sledge hockey, waterskiing, sand sailing and archery of course. I got started in archery because my uncle knew someone in a wheelchair who did archery and asked if I wanted to try the sport, of course I said yes. However, this is how I got to try most of the sports I have, someone asked if I wanted to try and I took them up on the offer. I have always been open and knew that I may need to make small changes to suit me. Once you have that mindset it goes a long way.
I like exercising because I want to feel fit and healthy in myself. I like archery as a sport because it’s a great leveler, I compete under the same conditions as everyoneelse in Ireland and I don’t feel at a disadvantage. The other thing I get from sport is that it is a vessel to put any of my mental health issues. If I have committed to train with my coach or with a group of people it forces me to see that through. By being around people who share your common interests it makes you feel better in that moment and I find it helps long term. Besides that it gives me a tribe to belong to. That becomes even better when you compete internationally because there are people with disabilities who share similar experiences to you and understand you on a deeper level. I get access to an entirely new group of friends out of it that I might not have before.
Like I’ve already said my uncle started me in the sport, but I went on a hiatus for a number of years! When I went to college I joined the archery club and reconnected with an old coach of mine. The opportunity came up just before London 2012 to go to an international competition, which I took. Ever since then I was committed to qualifying for a Paralympic Games. I won many competitions while I was in college and when I began attending international competitions it gave me the confidence to feel like I could compete against the archers in my category. I was very close to qualifying for Rio and I’m now determined to qualify for Tokyo.
I’ve had very positive experiences competing at a high level, even though I’ve had standout negative moments! In terms of training I have a small team around me. I have my coach Jim Conroy who has been in my life the longest, my physio and my psychologist. As it’s a self funded sport these are the individuals I’ve recognised as the most important to my training. I benefit from the fact that I live on a farm so during the summer months I am able to train similarly to what I would expect in competition. I have the distance at home that is needed in competition (50 meters). I train with my coach at least twice a week and we often get other archers to do head to head contests with me in order to challenge me. I see my physio twice a month and psychology once a month. The ‘build up” is incorporated into training because you should train in similar conditions to what you are going to face. The only difference is the climate change. I’ve been to some amazing places to compete. In Europe I’ve been to France, Germany, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic and I’ve been to Las Vegas a number of times, I have also been to China and South Africa. My friends and family have been very supportive and I made lots of friends in my competitors. At the end of the day they are as supportive as they are competitive with me. They want me to qualify for a Paralympic Games as much as I want to. That is my big goal for the future.
You encounter lots of challenges in a wheelchair so adding sport to that is just another dynamic. For instance finding a suitable venue that is accessible for my psychology sessions has been an issue, but you adapt and overcome. If I spent all my time focusing on the challenges then I probably wouldn’t get off the couch! When you progress in sport other issues emerge. Funding is a major issue when you’re a minority on a minority sport. You are often overlooked. It feels like you’re seen as less than and not taken as seriously as other athletes. Accessibility is always an issue for someone with a disability and when you travel to older cities to compete this can be challenging. To be clear this is a reality but it shouldn’t be a deterrent. That is just how the world is right now but the more present and interactive people with disabilities are in the world around them it will force the environment to change. We need to challenge and we need to change up the world around us.
As much as I would like to paint a picture of openness and inclusion in my sport, or any other sport for that matter, there are still perceived barriers. Those teaching the sport need to be led and shown that our disabilities are not an issue or barrier to participation in a sport you want to try it. If you want to take part in a sport you need to lead the conversation. Be open to adapting existing techniques and don’t get frustrated if you don’t succeed the first time. When you join a sport you join the community in the sport. It opens up your horizons to new people and new experiences. You might learn something new about yourself but the only way to find out is to take the leap. Get in contact with the National Governing Body of the sport you would like to try. Reach out to someone who currently does the sport, they will connect you with the right people or point where you need to go. If you’re interested in archery, reach out to me! I will make sure you feel supported on that journey. You can find my Facebook page @kerrieleonardarcher where I’m documenting my trek to Tokyo.