Tully Kearney given Paralympics boost after returning to original classification

Tully Kearney – Tully Kearney given Paralympics boost after returning to original classification
Tully Kearney had her classification changed from S5 to S6 after a 2023 review - Getty Images/Morgan Harlow

The British Paralympic team have been granted a major boost after 10-times world champion Tully Kearney made a triumphant comeback to achieve qualification times in three events after describing herself as “almost broken” last year.

Kearny, who is also returning from a career-threatening concussion, had lodged a formal complaint with World Para Swimming following an “inappropriate, insulting, at times humiliating” experience that saw her reassigned to S6 rather than the S5 classification in which she won Tokyo Paralympic gold.

However, Telegraph Sport has learnt that she was granted a review last month at the World Series event in Italy and is now back competing as an S5 athlete, for which she promptly swam the Paralympic nomination times in the 50-metre backstroke as well as the 100m and 200m freestyle over the past six days.

The 26-year-old’s 50m backstroke was a new British record and she also went faster in both the 100m and 200m that she managed in winning respective gold and silver in Tokyo three years ago.

“It’s been the toughest year of my career, dealing with everything, and the progress in in my condition,” said Kearney, who, prior to the British Championships in London over the past week, called for a review of the Paralympic classification process and revealed her mission to make the sport of frame-running accessible across the nation.

Kearney, who was born with cerebral palsy before developing generalised dystonia – a progressive neurological movement disorder – when she was a teenager, also regularly takes part in Parkruns and is working with organisers to make more courses accessible to running frames and wheelchairs.

It was in November 2022, however, that she suffered a freak concussion that left her unable even to remember the start of 2023 and fearing that her swimming career was over.

Kearney had won a clean sweep of freestyle golds at the World Championships three months earlier in Madeira to back up her Paralympic success the previous year. “I was out with a friend, sat in the boot of his car, putting my wheelchair together and he forgot I was there – slammed the car boot on my head,” she says.

“It was obvious immediately that something wasn’t right but it was 12 hours later that the symptoms came into effect. If you have a pre-existing brain injury like cerebral palsy, it puts you at a much higher risk of post-concussion syndrome. I honestly thought that might force retirement.”

The main challenge was coping with vertigo, as well as the noise and lights of a swimming pool, but, by mixing her training and following a programme of rehabilitation, she has gradually returned to the point now where she is again a serious contender for Paralympic glory.

The setbacks did prompt a realignment in priorities and, after discovering frame-running when she was recovering from shoulder surgery in 2018, she is now determined both to spread awareness and accessibility.

Tully Kearney – Tully Kearney given Paralympics boost after returning to original classification
Paralympic gold medalist is championing opportunities for children with disabilities - The Telegraph

To that end, a new taster session will be held in Loughborough later this month and Kearney, who has also helped set up a club in the West Midlands, now rates this mission as more important than further Paralympic success.

“My perspective has changed,” she says. “I feel like this will be a lifelong passion. My condition has got a lot worse, I’ve got more impaired, and it has made me realise how many barriers there are.”

Frame-running can seem like an almost miracle invention but, with the right expertise, it has proved possible to adapt trikes so that people who may previously have been unable to walk can experience the sensation of running. “I fell in love with the freedom – it was the first sport I was ever able to run, the first sport I was ever able to use my legs, not just my arms,” she says.

“It was such a crazy feeling that I could actually move at quite a pace without help – to feel what it is like to have the wind blowing through your hair. It was indescribable. Most people have the same reaction.

“People who have had milder cerebral palsy or a mild stroke, who can walk but can’t run, are benefiting from it so much as well. You see parents come along, say, ‘My kid is not going to be able to do that’, and five minutes later they are running laps. Their jaw drops to the floor. The potential health and social benefits are just huge.”

Frame-running has already been included in some World and European Championships events and, while Kearney is very much focussed on increasing the availability of this wonderful activity, she believes that it does also have the potential to become a Paralympic event. “Frame-running is very different to wheelchair races and hopefully one day it will be included,” she says.

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