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The MDX coaches behind GB and Irish Paralympic throwing stars

PhD graduate Alison O'Riordan and Sports Activator Danielle Norville coach Tokyo shot put hopeful Nessa Wallace, from Tottenham

Two MDX-based coaches have coached athletes in two different national teams for the Tokyo Paralympics.

MDX PhD graduate and hourly academic Dr Alison O’Riordan is National Throws Coach for Paralympics Ireland, working with discus thrower Niamh McCarthy and shot putter Mary Fitzgerald, and also coaches Paralympics GB seated shot putter Vanessa (Nessa) Wallace. They are all currently in Tokyo for the Games (photographed together, left).

MDX Sport Activator Danielle Norville – who has represented Barbados and Great Britain as a Junior sprinter, and GB in Masters Over 35 weightlifting ­-  joined Alison’s coaching team after training para discus thrower Stacie Gaston-Monerville, an MDX alumna, as her strength and conditioning coach.

She has also coached para discus thrower Michael ‘Taz’ Nicholls for four years and started coaching Nessa in March 2021. Danielle says coaches working with para athletes “should not be putting them in a box,” praising their “absolutely amazing mentality. I have this privilege of athletes who are always willing to work”.

Alison secured a London Sports Institute (LSI) scholarship from MDX for her PhD on the interaction between seated shot-putters and their throwing frame.

Her research is world-leading: combining biomechanics with insights from coaching experience, and based on a cohort of world class seated shot-putters who she shuttled from the Olympic Park to the Lea Valley Athletics Centre at the end of the 2017 World Championships. A team of MDX (LSI) students acted as research assistants, gaining valuable applied experience. Her PhD was awarded by LSI earlier this summer, consolidating a 20 year interest in this area. Alison has an extensive research publication record despite describing herself as really "just a coach".

Unusually, MDX gave Alison the freedom to decide own research pathway when she applied. Having worked with a number of different academic institutions, she says she found it “refreshing” that at LSI most researchers “are practitioners as well, doing it as well as saying it. The students MDX produce are equipped for the workforce”.

Alison spotted Tottenham resident Nessa Wallace’s potential at a seated throws coaching workshop in 2014 she was delivering, the first time Nessa had ever done shot-put. Within two years, she had competed at the Rio Paralympics and the World Para Athletics Championships in London. She won Gold at the 2018 WPA European Championships in Berlin, Bronze at the 2019 WPA World Championships in Dubai, and is now ranked number 3 in the world in her classification.

While Alison has been able to continue coaching GB athletes face-to-face through most of the pandemic, she’s had to do all her coaching work with the Irish para throwers remotely. In spite of these challenges – Niamh McCarthy telling journalists that she had been practising at home with a tea-towel – both Niamh and Mary have excelled, winning Gold and Bronze respectively at this year’s European Championships at Bydgoszcz in Poland.

Having started her career in coaching and PE teaching in the UK, Alison worked at the Australian Institute of Sport, first on a high performance coaching scholarship, then as a full-time national para throws coach, coaching athletes for the 2004 and 2008 Paralympic Games, including multiple medallists, before returning to Britain in 2011. Alison describes disability sport as “a really interesting area to work in as a coach - it improves your creativity and your coaching skillset.”

Alison has for many years provided work placement opportunities for LSI Masters rehab students where they work with the para athletes on warm-up and rehab aspects of their training programmes. MDX Associate Lecturer Alex Villiere, lead author of a study to produce an evidence-based sports classification system for wheelchair fencing, originally moved into the field after working with Taz Nicholls. Both Taz and Stacie Gaston-Monerville from Alison's squad are targetting next year's Commonwealth Games.

Women's F34 Shot Put final is on Tuesday 31st August

Women's F41 Discus final is on Wednesday 1st September

Women's F40 Shot Put final is on Saturday 4th September

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