What do you do after winning a Paralympic silver medal less than four years after taking up competitive sport?
You pack up your parachute harness and throw yourself out of planes again of course!
Carrigaline’s Paralympian Niamh McCarthy, 22, actually had to quit one great passion for another this year when, to her great surprise, she found herself competing in and finishing runner-up in the F41 discus final at the Rio Paralympics.
Others are often equally surprised to find that skydiving is McCarthy’s other great sporting obsession, something she first discovered amongst the network of clubs and activities in UCC.
Her unusual hobby had to be put on hold for the past 12 months while her international athletics career took off, first with bronze at last year’s World Championships, then silver and an area record at this year’s European Championships before culminating in her Paralympic high.
But the first chance McCarthy got she was back in a harness again in November, on a week’s holiday with a group of like-minded adrenalin junkies in a skydiving centre outside Seville.
“My last jump was in June 2015 so it was great to get back. I got 10 jumps from 15,000ft, with about 65-70 seconds of free fall in them,” she says.
That took her log-book to 85 jumps: “The high diminishes somewhat because you get used to it the more you dive, but those first few minutes are still very intense and freeing. There’s also skills you can develop in free fall, that’s what I was doing in Spain, some formation work with others.”
McCarthy was only 17 when she did her first sky dive in the Irish Parachute Club in Offaly in November 2011.
They had to adapt a harness to fit her because her height is 4’4” but she immediately staved off any safety worries by getting her own customised ‘rig’ for her 18th birthday present.
With the World Para-Athletics Championships in London next summer McCarthy’s swearing off the high diving again until afterwards because: “I don’t want to scare Paralympics Ireland!”
Did they actually ban her?
“Ah no… but it’s a bit frowned upon,” she chuckles.
“I’ve always loved challenges, so having to perform some acrobatic skill in the sky while you’re technically rushing towards your death at 120 miles-an- hour, that’s all part of the fun!” she quips.
“It’s nice to do something out of the ordinary and there’s also that community thing about it. It doesn’t matter what age you are, what job you have or where you live, you’re just a skydiver. Some of my friends are women in their ‘60s. You meet loads of different people and get to travel with it. It’s nearly like being in the cage for discus. It doesn’t matter what’s going on outside it.
“You’re there to do one thing and one thing only and that’s all you can think about. The rest can wait.”
They may look worlds apart but both of her sports involve precision and an ice-cool head, something McCarthy showed in spades when she clinched silver in Rio by pulling out her longest throw (26.67m) in the fifth round.
Yet she could easily have fallen through the sporting cracks.
Back in the Autumn of 2012 her mum asked her to drop a letter into a Cork solicitor.
She likes to be described simply as “a small person” so initially bristled when he asked what “her condition” was but soon softened on discovering that his son had achondroplasia (a form of dwarfism) and was involved in disability sport.
“He suggested to my mother that I should get involved and told her about the Rebel Wheelers who are really good for getting kids in Cork involved in disability sport.”
McCarthy’s personal detachment from organised sport was largely down to a peripatetic upbringing.
“I lived in Ireland until I was eight, then was in England for a year and then in France until just before I was 16. Moving around a lot put a dent in things sports-wise but, in primary school I was on a sprint team and there was a couple of years where I did gymnastics as well.”
As luck would have it Paralympics Ireland were having one of their ‘talent-ID days’ that winter so, not long after that prompt, she went to UCD and tried out a variety of sports.
“I didn’t even know what the discus was, I probably only threw it a couple of times and then walked onto the next activity,” she admits.
However Paralympics Ireland spotted her potential, called her back for a series of physiological tests and, within a month, she was in their fast-track programme. It wasn’t all plain sailing, though.
“At the start I was 18-19 and a student and you’re missing out on holidays and stuff with your friends, especially when I stopped going to college altogether to train.
“That wasn’t the nicest choice to make but something had to give at that point,” she explains.
“I felt I had to give the whole athletics thing a chance at that stage. Even though I knew nothing about the sport I quickly realised it wasn’t something I could half-arse, it was either all or nothing, so there were hard decisions and struggles,” she admits.
McCarthy was working part-time but, in the run-up to the Games, trained full-time and moved to Dublin for training.
She has deferred her course in UCC (biological and chemical science) and is back in Cork now, looking for part-time work but supported by the top Sports Council grant thanks to her Rio medal.
Paralympic sport has changed the entire course of her life, feeding her feisty competitiveness, bringing her around the globe (Rio, Doha, Italy, Paris, Berlin and Gran Canaria) and making new best friends, like Orla Barry, another of the great ‘Rebel Treble’ who won Paralympic discus medals in Rio.
They’ve deservedly been on the award circuit recently but McCarthy is ready to get back into serious training now and also keen to encourage others with physical impairments to try sport at Paralympic Ireland’s latest talent ID day next month.
“A lot of people in disability sport get involved at a young age but that wasn’t me at all, I was nearly 18,” she points out. “Letting myself try this completely new thing has led me to where I am now, it’s mad really. I just tried out this new adventure and kept improving.”
The sky-diving’s on hold again but, whisper it, not completely off her radar either in 2017.
“I thought I was the only Paralympic skydiver out there but New Zealand’s T44 sprinter Liam Malone does it too,” she reveals. “He’s already working on getting his full licence so I’m kinda trying to see if I could get a jump with him after the World Championships next summer.”
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