ANY international sportsperson can be expected to have certain qualities: steely determination, a competitive drive that’s off the charts, and the discipline to put in endless hours of training.
But lots of athletes will never have met the level of challenge that Alan Dineen has overcome.
Togher man Alan, 25, grew up with Brittle Bone Disease, a rare gene mutation that affects bone density. In his lifetime, he’s suffered over 100 agonising fractures.
Yet he’s chosen a career as a strength coach and a sport that may seem, as first glance, ill-advised: Wheelchair Rugby is a high-impact pastime, seemingly not the safest choice for someone whose bones have a tendency to snap.
At a training session of the Munster Crusaders, the Cork-based team he captains, in Montenotte, Alan laughs when he’s asked if his sport is a danger to him.
“I’ve only broken my leg twice and I’ve been playing eight years,” he says, smiling.
“I’ve never let Brittle Bone Disease stop me doing anything I’ve wanted to do. Even if I couldn’t do something as easily as someone else, I’ve always found ways of doing things.”
It’s a massively impressive display of mind over matter, and in his career, Alan passes on the mental and physical tools he has developed to allow him to succeed to other athletes; he’s the only wheelchair-using strength and conditioning coach to provide professional coaching to able-bodied clients, working as a personal trainer at ACLAÍ in Cork city while he completes his BSc in Strength and Conditioning at Setanta College.
Having represented Ireland in Wheelchair Rugby since 2011, this year is hugely exciting for Alan and his teammates, who include team captain John McCarthy from Dunmanway: for the first time, Ireland will be represented in the International World Championships in August.
Ireland won every game they played in the World Championship qualifiers in Switzerland last April, beating against Brazil, Poland, Korea and even the All Blacks, who are as feared in Wheelchair Rugby as they are in Rugby Union, even performing their own pre-game Haka.
Alan runs through the rules of the game, which are very different from the popular televised game; there are four to a team, and it’s played on a basketball court with a volleyball. But scoring is similar to a rugby try: the ball is carried across the end line in the opponents’ side of the court to score.
And it’s full-contact. Specially designed wheelchairs, with the wheels splayed for stability and a super-strength frame, allow the players to tackle by crashing full-tilt into each other to try to gain possession of the ball.
To be eligible to compete in wheelchair rugby, players must have a disability that affects the arms and the legs, as well as be physically capable of propelling a manual wheelchair with their arms.
Some players have acquired injuries like spinal cord injuries, but others, like Alan, have congenital conditions. Players are ranked according to a complex points system that takes into account the impact of their disability.
Alan is a three-point player, meaning he’s one of the stronger team members, and he plays an attacking position, a role he relishes.
“I’m probably the most competitive person you’re ever likely to meet in your life,” he says. “It would be incredible to win and we’ll give it our best shot, but the standard will be very very high.
“The tournament is from August 5 to 10 and we’re playing five games: one a day at such a high level is a challenge, but other than that, I’m just praying my leg stays intact and I don’t break it again.”
Alan trains six days a week, a combination of cardio and strength training. He says that his confidence levels have increased drastically since his involvement in wheelchair rugby.
Equipment is a vital element of the sport. “This chair that I’m in is worth €5,500,” he says. “At the top level, you need a new chair about every three years, so funding is a really big thing for us and we’ve really struggled.
“We’re really grateful to the Irish Wheelchair Association for all their help but we get literally nothing else.
“It’s very frustrating to look at ‘normal’ sports and to see the funding that gets pumped into them and this is our first ever world championships and not a cent. I think we got a few ‘well done’ tweets when we qualified.”
Alan’s mother, Theresa Dineen, developed an appreciation of the sport through Alan’s involvement, and is now the chairperson of the Irish Wheelchair Rugby Association. She’s one of the support team that will travel to Australia.
She says that the €40,000 needed to send the team was largely raised by the team members themselves as well as family and friends.
“I tried all the big companies, but there wasn’t any interest in corporate sponsorship. We get a bit of government fundraising, but very little.”
As young pretenders, an outright win for the Irish team may seem like a long shot, Theresa says, even though their performance at the qualifiers was encouraging; it’s just a matter of resources, with funding of millions pumped into the teams from bigger countries.
“They’re up against the top teams in the world, who have massive sponsorship and massive funding and a huge panel of players and a huge staff,” she says.
“Australia, USA and Japan all have millions of euro and we’re such a small country too, with a small pool of players.
“There are only 12 on the Irish squad, but they did so amazingly in the qualifiers. Every team they beat was ranked way above them in the world.”
“I’m incredibly proud of them, and as a mother, I’m incredibly proud of Alan. She really can do anything he sets his mind to.”