When Phillip Eaglesham first fell ill six years ago he was a powerful, clean-shaven Royal Marine who loved to play rugby when he wasn’t away working in some of the world’s most lethal war-zones.
He was on his second tour of Afghanistan, and himself and Julie had just become parents for a third time.
His journey since - contracting Q Fever, a rare and incurable condition that has left him wheelchair-bound - has taken him to the darkest place possible and it is no exaggeration to say Paralympic sport has saved his life.
The 34-year-old Dungannon man has a dark, hipster beard now, but didn’t grow it for straining designer coffees.
Illness radically changed his identity and he also grew it to hide from the endless queries about his condition.
Things got so bad that eventually he did not leave the house, spending days on end sitting in a darkened room, unable to see the light that so many tried to shine for him.
He didn’t even have the energy to play Lego or do jigsaw puzzles with his three gorgeous boys and became so depressed that, two years ago, he seriously contemplated suicide.
“I’d just had enough of the deterioration and the impact it was having on my wife, the kids, others around me,” he admitted.
But yesterday there he was, competing for Ireland in the qualifying round of Paralympic shooting’s R5 Mixed 10m air rifle prone competition.
Travis (13), Tyler (9) and Mason (6), their mum and paternal grandparents were all sitting less than 15m metres behind him, all kitted out in ‘Team Eaglesham’ t-shirts, with his eldest son clutching a fake-beard.
Phillip’s beard, initially designed for disguise and avoidance, has now been harnessed for a redemptive message to others.
His #PhilsBeard social media campaign is used to tell others that recovery from depression is possible with help and good humour. He discovered he could get involved in sport again through Help For Heroes’ sports’ campaign and the Paralympic movement gave Phil the will and the help and the humour to continue living because, crucially, it harnessing his inordinately competitive spirit.
“Physically I could see a score and see my progression, it made me feel normal again. It took me back to who I was probably more than anything else,” he explained.
It took him all the way to the Deodoro Shooting Centre in Rio yesterday, an unthinkable outcome a year ago as he only first shot, competitively, in a World Cup event in America last October. That lack of experience got to him yesterday when his concentration seemed to wilt in the heat of Paralympic competition.
He opened with a poor string of 103.7 points and while he followed it with three solid rounds of 105.5 or more to get into the top 20 he faltered again, with finishing strings of 103.2 and 103.5 to end in 30th place. Only the top eight of 34 shooters made the final. His score of 626.3 points was only eight off making that but, in a sport where you’re shooting at a full-stop and everything is calculated in millimetres, he was a long way off his best.
He was clearly disappointed but still made it to Rio and can see a brighter future, in life and in shooting.
“Maybe I was over-thinking things, rather than letting them happen but, by the time it comes around again in four year’s time, I’ll be a lot more experienced and a lot more competitive,” he said.
“The occasion of being here is different, your mind strays and your concentration goes and, with my condition, I just need to work on it a bit more,” he said. “I’d love to be there for Tokyo, it depends on my condition and if the funding is there, but we’re looking at it already,” he said.
“My health deteriorates every year but, luckily with shooting, it’s very adaptive. There was tetraplegic shooters on the line there today so, hopefully as I deteriorate, the adaptations will get even better.”
“The competition was good but that’s where I let my self down, I wasn’t as competitive as I wanted to be here,” he said regretfully.
“But the whole thing has been amazing, watching everyone else competing, representing Paralympics Ireland and being selected in an elite bunch of 48 athletes to come here. Not everyone in the world gets to call themselves a Paralympian so I’m happy.”
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