"An 18-year old is sort of the perfect person to go through that. They kinda think they are indestructible. Well, I did.”
Dr Patrick O’Leary, sitting in his office in NUIG, is reflecting on his younger self, at the curveball fired in his direction two months before the beginning of his Leaving Cert.
It began with an irritation in his left knee. The irritation would not shake and so an x-ray was done. Further tests confirmed it was cancer of the femur.
The diagnosis, delivered in April of 1991, was to prove the first of many obstacles life would throw at the native of Glasheen Road in Cork city. But as with every challenge to land on the plate of Ireland’s first paracanoeist and soon-to-be two-time paralympian, he met it with admirable realism.
The final few weeks of Leaving Cert cramming were interrupted by his first round of chemotherapy treatment at the Mater Private. A long break before his final exam, Applied Maths, enabled him to undergo further chemo while the Leaving Cert was ongoing.
Surgery that summer saw his left knee replaced with a metal joint. It was, says the now 47-year old, a temporary fix. He knew the day would come where he would say goodbye to his left leg. And we’ll take him at his word when he tells us he was never in denial about this eventuality.
“There wasn’t really frustration, to be honest. You can’t fight City Hall.
“If you do really well, you can get 15 to 20 years out of a knee replacement. By the time you have replaced the knee two or three times, it becomes harder. I knew I wasn’t going to die an 80-year-old with two legs.”
A second knee replacement procedure was carried out in 2006. But in 2011, after two years of continuous infection where the metal was located, O’Leary made the call. Amputation.
“It happened a bit earlier than I would have liked. It was not the nicest of processes when it did happen, but I suppose I had come to terms with that possibility a long time ago. I was very comfortable with the decision to lose my leg when I made it.
“Post-surgery was tough, but you get up, get on with it, and move on. That sounds very casual, and I am sure it wasn’t that casual at the time, but there was an element of what choice did I have. [Amputation] was the only way of getting healthy, so you do it.
“I am there sitting on the bed with one leg so what choice do I have other than to figure out how this works and and how life is going to work now. I felt better the day after my amputation than I did the day before, which is saying something really.
“Cappagh Hospital, where (former swimmer) Gary O’Toole performed the amputation, put me in touch with people who had previously lost their leg and who also had the same outlook on life as I did. That was a huge help. I saw how they were coping and I knew, ultimately, that’s how I would end up.”
Three months post-surgery, O’Leary, having had his prosthetic leg fitted, was back on his feet.
Five months post-surgery, he was back on the water.
The father of two did not take up paracanoeing because he now qualified for the sport as a result of having lost a limb. It wasn’t a case of attempting to make the most of his new reality. He was simply getting back to his old self.
O’Leary first began paddling while in secondary school at Coláiste an Spioraid Naoimh, Bishopstown. And with his family having relocated to the Lee Road during his teens, the stretch of the River Lee which runs parallel to the Lee Fields, a haven for water enthusiasts in the city, was now on his doorstep. There, and the reservoir behind the dam in nearby Inniscarra is where he honed his craft.
The muscle memory of 20 years stroking the water was a key factor in him rising to international level within a year and a half of amputation.
A sixth place finish in the KL3 200m sprint canoe final at the 2016 Games left him immensely proud, but as he pulled his boat out of Rio’s Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, O’Leary was fairly certain that was the book closed on his Paralympic dream. After all, he’d be closing in on his 48th birthday by the time Tokyo swung around. And as well as fighting father time, his job as a chemistry lecturer mushroomed in 2018 when he was appointed Head of the School of Chemistry at NUIG.
Serving as department head means he has responsibility for roughly 16 academic, 10 technical, and two admin staff, 20 post-docs, 50 PhD students, and 65 fourth year students, with the latter figure gradually increasing all the way down to first year where there are 800 students.
You’d think there’s enough of a workload there without subjecting oneself to 5am starts and an hour and a half on a customised ergometer in the garden shed before he and his wife Jude get the boys (Sean, 13, and Joe, 11) up and out for school.
“My own philosophy is there is room in anyone’s life for three things. I have room for work, training, and family. But that means there is room for nothing else. I don’t have a social life. When I started back paddling, I would have been a big Munster Rugby fan. I had been going to Thomond Park pretty regularly. But as time went on, I went from attending matches, to watching matches on television, to listening to matches on the radio as I trained.”
Not at all content with life in the slow lane, O’Leary took up va’a paracanoeing in 2018 after it was confirmed for the Tokyo Games. As well as having to adapt to a new boat, the va’a paddle has only one blade, as opposed to two when kayaking.
“If the new event wasn’t in Tokyo, I probably would have sailed into the sunset. I said I’d give the va’a my damnedest, even if it requires a completely different skillset. Because you are only stroking the water on one side, it is a job to keep the boat straight. It’s a bit like asking Sam Bennett to become a world class uni-cyclist.”
At the moment, he is ranked fifth in the world in his va’a classification.
Beyond Tokyo and whatever it may bring, O’Leary looks forward to continuing to live life to the fullest. He has a disability, but not a hindrance.
“There is nothing I cannot do. There are a couple of things I’d like to be able to do better, but there is nothing I can’t try to do. When I swim in the sea, my modus operandi would always have been not to check the water before I get in, just dive straight in. I can’t do that anymore because I am hopping. Oh, and you haven’t experienced pain till you have hopped on lego, on one leg. That’s the level I think about in terms of disadvantages.
“When getting out onto the River Corrib where I train, most people just arrive in their car, put on their gear, carry the boat to water, hop in, and paddle away.
“For me, I bring the boat down into the water, back up to the car to get changed, take off my leg, hop back down to the boat, and get in.
“It takes me a little longer, but it doesn’t stop me doing what I want to do.”