Bold hands, warm hart

THE first thing that hits you whenever Ger Hartmann is in the room is the energy.

Last Monday evening in the University of Limerick sports arena, some of the biggest names in sport gathered for the launch of his book, Born To Perform. The cyclist Sean Kelly was present. Sonia O’Sullivan had flown back from Australia just to be there. From GAA, Brian Cody, Mickey Harte, Seamus Moynihan, Seán Óg Ó hAilpín and Brian Lohan also paid their respect to the best physical therapist they or anyone else would know.

What was really striking about the gathering though, wasn’t so much the big names as the sheer vitality most of them radiated.

There can’t be a fresher 38-year-old in Ireland than Tony Browne, a fitter 38-year-old woman on the planet than Paula Radcliffe, a fresher 58-year-old than Eamonn Coghlan, or a more vigorous 50-year-old than Hartmann himself. His energy is boundless, contagious and, by his own admission, a bit child-like and overpowering too.

“I think Frank O’Mara captured it best in the foreword when he talked about my ‘ebullience’ and how I’ve always been a little ‘over-zealous’ but when you get to understand the individual then you understand the ebullience.

“Tony Griffin [the former Clare hurling All Star who cycled across Canada for charity] is a lot like me. Tony lives in Killaloe and Keith Wood will see him coming down the street and often they’ll stop and they’ll chat because Keith really likes and respects the guy as a true sportsman and gentleman, one of life’s special people, really. But there are times when Keith will put his mobile to his ear, pretending he’s talking to someone, because he’ll feel he doesn’t have the stomach for Griff’s passion and enthusiasm that particular day. I know people can be the same with me. I’m a bit eccentric. Not everyone has the stomach for my energy, at least not every day...”

Ask him though if that ever concerned him or if he ever considered toning that ebullience down, Hartmann smiles and shrugs his shoulders.

“No, because it’s who I am. Why tone down who you are? I carry my life around people and they inspire me and I inspire them and together we’re happy people.”

In Gerard Hartmann’s eyes, we’re environmentally conditioned. He regularly visits the slums of Kenya and is always struck and uplifted by the smiles and the spirit of the locals. Closer to home, he feels we’re born to perform and born to be positive — but conditioned to be negative.

“If a child is scorned or given out to at a young age, then that’s what he’s likely to become himself.”

He knows this because he could have gone down a completely different path. He came from a loving and hugely respected family in Limerick society but in primary school he wasn’t just “tall and goofy” but a self-confessed “dosser and a messer”, a rebel and a bully, mainly because he was bullied himself.

The kids whom he towered over called him Daddy, as in Daddy Long Legs, or Big Bird or sometimes a particular variety, Ostrich. To stave off their taunts and threats, he’d act all tough, smoking cigarettes and even cigars behind the old prefabs and sometimes picking on kids that weren’t near his size. Looking back, he’d put a lot of it down to the company he was in at the time: some of his classmates, but especially his teachers.

“They were mean bastards, those Jesuits,” he says, more matter-of-factly rather than with any real sense of continuing anger.

“I mean, taking the leather out on a kid who is nine years of age and slapping them across the face? And this wasn’t just taking off the belt and giving you a few of the best; they’d have this leather device, about 16 inches long, made for purpose. Now, my father says it was worse in his time; back then they’d take down your pants and redden your arse which was tantamount to sexual abuse.

“We didn’t have it that bad but of the 29 of us in that class, three would take their own lives over the years. One of them killed himself right across from where I used to work. I was the first to find his body, splattered on the street.”

Back in their schooldays Hartmann and his cohorts would try to deal with the torrential terror in various other ways. They’d cook raw eggs and make stink bombs and leave them off in the teachers’ own bike shed but the leather would come back stronger than the smell. One day Hartmann was caught swallowing a wine gum in class. He was hauled to the front. Out with the right hand — four of the best. Out with the left — four more. Back of the hand — “Jesus, across the knuckles was very painful” — four more. Back of the other hand — another four. Then, one across the face.

Rather than turning the other cheek though, Hartmann had enough and dispensed some justice himself, giving the teacher’s leg a right feel of his Doctor Martens.

Naturally, Hartmann and that school parted company after but within the year he would find himself in a secondary school where he would thrive and which he would love. It too was run by a religious order but this one was altogether more Christian and holistic in its ethos. At Salesian College in Pallaskenry, over 12 miles away from Limerick city, a young Hartmann would discover the joys of birdwatching (“I knew all 128 Irish breeding birds — in Latin — by the time I was 13”), art class and, above all else, he’d discover himself.

Around about that time he had watched the 1972 Olympics on television and been mesmerised by the feats of Lasse Virén and at Salesian’s they’d give his newfound interest in sport and athletics every chance to flourish.

The sportsmaster, Father Martin Loftus, would let him get up early every morning to run before breakfast. On Fridays the geography teacher, Nuala Frost, would bring his schoolbag into Limerick so he could run the 12 miles back to his parents’ house freely. When he was 15 they let him run a 25-mile sponsored run into Limerick after he’d noticed no one was putting any money into the Trocaire boxes sprinkled around the school.

By the time he was 17 he’d won an athletic scholarship to America from where he’d return to Ireland with a degree in business administration and an obsessive interest in a new sport he’d discovered called the triathlon.

That relationship with the triathlon is a central theme in his fine book; in fact for a long time the book’s provisional title was Triathlon was My Life. He was one of the event’s great pioneers, winning seven national titles and finishing as high as 14th in the world Ironman in Hawaii.

“I loved it. I got so much more out of the triathlon years than I got out of the running years, even though I love running. It was this sense that it [the triathlon] was so new.

“It wasn’t just the racing but the training and the methodologies we came up with, like going up to St Enda’s where there was no lane swimming and you’d try to battleaxe through the old biddies who were just there for a chit chat in between doing their few breadths of the pool.”

Looking back, his love of the sport became an obsession. Hartmann has been married to Diane for the last five years and they’re expecting their second child within the next fortnight, but throughout his 20s and even for most of his 30s he hardly dated.

“I was too self-absorbed, I’d skip going out for dinner with my parents and sisters. I hadn’t a girlfriend. I was asked numerous times if I was gay but it wasn’t that I didn’t like girls; it was just that they were between me and my sport and would be wasting my time.

“I remember one lady who knew my family well taking me aside one night and saying, ‘You’re going to miss out on so much of life and end up with nothing’. She was right. I didn’t have the right balance in my life.”

The other issue he had in those years was what to do with the rest of his life. The day job was working in the family jewellery business which was over 120 years old and as the only son the expectation was that he would help keep it going for another 120. His real flair and passion though, was for sports physical therapy.

Since he was 15 he’d been reading books and writing notes on the subject and when he helped Frank O’Mara get right for a major championship, O’Mara convinced him his true calling wasn’t the jewellery trade. However, that calling wouldn’t sit well with his parents because, as Eamonn Coghlan observed last Monday, Mr and Mrs Hartmann were worried what the neighbours would think.

“I had two years of real anxiety, being out on bike rides, wondering how I was going to square this with my parents? I’m a lot like my mother — I get my ebullience and can-do attitude from her — but I knew I couldn’t go to her about this so when she was out one night at the flower club, I approached my father and told him, ‘Dad, I’m not happy working in the shop. Get rid of it’.

“I just decided that I wasn’t going to let someone else dictate what I was going to be; I was going to follow my own star.”

That star would take him to Florida. He was in his element there, training in the discipline that he loved, all the while competing in the event that he loved. In 1991 he was at the height of his athletic powers and eyeing a top-five finish in the world Ironman when he was cycling the prairies at 30mph until an armadillo scampered across the road. He was lucky he wasn’t run over by the cars behind him, but it effectively killed his triathlon career.

“I had four really tough, dark weeks after that,” he says, but he endured it to become a better physical therapist than he was ever a triathlete.

What is his knack? He doesn’t have all the doctorates that some of his rivals and critics have but what he does have is an incredible instinct and ability to totally empathise with athletes because he was once just like them: invincible, vulnerable, determined, despondent; he sees not so much a patient or client as a version of his former self. He invests himself totally in your treatment: if you come to him, no matter what way you are, he feels he has to get you right. Anything else is failing you and failing his talent.

“Physical therapy is tough. It’s literally hands on, full on. My barber cuts my hair in about 12 minutes all the while talking about the X-Factor to the people beside us. If I have Paula Radcliffe on the table for three hours, it’s hard, physical, painful stuff.”

He has a busy year ahead of him. He’ll be physical therapist to the Irish Olympic team. Radcliffe was over in Limerick for this past week and will be over at least another two times ahead of London. So will Usain Bolt, if Hartmann doesn’t treat him some time in London. He believes in Bolt.

“I don’t fully believe in the Jamaican system but I believe in Bolt. He’s just one of those freaks of nature. I know now I worked with drug-assisted athletes early in my career even though I didn’t know it at the time. I wouldn’t work with Bolt or anyone else if I believed they were on drugs.”

He is conscious he only has so many Olympic cycles in him, or at least in his hands. He had them X-rayed last year and there wasn’t a bone out of line or a hint of arthritis but though he takes great strength from the fact his father is still going strong at 83, 12 years after being told he had cancer and just six months to live (“That’s the power of faith and going to Mass twice a day”), Hartmann Junior knows he won’t be running his palms and breaking down all that tissue when he’s 80 himself.

“My biggest challenge going forward now is to connect with the 18-23-year-old age group. I’m aware I have to adapt, that as I get older I’ll become more of a mentor and educationalist. The hands won’t last forever.”

The ebullience will though. Next month Marcus O’Sullivan and Frank O’Mara are coming over from the States and the three of them will meet up and the banter will be just like it was in the old days.

“You know what it is?” smiles Hartmann.

“We’re still feckin’ boys with toys really. We never change, deep down. We might all have our big jobs and Frank might have made his millions but we’re still bloody kids. I wear a tracksuit every day. I can still go up to Frank and give him the same bearhug I used give him back when we were kids growing up in Limerick back in the 70s. There’s a lot of jiving going on and that’s the fellowship of sport and that’s the brotherhood that I love.”

And that brotherhood love him. Who cares now what the neighbours think?

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