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Neelam on target to realise Paralympic dream

Neelam O’Neill grew up in a Northland family of keen outdoorsmen. She was seven when her step-dad, an avid hunter, first taught her how to shoot cans and containers from a lawn chair while on a family camping holiday.

O’Neill was born with lipomyelomeningocele, a form of spina bifida that affects her lower back and legs, and she uses a wheelchair for mobility. She says her disability has never been seen as a curse by her or her family, and she chooses to embrace her challenges as opportunities to show what she’s made of.

Inspired by the only woman shooter to have represented New Zealand at the Paralympics, O’Neill is on target to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Games.

Allison Smith won a bronze medal at the 1984 Paralympics in Los Angeles, in the women’s air rifle.

O’Neill is aiming to compete in both the air rifle and pistol events in Tokyo. But after missing out on the Rio Paralympics by one qualifying spot, O'Neill has had to overcome more setbacks – both mental and physical – to keep her Paralympics dream alive.

Of Fijian Indian heritage, 26-year-old O'Neill says shooting has always been a part of her life.

“I love shooting because it requires precision, accuracy, concentration and a pinch of chance,” she says.  

“It’s a rewarding feeling when you squeeze the trigger and shoot a 10.9 – the highest score on an air-rifle single shot. I also love that it’s an inclusive sport that has an even playing field for everyone, both able or with a disability.”

Throughout her school years in Whangarei, O’Neill didn’t show much interest in the sport and chose to pursue swimming instead. It wasn’t until she moved south to study psychology and statistics at the University of Auckland that she had the opportunity to compete in shooting, and discovered there was the potential of competing at a Paralympic Games.

But not everyone was initially comfortable with the concept.

“I was at a regional competition with my parents, who asked my coach how much a sport like para shooting costs. When he said ‘$80,000 - before you even get to a Paralympics’, they seemed automatically against the idea,” O’Neill says.

“I ended up placing first at the competition, and I think it was the first time I thought to myself that I could make it to the Paralympics. Thankfully my parents saw it too, and I had their full support from that day forward.”  

When you hear from O’Neill what costs she faces in shooting para sport (the official name of the sport), $80,000 doesn’t seem unreasonable. Her rifle alone cost $4500, and her customised jacket – which aids her stability when she shoots – is worth around $1700. Then there are extras like pellets, cases for her guns and all the costs associated with travelling to competitions.

To cover the expense, O’Neill has invested a lot of her time into fundraising - doing everything from a Givealittle page to selling chocolate. She used her singing talent to try busking too.

Neelam O'Neill missed out on the Rio Paralympics by one qualifying spot - and she won't let that happen again. Photo: Supplied.

O’Neill isn’t able to train full-time – she’s not ranked high enough in the world to earn funding from High Performance Sport New Zealand. So she works part-time for BNZ in their contact centre, and then fits her training schedule around her work hours.

The bank supports her Paralympic dream by giving her time off to travel overseas to compete, and flexible working hours to train.

Although it may seem O’Neill wouldn’t find the time for much else, she is passionate about coaching.  Every Tuesday, you can find her at the Parafed Auckland shooting club where she coaches everyone from people without disabilities, to those with visual impairments. Her favourite aspect of coaching is working with women who show an interest in the sport.

“It’s great seeing more women participating in para shooting,” she says. “I love that I get to help support them and encourage them to fall in love with shooting, just like I have.”

Since taking up shooting para sport seriously in 2012, O’Neill has worked her way up through the world rankings. She very narrowly missed out on qualifying for the 2016 Rio Paralympics, finishing 29th at a qualifying competition, when the last available slot went to the person in 28th.

Determined not to let that happen again, O’Neill has focused on putting herself in strong contention for Tokyo.

All was on track when O’Neill and her family were knocked back early last year by the passing of her grandfather.

“His death almost broke my family, and it took us a long time to recover from it,” she says. “For months I couldn’t go to training without breaking down. And when your mental game is 90 per cent of your performance in shooting, I was struggling to cope.”

To further test her grit, arthritis flared up in O’Neill’s right elbow last April, and she needed surgery to a repair a loss of feeling in her hand. The operation meant she missed out on competing at the world championships in South Korea, which would have given her a chance to qualify for the 2020 Paralympics.

Despite her setbacks, O’Neill remains positive. To qualify for Tokyo, she has to meet the minimum qualifying standard twice across two competitions and be ranked high enough at the second event to receive a coveted spot from the International Paralympic Committee.

It’s a complicated process, but O’Neill thinks she’s got it figured out. She’s already halfway there, having met the qualifying standard once in both her pistol and air rifle events.

Her next opportunity to qualify will be at this year’s world championships in Sydney in October.

While confident she has what it takes, she knows all too well how fine a line it is between failure and success.

“It could be like qualifying for Rio again,” she says. “I could finish 20th, and the last slot will go to the person who finished 19th. It’s a hard sport to know exactly what you have to do to qualify, so I just have to go out there and do the best I can on the day.”

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