Fresh from winning world championship silver, Katie-George Dunlevy speaks to Damian Dolan about her hopes for this year’s Paralympic Games in Tokyo
Katie-George Dunlevy is having a well-earned few days off. Twenty-four hours earlier she arrived back in the U.K. from the UCI Para-cycling Track World Championships in Milton, Canada, where she and her pilot, Eve McCrystal, set a new national record on their way to winning silver in the Women’s Tandem Pursuit Race.
It’s the pairs best ever performance on the Track. Their timing couldn’t be better, with the countdown on to the Paralympic Games in Tokyo in August.
Between the physical exertion, the jetlag and not being able to sleep on the overnight flight, she’s “wrecked”.
But this is a day off by Dunlevy’s standards. She’ll still be hitting the gym straight after we’ve finished speaking.
It’s just for “a light” session, just to keep her “body moving” she says.
“It’s more of a mental break. I’m used to training nearly every day – I don’t have much time off,” Dunlevy told the Irish World.
It’s the same level of single-mindedness which has seen her overcome numerous set-backs in her life and sporting career to become a Paralympic and multiple world champion.
Silver in Canada had her “jumping up and down for joy”.
While Dunlevy and McCrystal have been almost untouchable on the road since 2016, in the Time Trial and Road Race, Canada was just their third medal on the Track.
Previously they’d won bronze on the Track at the 2018 and 2015 worlds.
Their time of 3:27.358 broke their own national record by over three seconds, and sent them into the Gold-Silver medal ride-off with New Zealand.
That proved a step too far, but Dunlevy says Track medal hopes for Tokyo are “realistic”.
“The main aim is Toyko, but it was a good chance to see where we’re at, and where the competition’s at,” said the 38-year-old.
“We’ve been aiming for that Gold-Silver medal ride off for years, and to finally get there was absolutely fantastic.”
She added: “We can get faster, on and Track and the road, between now and Tokyo. We are aiming for a medal on the Track for sure – we’ll be aiming for that Gold-Silver medal ride-off again.”
It’s on the road where the pair have truly excelled. Gold medal winners in the Time Trial in Rio in 2016, Dunlevy and McCrystal also took silver in the Road Race.
They’ve since won world Time Trial gold three years running, and taken two golds and a silver in the Road Race.
From here, the pedal will be hard to the floor through to the Road World Championships in Belgium in June. A chance to assess their rivals ahead of Tokyo.
It will be the first time there’s been a World Road Championships in a Paralympic year, a change Dunlevy welcomes.
“It’s brilliant; it will be good to see what we need to do in the final stages coming up to the Games,” she said.
Never “complacent”, it’s a fear of what their rivals might be doing, or that they might be working harder than them, that drives them on.
Just as important, between now and Tokyo, is the time Dunlevy and McCrystal will spend training together.
That throws up its own logistical issues. Dunlevy is based in Crawley in Sussex, and McCrystal in Dundalk in Co Louth.
Dunlevy will be “back and forward” to Ireland between now and June, where the pair will rack up the miles on the roads. It’s “not ideal”, but they “make it work”.
“The time we do spend together we train really hard and we always make the most of every session,” said Dunlevy, who always had Tokyo in her sights.
McCrystal, though, took longer before making up her mind to commit.
Had McCrystal decided to call it a day, it would have left Dunlevy needing to find another pilot, and then to build the kind of successful relationship that has taken her years to develop with the Louth rider.
It wasn’t until 2018 that McCrystal made up her mind to go for it.
The pair are now fully focused on defending their Time Trial Paralympic title, and winning Gold in the Road Race.
She added: “It’s going to be difficult to retain it, but we’re going to do the best we can.
“We’ve got a great coach and team behind us, so we believe we can [do it]. We’re just going to go for it and give it everything we’ve got.”
Theirs was no overnight success story. Rio came two years after they first paired up. It all culminated in Rio, where they were “just unbeatable”.
“We were improving and seeing really good results, but it was only in 2016 that we started to win races,” says Dunlevy, who was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa when she was 11.
For Dunlevy, Rio was the “best day” of her life. It made all the sacrifices and set-backs along the way “worth it”.
Initially a rower, she had world championship success with Britain in 2004 and 2005, but missed out on selection for the Beijing Paralympic Games in 2008.
After a “difficult” time with the GB rowing squad, Dunlevy, whose father is from Donegal, tried out for Ireland in 2010.
But failure to make the Ireland team left her “mentally and emotionally at the end of my tether”.
She said: “I had a lot of set-backs in rowing; I’d been turning up for the trials year after year with really no support, and missing out.”
It was then that someone involved with the Irish team suggested she try cycling. Up until then, it wasn’t a sport she’d even considered.
“When cycling came along, I was ready for it. I still had that drive, work ethic and determination in me and I was able to transfer it over to cycling,” she said.
“The coach said ‘we want you to go to the World Championships in six weeks time and represent Ireland’,” recalls Dunlevy.
“I said, ‘but you haven’t seen me on a bike yet’. He said ‘from what I’ve seen and what I’ve read, I think you’ll be great’.”
She added: “They had belief in me….maybe they saw something in me.
“[ I had] six weeks to learn how to ride a tandem and race it. I was in at the deep end for sure.”
But six weeks later there she was, on the start line at the 2011 World Championships in Denmark.
Dunlevy recalls a crash in the first few kilometres taking several bikes out of the race, and she and her pilot (Louise Moriarty) finishing outside the top ten. But Dunlevy was hooked.
“I loved it; I loved every second of it. I loved the thrill of the road race, the tactics, the chase, the speed. I wanted to do it again,” she said.
The following year she represented Ireland at the London 2012 Games – an experience she describes as a “whirlwind” and “amazing”.
She said: “I was only in my development stage with tandem racing, but I trained hard leading up to it. I didn’t want to make up the numbers – I wanted to do the best I could.”
No medals, but it lit a fire within Dunlevy.
“It gave me such drive after that. Seeing the medallists I was like ‘I want to win, I want to be on that podium’,” said Dunlevy, who is “unsure” what life holds after Tokyo. McCrystal has already confirmed that Tokyo will be the end for her.
“I won’t walk away straight away, but whether I carry on to Paris in 2024, I’m unsure,” said Dunlevy.
That’s for another day, the focus now is on Tokyo, and ideally Dunlevy would like to take to the start line on a new tandem road bike.
Not that her current bike hasn’t served her well – she rode it to Gold in Rio and every world championship success since.
But this is a “very expensive” sport. With equipment, the cost is in the region of £15,000. She hopes to find sponsors to help fund its purchase, while training to win gold.
It’s just another obstacle to overcome.
“Turning up on the start-line with a new bike that’s running well gives you that mental edge – ‘we’ve got a new bike and we’re going to be flying’,” she says.
“If we’re on the Rio bike and everyone else has a new bike, these things can play on your mind.”
But a new bike alone won’t secure gold – preparing for the hot and humid conditions they’re going to be faced with in Tokyo will be vital.
The course will be hilly and technically challenging, and the oxygen content low.
“If you’re not prepared for the heat and humidity it’s going to cost you,” said Dunlevy. “The conditions are going to be extreme – very different to anything we’ve raced in before.”
Replicating those conditions in training means getting creative for Dunlevy and McCrystal.
“We’re going to be training in a bathroom with a humidifier and the heat turned up. It’s going to be horrific, but that’s what we’ve got to do,” she says. “Whoever’s prepared the best and can deal with the conditions is going to win.”
It’s all just challenges, and Dunlevy has already overcome plenty of those.