My first time in the gym, I was like everybody else, I was sore

My name is Christopher O’Connor. I’ll be 42 years of age In November and I live in FInglas. I work in the National Aquatic Centre as a gym instructor. I like to go to the gym myself, which I try to do maybe 3 to 4 times a week, doing different exercises and programmes that I’ve designed for myself.

At a young age I didn’t do much sport. In school we just did PE and some horse riding. We would be racing around, playing basketball and wheelchair hockey. My mother years ago used to say to me “Go out and play with the kids”. I’d be in the garden or on the ground, we’d be playing wrestling. I even broke something in my leg once and my mother had to bring me to hospital. And they said “Oh you shouldn’t let him out”. But you’re not an antique. You shouldn’t be locked up. You should be out and be active.

Where I lived, I played with all the kids on the road, and when I was a kid I used to do boxing because all the kids were going and they used to bring me with them. I used to box the pads and box the bag. There was another guy that used to box with us, one kid would steer my wheelchair and another kid would steer his wheelchair and that’s how we would go sparring.

I became a receptionist for the National Aquatic Centre and I used to train in the gym there. My first time in the gym, I was like everybody else, I was sore, I was tired after but after a couple of sessions you get used to it, and what happens is when you lose weight or you build muscle and get stronger, you say “Oh this is great, I want to do it again!”. I lost weight, I got fitter, healthier. I am much fitter and healthier now than I was 3 or 4 years ago. I took up power lifting too and I just retired from it last year due a health problem but I was number 1 in Ireland and the UK and I was in the Top 10 in Europe.

The staff in the National Aquatic Centre said to me “If you get qualified you can become a gym instructor”, and I did! The guys in the NAC were really great. If it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be where I am now.

When I was studying personal training, I found with upper body exercises and muscles, I could get into my brain, but I could not get the lower body muscles into my brain. It just wouldn’t go in because I don’t use them. And then one day it just clicked with me. And even until now, I can still remember the muscles. I studied that much to get it into my brain, it stays there now!

I came up with the idea for my ParaFit class a few years ago and a few people said to me “no that won’t work”.  Then I said it to another person a few years later and they said “That’s a great idea” and ever since then it’s been great!

If you come to the class, you are going to get fitter, get stronger, and get outside of your environment. A lot of people, even children and teenagers, sit at home after school, after work, after the day centre, and that’s all they do. If you’re sitting in the one spot in your wheelchair for 10 years of your life, you’re going to develop other disabilities, scoliosis, and so on. What my aim is to get people out and get into the environment of a gym, up and down indoor tracks, throwing balls… They might not be able to jump over hurdles say, but they can do other stuff. I want them to get out, and even if they came to my class even once or twice, even if they just tried a little bit, they’d like it.

Some of my clients who came to my ParaFit class after a couple of months started to buy gym membership and I’ve designed a gym programme for them. So it’s developed from ParaFit, having fun, to going into a gym environment.

The advice I’d tell anybody with a disability that might not be active yet is to pick an exercise that you like, or a sport that you like. There’s lots of stuff that people can do. Find a sport or an activity that you like. I have had lots of people with different disabilities in my class over the last 2 years, people with Cerebral Palsy, Down Syndrome, Spina Bifida… They all enjoyed it! My role is to get other people to enjoy what I do. And if there’s anybody out there who wants to come to my class, come up to the gym, I’ll design a programme for you, whether you are a person with or without a disability, I’ll do it for you.