Twenty-nine-year-old shooting Para sport athlete and celebrated medalist Neelam ONeill came up for air at the end of the first lockdown in 2020, and decided she wanted to do something different with her life.
After losing her cherished grandmother in September of that year, Neelam narrowly missed out on selection for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, which was held the following year due to COVID-19. At the time, she worked part time in a bank, coached shooters and mentored young Para athletes. But shooting is 90% mental agility, and feeling heartbroken and hurt, she needed to take some time out.
“Because I’d been doing this sport for ten years, I really needed a break,” she says. “Not being selected for the Tokyo Paralympics team really hit me, but it also gave me perspective on life and taught me to focus on other things.”
“I decided to take a break from shooting and to come back with fresh eyes. Back then, I wasn’t sure what was in store for me after Tokyo, but coming back and rediscovering my passion for shooting helped me reset my goals and get back on the pathway towards the next Paralympic Games.”
Neelam was born with lipomyelomeningocele, a form of spina bifida, and has been a wheelchair user most of her life. She grew up in Whangarei, where she learned to shoot cans with her stepfather when she was just seven years old, and began shooting competitively while still at high school.
Wanting to stay focused within the sporting realm, Neelam explored her options on how she could continue making a difference within her community.
She considered becoming a personal trainer, until a mentor helped reignite her passion in coaching and encouraged her to follow that pathway by enrolling in the NZ Diploma of Sport, Recreation and Exercise at Unitec Institute of Technology.
Learning a different side to sport. The Diploma is a contemporary and career-focused programme that provides a mix of practical sessions, classroom-based activities and industry learning. It is easy to fit study requirements for the diploma around work and sporting commitments, which appealed to Neelam. She decided to study part time, spreading her workload over two years, which meant she could continue with her bank job and maintain her heavy training and coaching schedule.
Neelam says the Unitec staff were friendly and approachable, and the course content was geared towards interaction with fellow students, meaning everyone worked together from the outset.
“The programme helped me to grow, both as an athlete and a coach,” she says. “I got the chance to interact with a wide range of people from different backgrounds. It was a fantastic experience – everyone was so welcoming and open.”
She says there was a real effort to include disability-related content in the programme, which opened her eyes to another side of sport she had not previously experienced.
“My Unitec experience added tools to my toolkit that I didn’t have before. I learnt about the different career pathways and the different benefits sports can provide. It gives you so many valuable lifestyle, transferable and inter-personal skills."
“Sport also gives you drive, motivation and a purpose in life. I’m proud to call myself a shooting Para sport athlete – not everyone gets to do what I do.”
Neelam says she was very fortunate to receive support from a great team of lecturers and mentors while she was at Unitec, and credits them for creating an inclusive and supportive environment where students want to learn.
“They helped provide insight into your areas of interest and ways to look after your health and wellbeing.”
“Each of the tutors come from different backgrounds and it was interesting to hear the knowledge and experience they’ve had within the sporting industry. You really want to hear their stories and learn from them.”
After graduating, Neelam is keen to work as a life coach for athletes - specifically adapted athletes - drawing on her high-performance sport experience, as well as her ability to navigate multiple demands and her new-found business and leadership skills. She is also keen to help raise awareness of her sport, along with other para sports and activities available for the disability community, and to mentor up-and-coming Para athletes.
“If you help nurture talent and ability, it does wonders for a person. Creating that space for someone to explore and grow is so important,” she says.
In the meantime, Neelam has her sights firmly set on the 2022 Al Ain World Shooting Para Sport Championships in UAE in November. There’s no doubt she will continue to pave the way for shooting Para sport athletes in New Zealand.
Her Unitec studies have helped her reset her life and given her new-found appreciation for her sport.
“I’d still like to be doing this in ten years’ time,” she says. “It’s not a sport I would give up easily.”
“At Unitec they look at you as a person.”
Neelam used Unitec’s disability service while she studied, tapping into online resources when Unitec’s campuses were forced to close due to lockdown. Student Support Services gave her access to specially adapted note-taking programmes, refresher courses on essay writing and a dedicated student support advisor. She says the open and accessible campus also makes it easy for wheelchair users to move around.
“I was the only person in my class that was a wheelchair user, but I wasn’t made to feel any different. At Unitec they look at you as a person.”
“They made sure I could be part of any activity they organised and were able to adapt them to suit my abilities.”
“I felt comfortable being myself, and I knew I had support from my tutors and classmates if I needed it.”
Hear more about Neelam O’Neill’s story here.