My vision

“It’s 24-7 but I love it”

Para-cyclist, Oliver Gunning, and his father, Stuart Gunning, talk with OT  about pushing boundaries and the competitive spirit that drives success

Moorfields Eye Hospital

Oliver Gunning: If you put one hand over your left eye and then squint so you can only see the size of a 2 pence piece in front of the right eye, that would be the level of vision I have. I have good core vision in my right eye, which I am grateful to have, but the peripheral vision is not good.

I’ve been doing triathlons for just over two years. Competing in para-triathlons, we race on the same courses as the sighted athletes but my guide acts as my eyes. During the swim, I am tethered to my guide by a piece of rope or elastic. During the cycling leg, we use a tandem bike – the guide steers for me and I sit at the back and pedal. The run is like the swim using a tether.

When I was younger I loved watching track cycling, but I thought I couldn’t do it because I was visually impaired. I was always told when I was younger that I would never ride a bike. Para-sports let athletes do something that they have been told they are not allowed to do. That anger of being told that I am not able to do something will keep me going no matter what happens in a race.

There wouldn’t be 20 minutes in our house where we don’t talk about triathlon

Oliver Gunning

I am usually fine with nerves on race day. I focus on myself and my guide and forget about everyone else. During the end of my first race, I remember running down the finish chute and the atmosphere was amazing. Valencia, the city we were racing in, went triathlon mad. They had the roads closed for the race and people were lining every part of the race course. You had people shouting at you along the whole course.

I’m quite lucky – I haven’t had any problems with my eyesight for a while. I am really thankful to Moorfields Eye Hospital for everything the staff have done – for saving as much of my eyesight as they could. When I first started taking part in triathlons, I didn’t think too much about it, but now it is basically consuming my entire life. There wouldn’t be 20 minutes in our house where we don’t talk about triathlon. It’s 24-7 but I love it.

Stuart Gunning (father): Oliver’s eyes were checked when he was only three or four months old. Nothing was picked up at that point. As time went on, we started to notice more and more things. My dad was playing with Oliver throwing up a set of keys. He noticed that if he threw them up one side, Oliver would pick them up but if he threw them on the other side, he wouldn’t.

Oliver is the most competitive animal on the planet – if you are walking to the car, he will race you to the car

Stuart Gunning

Oliver’s success in para-triatholon is a little bit surreal. As a younger child, Oliver was always told that he had to sit out of things – ‘You can’t play football, you can’t play racquet sports.’ It was always what he couldn’t do. I can remember the day we went to a clinic in Belfast – the guy was saying ‘Don’t worry, I will break the bad news to him. I will tell him he can’t ride a bike.’

But at that point Oliver was already riding a bicycle. He had a helmet on and he had stabilisers – we wanted him to be safe – but we also wanted him to be a normal little boy. Oliver is the most competitive animal on the planet – if you are walking to the car, he will race you to the car. If you are walking up the stairs, he will race you up to the top. Seeing that he has an outlet for it and the fact that he is travelling for his sport, I am really proud of him.

Oliver Gunning, 17, from County Antrim, was the youngest para triathlete to compete at the 2021 World Championships in Abu Dhabi. Gunning had a series of surgeries at Moorfields Eye Hospital after he was diagnosed with congenital glaucoma at the age of three.

  •  As told to Selina Powell.