Posted on Monday 20th July, 2020

Neelam O’Neill admires her coach Mike Johnson so much she has adopted the motto #GottaBeLikeMike.

“He’s just everything, like he’s just Mike,” she laughs. “I look up to him quite a lot, cause he’s just such a fun-loving guy and he has so much knowledge and skills around shooting and he’s been in the game for 14-plus years.”

“He’s definitely my biggest inspiration to get further in my shooting. So I do have my hashtag “Gotta be like Mike” but now I’ve gotta be like Neelam.”

The 27-year-old Auckland-based para shooter grew up in Whangarei, where she learned to shoot cans with her stepfather when she was just seven years old. She began shooting competitively at 15 while at high school. 

“My team got top 20 so I worked every Friday night up until the next competition, joined teams with two of my friends and we ended up getting first in New Zealand, which was pretty cool.”

Neelam O’Neill was drawn to the inclusive nature of para shooting and its reliance on mental sharpness. “You could be competing against an able-bodied person and a person in a wheelchair and sport doesn’t change. I reckon anybody can shoot. It’s a 10 per cent action, 90 per cent mental game,” she explains.

Neelam was born with lipomyelomeningocele, a form of spina bifida, but says she was never treated differently to her able-bodied sister. “My parents always had the rule of if you can do it, you do it, so that means chores as well as doing everything any regular kid would do. I had to wash dishes and put away clothes. I didn’t introduce myself going, ‘Hi, I’m Neelam, I’ve got spina bifida’.”

“You could be competing against an able-bodied person and a person in a wheelchair and sport doesn’t change. I reckon anybody can shoot. It’s a 10 per cent action, 90 per cent mental game.”

Mike, who has himself represented New Zealand in para shooting at four Paralympics, says his protege is unusually gifted. “She could literally pick up any rifle or any piece of equipment and be naturally good at it. And not everyone has that ability. 

Neelam, who competes in the 10-metre indoor air rifle and is fully self-funded, barely missed out on qualifying for the Rio Paralympics in 2016. Her buildup for Tokyo took a major knock last year when her beloved grandfather died. One of her most passionate supporters, he loved to boast to his friends about his granddaughter’s growing collection of medals, and Neelam is still coming to terms with his loss. “Shooting is more of a mental game than physical and I couldn’t shoot for a very long time,” she says.

Having Mike as a support, and being able to focus her efforts on shooting when she was ready to get back into it, was incredibly helpful. “He’s such a cool, easy-going guy, very humble,” says Neelam of her coach. 

Story created by Tower Insurance.

Find out the other Extraordinary person stories on Corrie RobinsonCody Everson and Emma Foy.