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Cork trio throwing for glory

Thursday, 9th August, 2018 9:06am

Even for a county as well-represented in sport as Cork, to have three Leesiders competing on the international stage is a treat.

That’s exactly what will happen at this year’s World Para Athletics European Championships, which take place from the 20-26 August.

Cork Paralympians Niamh McCarthy, Orla Barry and Noelle Lenihan will all be competing for the top prizes in discus throwing when the event kicks off in a couple of weeks.

For Niamh McCarthy, the journey to medal podiums has been a whirlwind. Taking up the sport less than five years ago, she entered her first competition in 2013 and has gone on to win a silver medal at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, as well as a silver at last year’s World Championships.

Niamh, who competes in the F41 classification, has an unusual story of getting into discus-throwing. “I was dropping a letter off to a solicitor for my mother, and the solicitor asked me what condition I had,” she remembers. “I was offended at first, but he got chatting to my mother about disability sports, and I softened when I realised his son also had a form of dwarfism.”

“He told my mother about Rebel Wheelers, which is great for getting kids involved in disability sports.”

Having initially had little interest, Niamh went along to a talent-ID session in Dublin for Paralympics Ireland, and tried out the discus for the first time.

“It was only a few weeks later that they got onto me and wanted to classify me. They had chosen the ten people with the most potential on the day, and I was one of them.”

A chance happening indeed, but Niamh’s career trajectory since has been anything but. She won bronze in the 2015 World Championships in Doha, Qatar, before picking up a silver medal at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio, Brazil.

Niamh moved to Dublin to focus fully on athletics before Rio in 2016, but nowadays works part-time with Dell EMC as a way to balance her sport and career (“I don’t work very well as a full-time athlete,” she admits).

Despite a packed training schedule, she says her employers support her every step of the way.

“It’s really hard when you’re an athlete to be able to further your career at the same time,” she admits. “But my employers are very supportive of my sport. I have coaches and physios both in Cork and Dublin, who liaise with each other, and my boyfriend lives in Kildare, so between there, Cork and Dublin I do a fair amount of mileage in a year!”

Despite winning silver at last year’s World Championships in London, Niamh says she performed “extremely poorly” at the event. She says 2017 was “tough” due to illness and injury, but says this year has been her best yet.

“I’ve finally worked out the magic formula in terms of coaching and everything. I’ve been training with the coach Jeff Gomez in the Mardyke, which has really helped my gym work. There’s a high-performance athlete’s programme there which has been a massive thing for me.”

2018 has seen Niamh’s performance step up a level, closing the gap between her and her closest competitor, Tunisia’s Raoua Tlili, to within two metres.

“I don’t think I’m realistically going to be finished with this sport until I get a gold medal,” she assures. “I think with two years until the Toyko Games, this year has put me in a really good position. I’ve maintained my level all year too, which is great.”

Along with Niamh, Orla Barry and Noelle Lenihan will also be competing in the discus event in Berlin. Barry, a two-time Paralympic medal winner, competes in the F57 category while 18 year old Noelle Lenihan competes in F38.

With the European Championships in Berlin just around the corner, Niamh – the current European record holder – arguably has her best chance so far of securing the coveted gold medal.

So is she expecting gold?

“Yes!” she laughs. “I’m not expecting to be threatened there, because the majority of my classification wouldn’t be too competitive in Europe. It’s hard because my top competitors are mainly outside of Europe. If I come away with a personal best it’d be great, but it’s not my main aim.”

Clearly not one to kick back and do nothing when she does get a break, Niamh’s hobby of choice outside discus? Skydiving.

“I joined the Skydiving Society when I was in UCC,” she explains of her heart-stopping pastime. “I hit my 100th jump earlier this year, and later on this year I’ll go on an ‘Irish invasion’ trip to Seville with a huge group of Irish skydivers, so that’s something I’m looking forward to.”

Niamh assures that she refrains from jumping during her training periods, laughing that she uses wind tunnels as an alternative hobby as there is “less risk of death”.

With the amount and quality of talent on display in Berlin, the European Championships could be a golden one for Cork sport.

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