by ROWENA OREJANA
AUCKLAND — St Francis Xavier Catholic School (Whangarei) old girl Neelam O’Neill plans to be the first disabled Paralympic female shooter for New Zealand in three decades.
The last female paralympic shooter was Allison Smith, who won bronze in the 1984 Summer Paralympics.
Miss O’Neill, 21, won second place last month at the Parafed Auckland Shooting Regionals in Mt Eden.
Miss O’Neill, who described herself as a “non-Catholic Catholic”, was educated in Catholic schools despite her Hindu background.
“I believe in God, I have faith in God. Because I have a different religious background (her grandparents are Hindu) I asked my religion teacher what religion I was. ‘She said well, you’re pretty much a God-believing Hindu.’ I thought, ‘Okay, that makes sense’. Because I believe in God and I also had the Hindu religion
behind me but I don’t really practise it as much.”
She says her Catholic education has helped her both in life as well as her sport.
“Faith-wise and having those merit values taught me to become a better person. I definitely see myself as a different person if I didn’t go to those schools, if I went to public schools,” she said.
She said she always had a passion for shooting, which she got from her stepfather.
“When we went camping, we used to just shoot cans and containers. I really enjoyed that,” she said.
Miss O’Neill was born with spina bifida, which literally means “split spine”. Spina bifida happens when the spinal column of a baby in the womb does not close all of the way.
She said her disability has given her a competitive drive. “I’ve been through a lot. It’s just that push to live life. You
can’t watch things crumble away. So give it a try and see where it can go,” she said.
She said it’s easy for people to get trapped in their situation.
“Sometimes, it’s even hard for me to get out of bed. What’s the point? But you have to find a reason for living, really. Might as well do something. Make a change,” she said.
For her part, she likes to help people and to serve as a role model for other young people with disabilities.
She also attributed much of her success to the support of her family, particularly her mother.
“My family has big influence, definitely my mum. My family is very supportive,” she added.
Miss O’Neill is happy to have joined the Parafed Auckland (Auckland Paraplegic & Physically Disabled Association), where she found friends who are “quite inspirational people”.
Their shooting team is currently fundraising to enable them to compete in the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) World Cup in Bangkok, Thailand. This is an entry event which could qualify them
for the Paralympics World Championship.
“That’s my goal. I want to get up there,” she said. Her coach and role model, Michael Johnson, won gold in the Athens Paralympics and bronze in the the London and Beijing Games.
Fundraising has been hard, though. They have already held barbecues and sausage sizzles, as well as bake sales.
They also have several grant applications in the pipeline.
St Francis Xavier School is helping her out by accepting donations on her behalf.