Neelam O’Neill grew up in a family of Northland enthusiasts. She was seven years old when her passionate hunter stepfather first taught her how to shoot cans and containers from a lawn chair while on a family camping vacation.
O’Neill was born with lipomyelomeningocele, a form of spina bifida that affects the lower back and legs, and she uses a wheelchair to get around.
She says her disability has never been viewed as a curse by her or her family, and she chooses to take her challenges as opportunities to show what she’s made of.
Inspired by the only female fencer to have represented New Zealand at the Paralympic Games, O’Neill is on track to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Games.
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O’Neill aims to compete in both the air rifle and pistol events in Tokyo. But after missing the Rio Paralympics by a qualifying spot, O’Neill had to overcome more setbacks – both mentally and physically – to keep his Paralympic dream alive.
Of Fijian Indian descent, O’Neill, 26, says shooting has always been a part of his life.
âI like shooting because it takes precision, accuracy, focus and a pinch of luck,â she says.
âIt’s a rewarding feeling when you pull the trigger and fire a 10.9 – the highest score on a single shot of an air rifle. I also love that it’s an inclusive sport that offers a a level playing field for everyone, whether able or disabled. “
Throughout his school years in Whangarei, O’Neill did not show much interest in the sport and chose to pursue swimming instead.
It wasn’t until she moved south to study psychology and statistics at the University of Auckland that she got the opportunity to compete in shooting competitions and discovered that there was the potential to compete in the Paralympic Games.
But not everyone was initially comfortable with the concept.
âI was at a regional competition with my parents, who asked my coach how much a sport like para shooting costs,â said.
âI ended up finishing first in the competition, and I think it was the first time I thought I could make it to the Paralympics. Luckily my parents saw it too, and I had their full support from that day forward. “
When you hear O’Neill what the costs she faces for parasport shooting (the sport’s official name), $ 80,000 doesn’t sound unreasonable.
Her rifle alone costs $ 4,500, and her custom vest – which helps her stay steady when firing – is worth around $ 1,700. Then there are extras like weights, gun cases and all the costs associated with travel to competitions.
To cover expenses, O’Neill invested a lot of his time in fundraising – doing everything from a Givealittle page to selling chocolate. She also used her singing talent to try out busking.
O’Neill is not able to train full time – she is not ranked high enough in the world to earn funding from High Performance Sport New Zealand.
She therefore works part-time for BNZ in their contact center, then adapts her training program to her working hours.
The bank is supporting his Paralympic dream by giving him time to travel abroad to compete and flexible working hours to train.
While it may seem like O’Neill can’t find the time for anything else, she is passionate about training.
Every Tuesday, you can meet her at Parafed Auckland Shooting Club where she trains everyone from the non-disabled to the visually impaired. Her favorite aspect of training is working with women who show an interest in the sport.
âIt’s great to see more women participating in the skydiving shooting,â she said. “I like being able to help them support them and encourage them to fall in love with shooting, just like I did.”
Since taking parasport shooting seriously in 2012, O’Neill has risen through the ranks in the world rankings.
She narrowly missed qualifying for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, finishing 29th in a qualifying competition, when the last available spot went to the person in 28th.
Determined not to let this happen again, O’Neill focused on the Tokyo contention.
Everything was on track when O’Neill and his family were overthrown early last year by the death of his grandfather.
âHis death almost shattered my family, and it took us a long time to get over it,â she says. âFor months, I couldn’t train without breaking down. And when your mental game is 90% of your shooting performance, I found it hard to cope.â
To further test her courage, arthritis broke out in O’Neill’s right elbow last April, and she had to undergo surgery to repair a loss of sensation in her hand.
The operation caused him to miss participation in the world championships in South Korea, which would have allowed him to qualify for the 2020 Paralympic Games.
Despite his setbacks, O’Neill remains positive.
To qualify for Tokyo, she must meet the minimum qualifying standard twice in two competitions and be sufficiently ranked in the second event to receive a coveted spot from the International Paralympic Committee.
It’s a complicated process, but O’Neill thinks she has it all figured out. She’s already halfway there, having reached the qualifying standard once in her pistol and air rifle events.
His next opportunity to qualify will be at this year’s world championships in Sydney in October.
Although confident that she has what it takes, she knows full well how fine the line is between failure and success.
âIt could be like qualifying for Rio again,â she said. âI could finish 20th, and the last place will go to the person who finished 19th. It’s a tough sport knowing exactly what to do to qualify, so I just have to go out there and do my better on the day. “