IT is so wonderful to attend the annual Rebel Og awards and be a part of such a joyous occasion for all of you celebrating here tonight. My name is Joanne O’Riordan, and I’m sure a lot of you were looking forward to seeing a young stud, an outstanding sports person or someone between. I can confirm I fit into neither criteria, but I am extremely grateful to be here.
Every year, I am amazed at how many activities and outlets there are for young people all over the county. When I was your age I remember growing up, it was either play sport and join a team or travel miles away to find something that interests you. Our year in school was incredibly mixed. You had the sports-mad group, you had the Scor group, the music lovers and the lost sheep in between. I was part of the sports lovers, although it was forever embedded into my brain that I couldn’t kick a ball, run with the rest of my peers or score a decisive winner in a big game.
But to me, that did not matter. You see, I knew what I was good at, and I knew that although my role wasn’t the nippy corner forward, I had on “list of things I want to be when I grow up”, I knew I had other assets like my voice.
When I was around 10 years old, my parents took me to a disabled sports day. I have said in past speeches how I hate the word disability and what it implies, but that day is a day I’ll never forget. I put on my Ruud van Nistelrooy Man United jersey and told my parents I was going to be the limbless Ronaldinho. My brothers would kick footballs at me until I was borderline concussed, so I knew I had a competitive edge over the rest. What I didn’t realise was that I actually had a completely different attitude to everyone else.
I was the only person who didn’t view myself as disabled, my parents and siblings were the only ones there who egged me on and made me more determined. Some of you may be too young to remember Roy Keane and Saipan, but my aggression, desire and will to win made Roy Keane look like Mother Theresa. Eventually, I gave up. The manager had kicked me off because I told a kid who was paralysed in goals he was useless for leaving in two goals. I remember leaving there and thinking to forget about it, I never wanted to play anyways, I’ll be a sports journalist instead.
While my sporting career was short lived and a disaster, I went on and campaigned successfully for disability rights, spoke at the United Nations and had a documentary made on my life which has been seen by 15 million people worldwide. And looking at my list of achievements and things I enjoyed doing, I realised that the very reason I was kicked off that powered chair soccer team is the same reason I have gone on and done things I have done.
For me, it was that sheer desire to never stop, that relentlessness to change things until they were perfect and that same attitude to do it myself when I felt that others wouldn’t pull their weight.
We are here tonight (at the Rebel Og awards) to obviously honour the winners, who have shown incredible commitment, determination and motivation to be where they are today and what I see in them is the same traits I had when I was your age. I can only encourage you all to never lose that spark.
According to American author Bruce Barton “If you have anything really valuable to contribute to the world it will come through the expression of your own personality, that single spark of divinity that sets you off and makes you different from every other living creature”.
Each one of you is smart, strong, and talented. I know because I've seen this already. In between the crazy hours they put into their school and homework and the number of hours they spend at training and practice and the quantities of infinite time that they spend at work, these young people put in all they’ve got. To me, and I’m sure to everyone here tonight, every single person here tonight deserve an award. Tonight one of you will get the overall award. I was talking this week to a friend and we were talking about the end of year MVP awards. This award is usually for the most valuable player. But, I think as coaches, parents, guardians, teachers and siblings, what we all can appreciate is a warm smile and a good attitude. If I'm honest with you, I’ve worked on various teams, All Ireland winning teams, losing teams, county winning and losing teams, and the players who are the most memorable but get the least accolades are not the most valuable players, they are the most valuable people. So for tonight, I’d like to hijack your awards and rename this award the Most Valuable Person. This is simply because the most valuable player should not just be the most successful person, but should also be the person who puts in the most effort and is the most committed and the one that, in metaphorical terms, is like the duck paddling in the water. Everything is seamless above the surface, but underneath they are peddling like lunatics to stay afloat.
This person or group who has won this award is exceptional in every way. They have persevered. They know that it is the little things you work on night after night that culminates the big moments and how executing the little things will be the deciding factor on winning or losing. They know that if they put in the hard work and keep at it, results will come.
Tonight we recognise the achievements of a number of individuals in the room, but I want to say a huge congratulations to all of you here. Doing what you do on top of everything you have to do is no easy task. For those of you here who are maybe looking at future endeavours and wondering is the juggle worth it, I urge you to remember why you do what it is you do. If you’re an athlete, play for yourself and your family, play for your teammates, play for that person who you were years ago that fell in love with whatever it is you do in the first place. And make sure to cherish every single season, every game, every training session, every practice, because it'll all be over a lot sooner than you realise.
I could not be happier for all of you and the incredible work that was put into this. You cannot lose the hope and ambition that brought you here today. You have before you a wealth of knowledge, information, ideas, and opportunities – but most importantly, you have each other – to help you create the Ireland you want and deserve.
Always remember, you live for an average of 70 years, but if you leave something to remember you by, you shall live forever. Thank you.
* Joanne is a sports journalist who contributes to the Irish Times and is one of seven currently living people born with the condition Tetra-amelia syndrome. She is from Millstreet, County Cork. She has addressed the United Nations.