Irish Paralympian Mary Fitzgerald has called on more top coaches to work with para-athletes, not for any altruistic reasons but because it could help make them better at coaching.
The 23-year-old from Kilkenny, who was sixth in F40 shot on her Paralympic debut in 2021 and is ranked fourth in the world, has just added a new strength and conditioning coach (Noel Garvan in Castlecomer) to her backroom team.
“It's really exciting to see more coaches taking on para-athletes and Paralympic athletes,” she said.
“I think perhaps some coaches in mainstream sport would be nervous thinking ‘oh, she’s four foot’ or ‘he/she has a leg or arm missing so it’s not the same’ but I think you can really enhance your coaching skills if you’re encouraged to think differently and adapt your skills.
“There’s a text-book way of coaching a six foot shot-putter but how do you do it when their driving leg is prosthetic? I have roughly the same technique but there are tweaks that I make to adapt for my differences.
“It’s easy to get caught up in what people can’t do or what they are limited by but, if you strip it down to the fundamentals, it is still the same – how do we optimise her drive?
“Sure, I won’t be able to have as big a stride across the circle but how do we get it (drive) in other places. Do I have a lot of speed or a lot of core strength, what are my strengths?
“There are real opportunities here for coaches,” she stressed. “I really believe working with a Paralympic athlete can only broaden and improve a coach’s skills.”
Paralympics Ireland has just signed a new partnership with international recruitment specialists Hays Ireland to provide their athletes with career advice and mentoring.
The European bronze medallist is hoping that her own career move to largely full-time training will help her make the step up to World and Paralympic medals.
After graduating in occupational therapy from UCC she has now moved home to Callan but will still train with coach John McCarthy between Kilkenny and Cork, including Leevale’s indoor facilities this Winter.
Opting to work part-time (three mornings a-week) with Enable Ireland allows her concentrate on training for next year’s World Championships (July 2023) and the 2024 Paralympics, which both take place in Paris.
Fitzgerald added 11cm to her personal best (now 8.23m) in 2022 - just six centimetres short of what won F40 bronze at the Tokyo Paralympics - but the standards in para-sport sport keep jumping exponentially.
“At the moment third in the world is 8.70m and that came even in a non-championship year. Standards just kept rising,” she said.
“The other 29 people in my class are going straight into jobs and I’m taking a slightly different route. You’re wondering if it’s the best route but I’m trusting myself and remembering that this is what I dreamed of for so many years.
“I’m ranked fourth in the world, have finished my degree and it’s not too far away from the next World Championships and Paralympics so it feels like it’s coming together at the right time for me.”