Paralympian Olivia Breen: It’s really important for disabled people to know there is a life out there for them

The sprinter and long jumper, who has cerebral palsy and hearing impairment, is ‘feeling really good’ as Paris 2024 gets closer. By Abi Jackson.

Breen says her hearing aids have changed her life
Olivia Breen in a photo shoot for GN's 'The New Norm' campaign to remove stigma around hearing aids Breen says her hearing aids have changed her life

Olivia Breen is not the biggest fan of sitting still.

“I like being busy. I’m not very good at chilling, which my coach goes crazy at me about,” says the Paralympic sprinter and long jumper, 27.

Skipping downtime doesn’t seem to have dented her success, however. Breen, who competes for Wales and GB, is currently preparing for the 2024 Paris Paralympics later this summer (her third Paralympics).

She scooped a bronze medal in the T35-38 4x100m relay at the London 2012 Games, and in 2017 became T38 long jump World Champion, before taking the top spot in the same event at the Commonwealth Games a year later. Tokyo 2020 saw her finish with another bronze.

So, how’s the training for 2024 going?

“It’s all going really well. I can’t quite believe how close it’s getting now,” says Breen, who is at a training camp in Turkey when we speak. “My season starts in mid-May, and then it will just carry on to the Paralympics. I’m really excited, and I’m feeling really good. Just getting stronger, working on technique, and fingers crossed it just gets better,” she adds. “I’ve had a really good winter, so I’m feeling really positive about it.”

It isn’t just training that keeps her busy, though. Breen, who is deaf and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at age two, is also a keen disability advocate and ambassador for four charities, regularly giving talks.

“I like going to talk to kids and trying to inspire the next generation. I think it’s really important for disabled people to know that there is life out there for them as well,” she says.

For her, discovering athletics was a turning point. Breen, who contracted a meningitis type illness at birth and spent a month in a hospital special care unit, also has some learning difficulties and school was challenging at times. But in sports lessons, she excelled, finding a sense of confidence and passion in the process. It’s why she “100%” believes encouraging children to try different things and embrace their individual strengths, whatever they might be, is important.

“When I was getting into athletics, it actually really helped me focus in class more and helped my grades go up, which was quite surprising. I was like, ‘Wow, this is crazy’, but it really helped me,” she recalls.

“I think it’s really important to encourage young kids to get into sport and try different sports as well, because you never know what you’re going to be good at. You may hate it, you may love it, and when you find the one you love and you’re good at, just keep doing it. You’ll have days where it’s not going to be great, but don’t ever give up and keep trying.”

Olivia Breen with her gold medal at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham
Olivia Breen with her gold medal at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham (Martin Rickett/PA)

She knows what a difference representation and inclusivity can make. “I think it’s just knowing if you’ve got a disability, you can do things,” says Breen. “There is a way in life for you.”

Her relationship with her hearing aids has changed over the years, she admits.

“I didn’t wear hearing aids until I was four years old, so I was quite late. And at first I didn’t like them, because they felt really heavy and bulky, and people were like, ‘Urgh, what’s that in your ear?’, you know? But as I got older, I quite liked being different and unique, and I would always go for the bright colours, really funky and out there,” she adds. “And they’ve made such a difference, they’ve been amazing.”

Breen recently teamed up with hearing technology company GN on their ‘The New Norm’ photography campaign, aimed at busting stigma around living with hearing loss and hearing aids.

“It’s just incredible how much the technology is improving,” says Breen. “I’m so grateful to GN, they’ve given me different hearing aids as well for sprinting and the long jump, as well as one for everyday life. They’ve made such a difference.”

Taking part in the campaign photo shoot along with other hearing aid users was “really special”, she recalls. “Being deaf is part of our lives, and it’s a community, which is really lovely,” says Breen. “And it’s amazing what hearing aids can give to people’s lives, it helps us every day.”

With the Paris Games being her third Paralympics, does coping with the pressure get any easier?

“I think because this is my job basically and what I do for a living, I put more pressure on myself, but I perform well under pressure,” Breen reflects. “It’s just [about] controlling it, making sure on the day you don’t overthink it, and trust yourself and your coach that you’ve done all the hard work. And hopefully, it all comes together.”

She’s always set goals for herself.

“Because I’m very ambitious, and I know that I want to do well and get better and keep improving,” says Breen. “So, I always set myself goals for the year, and then hopefully it goes to plan.

“And if it doesn’t, then you’ve learned – I sit down with my coach and say, ‘OK, what could we have done better? What can we do next year?’ But this year, the plan is going really well so it’s looking really promising.”

And if she does manage to fit in some relaxing, it’ll probably be “going for a walk – I love going in the fresh air and listening to a podcast, that kind of thing,” says Breen.

“And sometimes watching Netflix, but that doesn’t happen very often.”

Olivia Breen is part of GN’s The New Norm campaign, a collection of images available on Unsplash aiming to tackle the visual misperception of modern hearing aids which contributes to the high level of untreated hearing loss.