Teenager Erin O’Flaherty has been selected for the England Athletics Para Academy training programme – and she says Panathlon set her on the path to sporting success.

Erin was introduced to Panathlon whilst in Year 7 at Riddlesdown Collegiate in Croydon, South London. She went on to represent the school and the Borough in numerous competitions – and won the prestigious Hassan Ahmed Sporting Achievement Award in our annual Jack Petchey Foundation Outstanding Achievement Awards in 2019.

It was her achievements in Panathlon that persuaded staff at her school that she was able to take GCSE PE. They were concerned about the after-effects of a recent big operation, but she proved them wrong and got a B grade.

Panathlon not only gave her confidence and experience in competitive sport that she had never had before – it also led to a conversation at our 2017 London Secondary Final at the Copper Box Arena that changed her future.

Erin’s first meeting with Richard Chiasario in 2017

There, she met friend of Panathlon, Richard Chiasario, the former European champion and Paralympic T54 sprint and middle-distance wheelchair racer. He was the first to encourage Erin to take up wheelchair racing – and they are now occasional training partners! Erin is a member of the Velocity Wheelchair Racing Club, based at the David Weir Leisure Centre (she also trains alongside GB international Michael McCabe – another former Panathlete! – as they share the same coach Chris Parsloe).

Erin was born with twisted femurs and an undeveloped left hip and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy aged 11. She also has a syrinx (cyst) on her spinal chord which causes her chronic pain.

Now 19, Erin remembers: “All through primary school I wasn’t able to take part in PE like everyone else. Coming to my first Panathlon in Year 7 I had done no sport, so being able to compete with people who were like me and enjoy so many sports was amazing.

“I did Panathlon all the way from Year 7 to 11. It’s a mainstream school so there were very few wheelchair users. I wanted to do PE as one of my GCSE courses but some of the teachers didn’t think I was able enough to do it. But one PE teacher [Liz Johnson] used to take a small group of us who were in wheelchairs or who had physical needs to the side and she fought for me to do it. She told the other teachers about all the medals I’d won in Panathlons and the chances that gave me to compete. That was a big turning point.”

Another big moment was meeting Richard Chiasario at the Panathlon London Final at the Copper Box. “He was the one who told me I should do racing – and that’s where it all started,” says Erin. “I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet him if I wasn’t competing in Panathlon.”

Erin collecting her Jack Petchey Sporting Achievement Award in 2019

Receiving our JPF Hassan Ahmed Sporting Achievement Award in 2019 was another milestone. It was that PE teacher who believed in her, Liz Johnson, who nominated her for the award. That year, Erin had raised £900 for Evelina Children’s Hospital by competing in the London wheelchair mini-marathon.

After her GCSEs, she studied A levels in psychology, art and photography at Riddlesdown. She has just completed her first full competitive racing season – winning several races in the BWAA Grand Prix Series at Stoke Mandeville Stadium – and is currently ranked fourth in the UK in the T34 classification.

In January, she was selected for the England Athletics Para Academy, which supports English para athletes who have displayed potential for future selection to GB&NI senior teams and Team England at the Commonwealth Games.

Her long-term goal is to get into Team GB for the 2028 Paralympics in Los Angeles. The City of Angels is a long way from that first Panathlon in Croydon in Year 7, but as Erin says: “It just shows that you should never give up and chase your dreams.”