Louise Harrison talks to Paralympic shot putt athlete James McCarthy about his experiences at the London Games and finds a determined elite performer who is also very keen to help inspire the next generation
Limerickman and Paralympic athlete James McCarthy has vivid memories of the London Games. Inspired by Munster Rugby, he sang Stand up and Fight to himself, before throwing in his shot putt competition. Now he had his sights set on Rio - and he also hopes to inspire the next generation through coaching and sharing of his experiences.
James started his promising athletics career by becoming a junior world javelin champion in 1990. Since then he has competed with great success in track and field, wheelchair sprint, wheelchair basketball, rowing and shot putt at national and international championships. Next season will be his last in shot putt.
James’ first Olympics were in Atlanta. After a 16-year gap due to injuries, loss of form and other events beyond his control, he achieved 13th place in shot putt in the London Paralympic Games.
“It was fabulous really. From Team Ireland point of view I think the fact that we all bonded so well, it was an immense honour to wear the national jersey,” he said.
Weeks before the London games James sustained an ankle injury which upset his training routine. He decided however, not to have his leg strapped on the day of the competition.“You control the controllables,” is one of his mantras. The things he could control were putting on his number, his warm-up, when to eat, when to wake and what transport bus to take. The uncontrollables were weather, officials, delays, the crowd, “even the competitors, you have no control over those”.
On the day of his competition James routinely went through a series of calls and checks before getting to the stadium until, “it’s literally you with the bag. You can feel the vibration, you can hear the noise and you say, ok this is getting a bit real. So I was singing a couple of songs to myself to chill. Then you either live off it or you get swamped by it.”
He visualised himself in Thomond as part of the Munster team in the dressing room on Heineken Cup day, “fifteen lads out there together in the Munster jersey. Suddenly you are not alone.”
Since the Games James eased back into his routines by returning to his work in the Department of Social Protection at University of Limerick. This month he will return to training with his sights set on rowing in Rio.
A typical day for him will be to rise at 6.15am. Gym for 7am, work at 9am until 5pm, back to the gym, home 8pm. Eat, be in bed for 11pm. “That was it for four years. When it’s rowing it’s worse than that because I’d be on the water at 6.15 in the morning. That’s the life of an athlete I suppose, it’s a lot easier during competition phase because you are getting a lie-in until 7am!”
He trains at the UL Arena: “I’m on a bench press, Jerry Flannery is on one side and Paul O Connell on the other - three elite athletes and you can have the banter with the lads because they know what it’s about.”
James has been asked to coach in Limerick which he says feels like a natural progression and he will take exams for the coaching badges in November: “The buzz word for London was to inspire a generation so my wish would be, if I don’t make Rio, to maybe get someone to Rio who if I didn’t help them may not get there. And that would be unreal.”
Sport has contributed more to his life than just the competitions and he is keen to encourage others. “Professionally, without the sport, I wouldn’t have got through interviews in the civil service and promotion without my confidence from the sport.”
In coaching his aspirations would be to “educate the parents so that they realise, OK he or she is going to get injured, but just because you’re on a chair, don’t stop them, let them express themselves.”
James says many children are in mainstream education, where “you are different, you are the person with the disability, whereas when you go to the sports, you are just another person with a disability and you go from a world where people are afraid because you are the only one. You are now in a whole group where people are the same, difficulties and the same achievements and I think that’s important from the social aspect as well.
“To wear the jersey was an honour but you have to honour the wearing of the jersey,” said James, who would like to visit schools and talk with advocacy groups. “You know, I think it’s definitely up to the likes of myself to show that, OK, just because I have a disability, you can’t have disability without ability.
“If people want to look at me as a role model I think it is an honour. There are so many fabulous sporting people in this city let alone this country - if I’m spoken in the same breath as them, then that’s an honour as well.”