When it was over, Pat O’Leary strapped back on his left leg and walked off down the pontoon in Rio de Janeiro’s spectacular Lagoa Stadium to find his family.
As he headed for the grandstand, the magnificent panorama of the Paralympic’s first ever canoeing venue, a lake close to the ocean, overlooked by forested mountains and crowned by Christ The Redeemer, opened up before him.
In the shimmering haze of another sweltering Brazilian day, it must surely have looked like a mirage. Less than five years ago the 43-year-old NUIG chemistry lecturer, originally from the Lee Road in Cork, had to make the horrific decision of telling a surgeon to go ahead and amputate his leg.
That was 20 years after his problem first started, when cancer was detected behind his kneecap just before he did his Leaving Cert in Coláiste An Spioraid Naomh, where Mr O’Connor first introduced him to paddling.
He got a prosthetic knee initially but when it was replaced in 2006 and got repeatedly infected, he had to eventually lose the leg.
He wasn’t yet 40 and had two young boys and, apart from how it would affect his family, his greatest worry was whether he would be able to get back in a kayak again.
He was out of hospital in three days, back walking in little more than two months, back in a boat in five and competing again in a year.
Yesterday, he safely progressed through the first two rounds of Paralympics’ 200m flat water sprints to reach today’s KL3 final (2.10pm Irish time).
No one outside of himself and his wife Jude will ever know how difficult it has been because Pat deflects all challenges and queries with a quiet, dry wit. His Twitter handle ‘@eentjebeen’ is Dutch for ‘just one leg.’
His children Sean (10) and Joe (8), who regularly use their Lego to recreate his canoeing races, have been known to represent him on their podium with a single toy leg. The pale-skinned Irish paddler joked yesterday that Rio’s “the apparel police” wouldn’t let him wear his trademark bandana so he had to suffer the indignity of wearing a baseball cap backwards and slobber himself in “Factor 60!”
But it was clear that the enormity of what he had just achieved since that fateful operation on November 30 2011, finally hit him in the post semi-final interviews as he sat on the dock with his prosthetic leg lying beside him.
“Did I ever think I’d be here?” he mused before taking a pause to compose himself.
“I don’t know. All I hoped initially was I’d be able to get into a boat again and paddle. I did that,” he said, his voice cracking again.”And you know it’s step by step. Today is a step as well.”
For a man with one leg, this was his mightiest step ever. He was third in his heat in 45.97 seconds, and, within an hour, went even faster when third in the semi-final in 44.13.
Afterwards he paid tribute to his coach Neil Fleming and Paralympics’ Ireland’s pre-championship training camp in Uberlandia for helping him perfect the technique and power to come through strongly in the second half of both races.
“I always said my first half was stronger but I’ve made significant technical changes and the second race there was technically much better, I held the speed much better.
“The training’s finally paying off,” he laughed. “It took four years for my coach Neil to beat it into me but eventually I seem to have retained it.”
Nicking bronze would be the summit of his ambition today as the top two medals look likely to be fought out by the reigning world champion Tom Kierey (GB), last year’s Worlds’ runner-up Serhii Yemelianov (Ukraine) and local favourite Caio Rebeiro de Carvalho, whose time of 43:03 was only bettered by Kierey yesterday.
But O’Leary has clearly never met a challenge in life that he didn’t relish, like many of his competitors.
New Zealand’s Scott Martlew, who also made the final, had his leg amputated as a teenager after he got a dead leg playing rugby and contracted necrotising fasciitis, a rare bacterial skin infection.
“It’s all about performance for me now,” O’Leary said.
“You’re in a laned race, you just go as fast as you can and that’s it, you are actually racing yourself,” he explained.
“I know how bloody hard I’ve worked to get here so if there’s guys ahead of me fair dues. All I can do is go as hard as I can. There’s no pressure on me. I’m going in ranked seventh, that was my ranking coming in here and my ranking on today’s performances.
“There’s a couple of guys within spitting distance of me so hopefully I can knock one or two of them off and then we’ll see what comes,” he added cheerfully.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved