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Cool runner: Aussie Paras star's 'mind bending' Winter Olympics bobsled obsession

(Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images)
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28th August, 2021
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It was 2018 and Evan O’Hanlon was training for the Commonwealth Games when his eye was caught by the Winter Olympics on the TV at his gym.

His trainer, Zsolt Zsombor, had represented Hungary at two Winter Olympics in the bobsled and O’Hanlon asked him: “Do you reckon, with my speed and body shape, if I trained fulltime for it, could I make the bobsled team?’

“He knows me pretty well, and told me he thought I could.”

What happened next, O’Hanlon put down to his “brain damage” – the cerebral palsy he suffers from and “affects my personality as well as my body”.

O’Hanlon is aiming to become the first Australian Paralympian to compete at the Winter Olympics, targetting the Beijing Winter Games in February 2022.

After winning through to his Paralympic final at the track on Saturday, O’Hanlon told reporters he would happily auction off any medal he would win, to help pay for the bobsled campaign.

“It probably would have been easier for my life if [Zsombor] just said ‘no’,” O’Hanlon told me when we worked on his story for AthletesVoice in 2019.

“But when he said that it was like ‘oh shit, there’s a challenge. Someone actually thinks I could do it and I haven’t even tried it yet. I’m going to have to try.’

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“I think my brain damage definitely affects my personality as well as my body. To most people it wouldn’t be obvious, but I can see that I deal with things differently than others.”

O’Hanlon said after he left the gym he just couldn’t get bobsled out of his mind.

He was working in his father’s architecture firm, but wasn’t enjoying it.

“I told him, ‘Well, I had this crazy idea. I could go and do bobsled.’ I summed up in one sentence how I would do it, by moving my family to Europe where I could afford to live. Within 30 seconds he just said, ‘yeah, go do it.’

“I’d already had a conversation with my wife, who was an Olympic race walker from the Czech Republic in a former life and was missing her family.

“I told her my crazy idea. ‘We could move to Europe, nearer your parents, and I could try bobsled and see how it goes.’ I thought she’d say no, but she didn’t.”

Because there is no funding for bobsled in Australia, the decision to pursue it as a sport has been a costly one for O’Hanlon and his family.

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He has advertised for sponsors on social media. His offer of selling his Paralympics medal to be able to continue his new obsession is 100 percent genuine.

“It’s all self-funded and the pilot is in charge of finding a lot of the money. The pilot pays for the sled, the blades that go on the bottom of the sled, and every practice run that you do costs at least 60 euros – and I do more than 100 runs in a season.”

For all the multiple disabilities that make up a Paralympics team, the athletes can also be categorised into two broad groups – those who got their disability through a traumatic event, and those who were born with it.

O’Hanlon is in the latter group, although it was two years before he was diagnosed.

“My disability, cerebral palsy, makes me who I am,” O’Hanlon said. “Cerebral palsy is a big umbrella term that can mean a lot of things but basically is brain damage either before you’re born or in the first two years of your life.

“They don’t know for sure, but it’s believed I had a pre-natal stroke while I was still in my mum’s womb. My mum says I started out active, even quite annoying, in the womb, then I stopped moving.

“She went to hospital and they checked me out, told her I was fine and sent her home. When I was born I was sent home as an apparently ‘normal child’. My parents already had my two older sisters so their hands were full and they didn’t notice much, other than I was pulling myself around with one hand.

“I had pretty severe asthma when I was younger and went to hospital for that when I was about two. A doctor came to see me while I had a drip in my right arm and was eating.”

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He was using his right hand to eat even though the needle was on that side. That alerted the doctor.

“I had a brain scan and they could see a huge patch of my brain is missing because it just didn’t get any blood for a period, and it’s dead,” O’Hanlon says. “You can see a picture of it on my Twitter profile.

“I never remember being told ‘you have a disability’, I just always knew it. There was never a moment when my parents had to sit me down and tell me.”

He considers himself lucky because his cerebral palsy is mild.

“I know a lot of people with my disability had a hard time at school but I didn’t because I can hide it if I want to,” he said.

He was always fast runner but started to lose interest at high school where his classmates at St. Joseph’s College in Sydney included rugby stars Kurtley Beale and Peter Betham too.

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He changed to long jump and was explaining to a coach who tried to change his technique when he was unable to use his left arm properly.

“She was training with some para athletes at Homebush and she went and spoke to them,” he said. “Later that year, I was travelling to Europe to compete for Australia in the European Open champs for para athletes.

“I was excited to find out there was a place for me that I could keep winning and be successful. I think what drives everybody is being successful in whatever they do, whether it’s work or looking after their family or whatever. Success drew me to athletics and probably kept me going the whole time.”

He won three gold medals in Beijing and two in London, but then was distraught with silver in Rio five years ago.

“When success disappeared, I struggled massively with that,” he said.
Although he stayed in the sport for the Commonwealth Games, and ultimately Tokyo, he’d found a new sporting love.

“Have you seen the Eddie the Eagle movie where all the rival athletes apparently give him a hard time because he’s learning, and not much good?” O’Hanlon asked in 2019.

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“Bobsled is nothing like that, and that’s what I love the most. If I go to the athletics track, I’m just walking around like I’m king shit. Everyone else is doing the same.

“If my shoelace broke before my race, no one would give a shit. They’d be like, ‘that’s your problem man.’

“If you stand up the top of a bobsled track and you’re ready to push off, you have the ultimate respect of everybody else standing at the top. Everyone understands we’re all doing something that’s very dangerous.

“If I’m missing a bolt and tell [teammate Joe Williamson], three guys from another country will be right there with a replacement bolt for us.

“If you’re trying to slide, people want to help you.”

When they started out there were lots of crashes, and hairy moments with Williamson copping the brunt of it as the brakeman.

“We both were bruised all over but he was five times worse off because the brakeman gets beat up way more than the driver,” O’Hanlon said.

“There was a day early on when he couldn’t get out of bed, he was that smashed up. He was trying to, but I had to tell him ‘mate, we’re not sliding today. I’m not going to do that to you.’

At first it was just like, you guessed it … “straight out of Cool Runnings,” said O’Hanlon. “We walked inside and got dressed and ready to go. We came back out, helmets on, mouth guards in, and we were told to get in the sled. They were like ‘do you know how to drive?’

“I’m like ‘pull this one to go left and pull this one to go right? Yeah? See you. Push us off’.

“Going 120kph in a sled is insane the first time. On our first run we somehow made it to the bottom the right way up, possibly due to Joe’s helmet tipping us back upright when we were halfway over.
“Joe got the absolute shit beaten out of him.

“As you’re crashing, as you can feel it, it’s like ‘f*******!’ Then you’re upside down and your head’s sliding along the ice and you’re checking you’re in one piece. Then you realise, ‘crap, now I’ve got to slide down for the next 30 seconds on my head and get to the finish.’”

As soon as he packs up his spikes in Tokyo, O’Hanlon will resume the quest, hopefully even with a few more dollars in the bank to help fund it.

You hope there is someone out there with the means to help make it happen – a real life Australian yarn to match Cool Runnings, the story of the Jamaican bobsled team from which O’Hanlon and Williamson drew jokes to settle themselves down before runs.

“I’ve done athletics for so long that it’s easy for me in that it’s not a challenge mentally,” O’Hanlon says.

“Sometimes running as fast as I can in a straight line seems boring, especially if you compare it sliding upside down at 120kph.

“I’m way outside of my comfort zone. I can feel my mind bending trying to understand the concepts. It’s like when you can feel yourself learning something at school that you want to learn, and you’re getting a grip on it. ‘Wow, that feels so good’.”

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