My experience: ‘A motorbike accident fractured my back, but love of sport helped me pull through’

Barry Cooke was nine days away from turning 17 when he skidded off his bike in the Wicklow mountains and fractured his back

Barry Cooke: plays point guard with the Irish wheelchair basketball squad. “It’s all about participation and inclusion. It’s about getting out meeting friends.”

Barry Cooke: plays point guard with the Irish wheelchair basketball squad. “It’s all about participation and inclusion. It’s about getting out meeting friends.”

Thu, Jul 3, 2014, 14:54

Barry Cooke was nine days away from turning 17 when he skidded off his bike in the Wicklow mountains and fractured his back. Thrown over the handlebars be became airborne and hit a tree.

Now he’s one of 10 players on the Irish wheelchair basketball squad, where he plays in the position of point guard. As ball carrier, he sets up scoring chances for team-mates and often clocks up the highest score in a game himself.

Sports mad from a young age, Cooke played competitive badminton and basketball at school and it was his love of cycling that placed him permanently in the seat of a wheelchair, instead of the saddle.

After the accident, at the National Rehabilitation Centre in Dún Laoghaire, medics identified his love of sport and used it as part of his therapy.

“They focus a lot on sports therapy. It became a big part of my rehab.

“Bastketball was the one I liked, I took to it and enjoyed it. I’m 25 years playing now,” he said.

Healthy outlook

Cooke spent seven months in Dún Laoghaire on a programme that included physiotherapy, occupational and sports therapy. At 17, he was facing the reality of never walking unaided again. But he maintained a remarkably healthy outlook.

“There were bad days, when I would ask, Why me? But they were few and far between.

“I know it’s a cliché, but there is always somebody worse off. My level of injury is nothing compared to what others were going through out there. There were some absolutely horrific cases. People who couldn’t scratch their own nose. I thought, You know what, I am fine. Let’s move on,” he says.

There are many assumptions about the wheelchair game, notions that the baskets are lower or the court is smaller. Cooke is keen to knock these on the head.

“Nothing changes. The court and the baskets are the same. It’s actually much faster and more physical than the running game. And the same rules apply.

“There are travelling violations and fouls are the same. It seems a whole lot more aggressive because of the noise of the chairs. But in theory there’s no contact on court,” he said.

Now 41, Cooke, who is originally from Old Bawn in Tallaght, lives in Kildangan, Co Kildare with his wife, Tess, and two children, Sam and Matthew. He loves the reaction that wheelchair basketball generates.

“People who watch it for the first time are like ‘oh my God’. It’s a different level to what they expect. It’s such a physical game. We use special chairs that are purpose-built for the sport and we are heavily strapped into them. They are quick, stable and manoeuvrable. If you get flipped upside down, you can just flip back over again,” he said.

“I’m paralysed from the waist down with a low spinal injury. It means I have good core strength and balance and good mobility in the chair.

“The upper body develops naturally in a chair because you are doing the work of the legs with your arms. But that has a long-term effect on your joints. I play and I enjoy it but it’s the next day I suffer. Our arms are not designed to do the work of our legs,” he says.

Physical demands

While the physical demands of such a fast- paced action-packed game are tough, the social and mental aspect make it invaluable. “It’s all about participation and inclusion. It’s about getting out meeting friends, colleagues, team-mates and it brings a camaraderie.

“We do take it seriously. We train very hard, we’re very committed to it,” he says.

Training sessions can span a full eight hours in the lead-up to international games.

“We get the whole squad together and do at least one day-long session a month because it’s difficult to get players around the country to meet up every week. We are not considered professionals, but we consider ourselves professionals.

“If I was in the UK, this would be my full time job. But here it’s deemed to be too expensive to fund a team at that level, because it’s an expensive game to play.”

In ‘the running game’ as Barry calls it, personal gear includes a singlet and runners.

“Our gear is more expensive and we have to pay for it ourselves,” he said.

A wheelchair suitable for a basketball player can cost between €3,000 and €6,000.

“That’s self-funded. My chair was €5,685, it’s very high end. It was hand built in Warsaw and it’s a fantastic piece of kit. It’s light, strong, fast and manoeuvrable.”

A wheelchair suitable for a basketball player can cost between €3,000 and €6,000.

“That’s self-funded. My chair was €5,685; it’s very high-end. It was hand-built in Warsaw and it’s a fantastic piece of kit. It’s light, strong, fast and manoeuvrable.” And as sales manager for a healthcare company whose job is to advise people who have had accidents or injuries about buying specialist equipment, he ought to know.