Wheelchair hurler James McCarthy ready to do his country proud again
By John Harrington
There’s a very good chance that Limerick-man James McCarthy is Ireland’s most prolific multi-sport international athlete.
Recently announced as the vice-captain of the first ever international wheelchair hurling squad, that’s just the latest feather in his already impressively plumed sporting cap.
Athletics was his first love and he competed in two Paralympic Games, two World Championships and five European Championships as a shot-putter.
He’s also rowed for Ireland and played international wheelchair basketball and rugby.
Representing his country won’t be anything new for McCarthy so when he and his wheelchair hurling team-mates compete in the 2019 European Para Games Floorball International event in Holland later this month, but he’s still buzzing at the prospect.
“I'm representing the country for the last 34 years on and off and even now talking to you at the moment with this jersey on I'm still getting goose-bumps,” McCarthy told GAA.ie.
“It's an honour and a privilege. How many people would love to be wearing an Irish jersey?
“You can't really describe the feeling it gives you. All you have to do really is just remember it's an honour to wear it. And when you wear this jersey you have to honour it in return.
“I'll won't always have this jersey forever, but whoever gets it after me will have to earn it and respect it.
“Hopefully when we're over there my experience of being an international will be a help to the other lads and I'll be able to get across to them the importance of playing the game and not the event.
“That's what I was always told when I was competing at big events - just do what you're good at and don't worry about the event. Play your game, whether it's a shot-put or whatever, the ball is still the same.
“In this game everyone has a floor-ball and a stick, it's the game that's important.
“That last five minutes when it gets tough and you look down at your crest and you just think, 'I'm going to give it everything'. That's what you do, you just remember the crest and your work even harder for each other and that's what it's all about.”
McCarthy has been playing wheelchair hurling since 2012, and in that time the sport has gone from strength to strength.
The inter-provincials are fiercely contested every year, and the level of physicality as well as skill involved bears testament to just how seriously McCarthy and his fellow wheelchair hurlers take the sport.
“It's just great that when we're competing we obviously don't see the disability,” he said.
“And I think for the people watching, after five minutes they don't see the disability anymore because we go in hard, we go in tough.
“You have to. That's what the game is about. We're trying to make it as close to the able-bodied game as we can while having our own identity.”
Adjusting to Floorball rules will be a challenge for the Irish wheelchair hurlers.
The sticks and balls used are different to their hurleys and sliotars, and, unlike in wheelchair hurling when you can contest for the ball in the air and palm it down with your hand, in Floorball you can’t bring the stick above the height of the wheel.
McCarthy knows his and his team-mates might be at a disadvantage to the more experienced Floorball nations in terms of technique, but he’s hoping that the physicality of the Irish hurlers will prove to be a leveller.
“We definitely won't be holding back,” he says with a grin. “We'll have countries there like the Dutch, the Americans and Canadians and whoever else who will have better skills than us.
“But we'll bring a different type of skill and we'll bring a little bit of hardness that we get from the hurling where it's not tippy-tappy, it's full-on.
“Some of us spend as much time on the floor as we do on the chair. The first time it happened people were looking and wondering, do we stop the game? But not at all, we just get on with it.
“We'll play with a lot of heart over there and do our very best. That's all we can do and ask of ourselves.”
Regardless of how their results in Holland go, McCarthy and his Irish team-mates have proven themselves to be winners before a ball is even pucked.
They all have their own unique stories. Some like McCarthy were born with a disability, others sustained their's later in life.
But what they all have in common is that they haven’t let it define them, and playing wheelchair hurling is just one of the ways in which they are constantly striving to better themselves.
Sport has enriched McCarthy’s life, and he believes it can do the same for everyone with a disability, regardless of what their circumstances or level of ability may be.
“I was probably 11 when I first got into sports,” he said.
“Before that, obviously I was born with a disability, I was getting physio an hour a day, three times a week sitting on a bench, all my friends outside playing sport or whatever and me just sitting on a bench thinking there must be a better way.
“And even just outside of the sport it's the health aspect. With the disability I have the life expectancy when I was younger probably wasn't that great.
“But now because I got into sport I got so cardio fit, I got strong, and not just my upper body but my leg muscles would have gotten stronger too. It's that health benefit.
“When I work with young lads that's why I'm so happy I've gone into coaching because If I can help these young lads become, not just better athletes, but better people.
“To learn discipline, learn time management, learn how to look after yourself, maybe break that umbilical cord to your disability if you will.
“And show that just because you have disability it doesn't mean you have to sit in the corner and be the ivy on the wall.
“You can be out there. At the end of the day whether someone who has never played sport and picks up a basketball and one day scores a ball into a net, is that any less any achievement than what I've done?
“If that's the pinnacle of their sporting life up to that point, if that's more than they've ever done before, then that's what it's all about.
“It's about pushing yourself to get to your maximum level, no matter what that might. That's what I'm trying to get across to people.”
· The Irish Wheelchair hurling squad will compete at the 2019 European Para Games Floorball International event in Breda, The Netherlands, from June 27-29.