Dr Patrick O’Leary lives in Galway with his wife Jude and children Sean, 10, and Joe, 8. He lectures in organic chemistry at NUIG and, in September, will be Ireland’s first para-canoeist to compete in the Paralympics. He qualified for Rio by winning the KL3 B final at last month’s World Para-Canoeing Championships in a new personal best time. He has been canoeing for 26 years but only in para-canoeing for the past three.
Q: You’re 43 years of age but a relative newcomer to Paralympic sport. Why?
When I was doing my Leaving Cert in 1991 I got an irritation in my knee and discovered I had cancer in my femur, right behind my kneecap.
I had chemo that summer and had my knee replaced with a metal knee joint which lasted until 2006 when I had to get it replaced.
Q: So you compete with a false knee?
No, with a prosthetic left leg. When I had that second knee replacement I got an infection which blew up really badly in 2010.
I needed a series of operations but none could cure it. They couldn’t get the infection off the metal. If they treated me with antibiotics I’d get well but when I’d go off them, it’d come back on the metal and I’d get sick again.
In the summer of 2011 I just said to the doctors, ‘This is only going one way. Amputate the leg and get me well.”
Q: That must have been a horrendous decision to have to make?
Yes it was, particularly because I had two small children at the time. But it was coming for a while and, to be fair, I felt better the day after the operation than the day before.
That was some indication of how much it was affecting my health. Gary O’Toole (former Olymic swimmer, now surgeon) did the operation.
Q: How quickly were you back walking afterwards and, subsequently, competing in sport?
The operation took place on November 30, 2011. I was out of hospital in three days and back on my legs in February.
The first time I sat into a boat again was April 1, 2012 and the first time I raced was a full year later.
Q: So you were already an experienced paddler?
I grew up in Glasheen in Cork, on the Lee Road, and Mr O’Connor in Colaiste an Spioraid Naomh first introduced us to canoeing when we were in fifth year.
I did lots of sport when I was younger, like gymnastics and athletics (throws) and represented Ireland in shot putt at international schools’ level.
Then I did lots of canoeing and paddled, at international level, in canoe polo teams but that was a much more social thing. I’m canoeing now at a higher level than I ever did before.
Q: Was sport, and the aim of getting back to it, an integral part of your recovery?
Yes. I swim a lot as well and, as soon as I got healthy, I always said I’d get back to sport. The first time I got back on the water I could only paddle for 10 minute.
I felt like crap but I was delighted. It’s a sanity thing as much as anything else, though people probably think it’s an insanity thing the way I do it! When you’re training you can leave your head go. It is living in the moment, like a form of mindfulness.
Q: Did you have to modify your boat or technique?
Once I decided I was getting my leg amputated, my first thought was ‘How do you steer a K1?’ Normally you have a bar that comes out of the footrest and you put your feet either side of it and slide it right or left to steer but, with one leg, how’d you do that?
Now I have two bars and I slide my foot between the two bars to get purchase. A good friend of mine from Cork, who is a welder, has done all of the metalwork for me, including the steering mechanism.
Q: Could you not steer with your prosthetic foot?
Someone with a below-knee amputation can paddle wearing their prosthetic leg but it’s very difficult to get an above-knee prosthesis into the boat.
So I have a prosthetic socket that I bolt onto the inside of it and I slip my stump into that. That gives me the purchase I need.
Q: Any other modifications to para-canoeing boats?
If you’ve ever sat in a K1 you’d know they fall over easy, they’re very tippy! So our boats have to be slightly wider for balance reasons. That also makes them slightly slower but it’s still a flat-out sprint for over 40 seconds.
Q: Where do you train and how much?
In winter I do 12-13 sessions a week, mixed between out on the water, swimming and the gym.
I have a canoeing version of a rowing ergometer in my shed that I use in winter, but in summer, I’m on the weir near the university seven to nine times a-week.
I’m ideally set up. I can get on the water before work and be at my desk 10 minutes after I finish and, at lunchtime, do my swims and gym in the Kingfisher Leisure Centre at the college.
Q: How many boats do you have?
Haha! That’s like asking a cyclist how many bikes they have, you don’t want to do the maths!
I don’t actually own my own para-boat but I have access to four, and also have access to several able-bodied boats and a K2 (two-man) as well.
Q: How quickly did you progress in para-canoeing?
It’s a relatively new sport but the standard internationally is jumping every year. I’m the only one actually para-canoeing in Ireland so I can say I’m outstanding in my field!
The first year I competed internationally I was 14th at Worlds and ninth in Europeans. The top nine gets you to the A final so that was a big step. The second year I was ninth at Worlds and fourth at Europeans.
Q: You lived in Holland for two years and your Twitter handle is @eentjebeen, which is Dutch for ‘just one leg’. Looks like you have absolutely no hang-ups about your impairment?
No! I enjoy being the fastest person in the swimming pool and then getting out and people looking at you, thinking ‘Oh shit, I’ve been beaten by a guy with one leg!’ Out on the weir, I’ll see a junior rowing four and think ‘I’ll get there before them’ and you’ll hear their coach shouting ‘C’mon, you’re being beaten by a guy with one leg!’
Q: What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened?
I was in a swimming pool once where there were no locks on the lockers. This kid was running around like a lunatic, opening all the lockers and his father was going mad with him.
Then the kid opened my locker and my leg fell. He completely lost it. I turned to the father and said ‘Well, that’s sorted your problem there anyway!’
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