Sky’s the limit for versatile Paralympian Niamh McCarthy
Carrigaline woman combines parachute jumping with passion for discus-throwing
Irish Paralympic athlete Niamh McCarthy has a great affinity with the sky. It’s a calm world of escape up there, where all the burdens in her life can be left back on the ground.
And when you’re free-falling on your own from 13,000 feet, the skies don’t discriminate. Regardless of height, weight or occupation, everyone is going in the same direction with their parachute.
“In the sky, you’re all doing the same thing,” she says.
“Some people might fall quicker because they’re a bit heavier but nobody’s better than another person at falling to the earth. When you do your jump, you don’t come down thinking, ‘oh I could have done this better’.
“You’re all there to have fun really and it doesn’t discriminate in that way.”
McCarthy completed her first dive shortly before turning 18, and continues to enjoy the thrills after more than 80 jumps.
In the other side of her life, the 23-year-old from Cork competes in the Discus F41 category, which is for para-athletes of small stature, according to specific height and arm measurements.
McCarthy has never allowed her size to deter her from anything in life and, with an independent mind, she knows how to handle strangers who try to tip-toe around the subject.
“I’m normally the one who cracks a joke about it and it puts them more at ease. If they try something, I’ll turn on them and they get very uncomfortable, but I’m still joking with them.
“The odd person will say, ‘oh, you’re fairly small,’ and I’ll just say, ‘God, I didn’t realise’. If anybody knows me, they don’t comment on it and if someone doesn’t know me, they learn pretty quick that it’s not to be talked about because there’s no reason to.
“I’ve never really been diagnosed with anything in particular” she added. “I don’t even see myself as having a condition in some ways because no-one’s been able to give it a name yet. I just say I’m a bit small but a lot of people that I know kind of forget that I am because of the way my personality is.”
“I run into people who are the same height as me and there’s nothing wrong with them, so I don’t think there’s anything wrong with me.”
There are obvious differences between her two passions in life, but despite the contrast, she experiences the same liberating emotions when she jumps out of the plane as she does when she hurls the discus into the air.
“When you go in the [discus] cage, it doesn’t matter what’s going on behind the scenes. You’re very in the moment and it’s very grounding in that way. All the trivial little things that are in the back of your mind just fly out of your head.”
“The odd person will say, ‘oh, you’re fairly small,’ and I’ll just say, ‘God, I didn’t realise’
There are certain compromises McCarthy has to accept when it comes to balancing her time between skydiving and the discus. During the competitive season, she puts her jumps on hold out of respect for Paralympics Ireland.
It’s not that they have ever forbidden her from skydiving, but she can sense their concern.
“They’ve never really said anything about it but they don’t need to. I know that they would consider it a big risk before a major championship, but it’s a risk I really appreciate. I’ve never really asked them about it and I’ve just taken the initiative to stay away from it until whatever I have in that year [is over].
“If I did put myself out of competition two weeks before it, that’s gonna affect things like my funding. It’s logic to be honest when you think about it.
“Discus is the priority right now and I will do everything to make sure that that stays on top.”
McCarthy does not come from a sporting background and prior to 2012, she had never heard of a discus. But since beginning her training in the winter of that year, her career has blossomed.
She came home from the 2015 World Para Athletics Championships with a bronze medal, and her efforts at the Rio Games last year yielded a silver medal finish. She is also the European record holder in her F41 class.
Her progression continued again last weekend when she won a silver medal at the World Para Athletic games in London, after throwing a distance of 26.17m in the fifth round.
Footage of McCarthy competing at the event shows her approaching the discus cage while wearing a pair of sunglasses, in what could have been perceived as an attempt to intimidate the competition.
In truth, it was just a small pre-throw ritual to help McCarthy stay within the rules.
“That’s a competition thing for me because you have to walk out the back of the circle for it to be not a foul [throw] and right from when I started going to international competitions, I’d wear sunglasses to the competition and throw them out of the circle before I throw to remind me to go out the back.
“When I was new, it was a really big thing for me to remember, I didn’t know how the rules work. I know how it is now but it’s just become my thing – the €2 Penneys glasses and fire them out the back.
“I’d say people think I’m an eejit for doing it but it started for valid reasons. It’s just the routine of it that I like. Each time I go in, I do the same thing.”
Although her result in London was an improvement from her previous outing in the world championships, McCarthy wasn’t satisfied with her overall performance.
I was a bit more disappointed, because I wanted to go in and absolutely rock it
“Distance-wise, it wasn’t my best, considering I had a really good lead-in. It was a lot down from where I thought I’d be but at the same time, I didn’t need to throw my best to get the medal because everybody was a bit down for the competition. I don’t really know what happened. We were all not quite firing on all cylinders.
“When I came out of the competition, I was a bit more disappointed, because I wanted to go in and absolutely rock it but the hype has died down a bit now and I got a medal either way.”
McCarthy’s swift rise in the sport is a remarkable achievement, but now is not the time to savour what she has already accomplished. The sky’s the limit for the Carrigaline woman and she has plenty to aim for in the future.
“I am always looking forward because when I came into this sport not knowing anything about it, I came in feeling confident and thinking, ‘sure why couldn’t I win a medal?’
“In my mind, I just did what I had intended to do and it’s just about improving from here. I’m not finished yet, so until I retire, I’m not going to be thinking about everything that I’ve already achieved, it’s going to be about what I can achieve in the future.”