At the heart of the Paralympics
The Paralympic Games are about to take off, and Irishwoman Daráine Mulvihill is right at the heart of Channel 4’s extensive coverage of the event – although the last thing she expected to find herself doing was taking Oscar Pistorious’s blades for a test run
IT’S BEST TO start with the name because it won’t be the last time you hear it. It’s Daráine Mulvihill – pronounced like Gráinne but with an added syllable at the beginning – and it means daughter of Áine. She used to presume her parents plucked it out of thin air until one day her mother, a teacher who was born and reared in Dingle, Co Kerry, dug out the old book where she first came across it and showed it to her. “English people have no trouble with it,” she laughs. “They just say it out phonetically. But Irish people trip over it all the time.”
You sense they won’t for much longer – Mulvihill’s job for the next fortnight will see to it. Alongside former Olympic gold-medallist triple jumper Jonathan Edwards, Mulvihill will front Channel 4’s coverage of the Paralympic Games, from nine in the morning until lunchtime every day. The 29-year-old from Ashbourne, Co Meath is one of the disabled members of Channel 4’s 20-strong presenting team, having had her legs and fingers amputated at the age of 16 after contracting meningitis.
You may already be half-familiar with her story. The daughter of former GAA general secretary Liam Mulvihill, she came close to death in 1999 when struck with the meningococcus C virus. Doctors put her chances of survival at 2 per cent and she was given the last rites. But after a year in the Mater hospital, which included losing her legs and fingers as well as multiple skin grafts and a severe bout of MRSA, she got out and set about making life bend her way again.
Mulvihill returned to school, dropped back a year and nailed her Leaving Cert before going on to study communications in DCU. She won a Person of the Year award in 2001 and Mary McAleese appointed her to the Council of State in 2004. Having worked on children’s TV in RTÉ for five years, she jumped at the chance to apply to Channel 4 to cover the upcoming games. The slight downside to getting the gig is that she has spent more of the past six months than she would have liked walking back along the old road for the benefit of new interviewers.
“I made a conscious effort to get away from that for a while,” she says, “because I was tired of it in a way. I didn’t want to be thought of forever as the girl who had meningitis and that story. Obviously it’s part of who I am. I’m not just a regular person walking down the street. I have a disability and that story is how I got the disability and it’s part of me. I don’t mind talking about it at all but the more I tell it, the more I almost disassociate myself from it because it sounds so dramatic. It’s almost as if it happened to somebody else and I’m only recounting it.”
The upside of being so well-versed in telling the story of her own disability is that Mulvihill isn’t the least bit squeamish or awkward in probing Paralympians about theirs. Channel 4’s incredible promotional campaign for the games has been very up-front about dealing with disability. Each one of the 4,200 or so competitors in London has a back-story and part of her job will be to get them to tell it. Not everybody can do that well.
“I don’t think you can separate the stories from the athletes in the Paralympics,” Mulvihill says. “They get to where they are because of what they overcome. That’s all part of the package. I’ve heard a lot of people say that the Paralympics should be all about the sport and we shouldn’t be talking about their back-stories, but you have to. That’s what makes it interesting and it’s what sets the Paralympics apart from everything else.
“Having gone through something similar to the athletes and living a life that faces up to some of the same challenges as them, I do think I have a natural affinity that other journalists might not have. And as well as that, I am not in any way nervous or strange or have issues around disability. So I’m relaxed with them and they’re relaxed with me, too. I don’t feel like I always have to explain myself when I’m asking a question. I don’t worry that I’m going to offend the person I’m interviewing. It’s maybe a bit easier for me to ask certain questions. Not always, but sometimes. They do feel that they’re not threatened in any way because I guess they know that I’m coming from the same background as they are.”
Covering the Paralympic Games will be the biggest operation ever undertaken in Channel 4’s 30-year history. Previously, its live sport output was mostly confined to horse racing and cricket, but for 12 days and nights beginning with Wednesday’s opening ceremony, it will be covering 21 sports with more than 200 hours of coverage.
Mulvihill has been on lockdown with the station since the start of the year, swotting up, preparing, steeling herself. The experience has been intense but enjoyable, especially working so closely with colleagues who haven’t had to adapt to being around people with disabilities to such an extent before.
“You notice people tiptoeing around you. You really do. But that goes away. We were at an event the other night with a lot of the people who are working on the coverage and you’d be amazed the amount of people who go, ‘It’s funny, I just don’t even notice the disability now.’ Everybody had that one day when they just crossed over and stopped seeing it.
“But definitely at the start, people were coming over and whispering to me, ‘This person wants to know can you write but they’re afraid to ask.’ And the thing with disability is that everybody’s different. There will be some people who may get a little bit annoyed if you ask them the wrong question.
“Everybody has the best intentions and they just really don’t want to offend anyone or say the wrong thing. But at the same time, you’re not going to please everyone. There are all these guidelines that we’ve been given by the British Paralympic Association – you know, ‘Don’t say disabled, say this. Don’t say that, say this.’ But Channel 4 have told us not to worry about what we do and don’t say. Just say what you want to say and if people get offended, that’s their problem. You’re not going to keep everybody happy. Everybody has a different thing, everybody is unique. The only way we are going to demystify the disability thing is if we stop worrying about offending people.”
As sound a mantra as any to carry into the biggest fortnight of her career.
Blade running: 'You need to be conditioned to wear them'
Ask Daráine Mulvihill who will be the star of the Paralympic Games and she doesn’t miss a beat. South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius will become the first male athlete to compete in the Olympics and Paralympics in the same year. As a fellow amputee and fellow runner, Mulvihill has done a diary piece for Channel 4 in which she got fitted for similar blades to Pistorius. Here, she describes the experience.
“People see the kind of blades that Oscar Pistorius uses but they don’t really think about where they come from. I think people just imagine that they’re these springy blades that he pops on and goes off and runs away into the sunset.
“I used to run long-distance and cross-country so I thought it would be interesting to see how I would take to the blades, and to find out would it be just as easy as people presume it to be.
“I mentioned it and then I regretted it because Channel 4 jumped on the idea. Straight away, I was thinking, ‘Oh God, what have I let myself in for?’ Because for one thing, there was a chance that maybe I wouldn’t take to them and maybe it would be a disaster.
“But also, it was putting myself out there in a way because it is quite intrusive to be filmed with them making the cast for my legs. I wasn’t sure how I would react to seeing myself on them. So I had to think about it quite hard.
“But the pay-off was worth it, the chance to get a go on them was kind of amazing. I’ve put them on twice and I’ve managed what I would call a jog in them. They’re really hard work and I need to go back and hit the gym or do some major work-outs before I get to the stage where I can do any type of running.
“You really need to be conditioned to wear them. The stance, first of all, is totally unnatural. They make your knees bend but you have to keep your back and your body straight. So just imagine the strain that puts on your core muscles and the muscles at the front of your thighs. Every time I’ve put them on, I’ve felt like I needed a lie down afterwards.
“I did a little diary-style thing for the Paralympics breakfast show and I’ve put the blades away now for a while. I’ll take them out again when it’s all over. It’s something that I’d love to continue after the games are over.
“I spent almost 12 years not doing any type of sport or any type of athletics, so it was great to put them on and to feel that I had the potential to run again.”
Coverage of the 2012 Paralympic Games starts on Channel 4 on Wednesday at 8pm