Cairns ironman: motor neurone sufferer to compete

Sharn McNeill will head to Cairns next month for an ironman event with the help of paramedic mate Craig Gruber and `Sharnie's Army`. Picture: SYLVIA LIBER

Sharn McNeill will head to Cairns next month for an ironman event with the help of paramedic mate Craig Gruber and `Sharnie's Army`. Picture: SYLVIA LIBER

When Bulli's Sharn McNeill takes on the Cairns ironman event next month, she'll have an army behind her - Sharnie's Army to be exact.

About 100 supporters will travel to Cairns for the June 8 ironman competition which the 31-year-old will tackle despite being diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of motor neurone disease.

But it's the support of one friend - paramedic Craig Gruber - that's the most inspirational. The 45-year-old will use a harness to pull Sharn's kayak in the 3.8-kilometre swim leg; he'll push her wheelchair on the 42.2-kilometre run and he'll cycle for 180 kilometres with her recumbent bike attached to his.

Sharn will assist as much as she is able, but with the disease causing her muscles to weaken and waste it is not a goal she can now achieve on her own.

"I've always wanted to complete an ironman event - and had done a half ironman before I was diagnosed," she said.

"It's been hard training - it's physically and mentally challenging - but I'm so close now to ticking that box so it's all positive."

A positive attitude is what's helped Sharn and her husband Russell deal with the July 2013 diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which carries a life expectancy of two to four years.

Friends, family and even complete strangers have also rallied - setting up a Shining4Sharn social media campaign to raise funds for treatment and equipment.

"Because of the muscle wastage I now have problems with walking and balance, lack of dexterity in both hands and chronic cramps and pain," Sharn said.

"I face daily challenges with basic things like showering and dressing, food preparation and moving about. I can't drive any more.

"When I get tired my speech lags a bit - communication is still possible at this stage but it is a challenge sometimes."

The pair will have to work hard on race day to complete the sections in the allocated cut-off times - but Craig is determined to do it for Sharn.

"When Sharn started getting sick and we realised it was more than just a training injury, and when it ultimately ended up being the worst-case scenario, I knew helping her achieve this goal was something I just had to do," he said.

Russell, who works as a paramedic with Craig, is thankful for his friend's sacrifice. "It's inspirational for me to see Sharn out training with Craig - it's something I wouldn't have been able to do for her," he said.

The couple is hoping to save up for trial treatments available in the US. For now though Cairns is the destination in their sights, and Sharn can't wait to see her supporters on the sidelines with the slogan "Sharnie's Army".

"It's always important to have goals and aspirations - things to strive for," she said. "That prevents you from focusing on some of the negative realities that come with this disease."

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