Disability could not stand in the way of Mary Whelan, Ireland’s first female international basketball referee

“You feel I’m so different from everybody else and it’s not a nice difference”

It’s pretty rare in life an email comes into your inbox with the subject line “A sporting history in overcoming adversity and trauma”. It’s even rarer that the subject is the least surprising thing about the email.

The story of Mary Whelan, a former International Basketball Federation (Fiba) referee, is extraordinary, symbolic of lending a helping hand and what sport can do for you in life. Her story is documented in The Whistleblower’s Secrets and is one of true grit, determination, loneliness and difference.

Born deaf, Mary Whelan grew up knowing she was an outlier but never fully understanding what made her stand apart. People would shout and get angry with her; she realised early on that life would be different for her. Naturally, Mary retreated into books and sports, two places where she could use her imagination.

“I didn’t know what I was reading, but I made the story up as I went along,” explains Whelan. “I also loved escaping into a good book. The disability I had wasn’t visible, and I could bury my head in a book, which made me look normal because I was just like everybody else reading the book. And you know, when you have a disability, there are times when you feel very abnormal and very different from everybody else. Then there are times you just want to feel the same as everyone else. Having my head in the book and reading made me look normal. ”


Mary also found her other passion – sport. A nun in her school, Sister Patricia, set up a girls’ basketball team. The school Mary went to had an orphanage attached to it. Sr Patricia was looking for stuff for the orphanage children to do in their spare time. Nobody knows how or where she saw basketball or even why she picked it, but luckily for Mary, she found her niche.

“When I was young, I used to stay down at my granny’s a lot, and there were a lot of children on the road there, and we used to play together every day. We’d play all the different games, so I had to improve my visual senses an awful lot to see what everybody else was doing because I couldn’t hear what they were doing.

“One of my aunties, who lived with my granny, would try and help me afterwards to figure out what the game was about. She might write stuff down for me or draw stuff and things like that, and I’d be just watching like mad and picking things up with my eyes. So my visual senses became heightened. That stood to me later on, when I went on to play basketball because it made me a much better player because I was much more observant and able to see things other players couldn’t see.”

Then, hope, or something that actually looked like hope, came around the corner. Mary started going for surgeries to try to help regain her hearing. Of course, this could be seen from the outside as a joyous occasion, but the reality was different,

“I didn’t get my hearing back immediately. That took a long time. And when it [my hearing] started to come back, it came back in very, very tiny, tiny increments. So it was very frustrating initially because when I could start to hear, I couldn’t hear words or think things properly as I could only hear sounds. That was very confusing and quite traumatic in another way. So when I started to hear words, which I eventually did, that became traumatic as well because I was hearing the words wrong.

“So if you said ‘I think there’s a cake’, I might pick up something different. So I started to think you said ‘fake’, and you said ‘cake’. That sentence would make no sense to me. I couldn’t put it together and that was very traumatic. While it was great to be getting the hearing back, for all those times, it was very traumatic, until actually, I had completed all the rehab afterwards, where I had to relearn the whole English language again, learn how to read, write, spell properly again”.

Fortunately, the basketball world still existed, somewhere where Mary felt safe and secure. In her basketball career as a player, she reached National League status and won many national and local trophies and medals. She was nominated for the Dublin League Most Valuable Player of the Year award and has several tournament Most Valuable Players to her name. But she really earned her stripes as a referee.

“I didn’t want to be a referee initially because I was training so hard and playing so well. I didn’t want to lose that. I just came into it. Because my friend went away and somebody had to do [it] because every team had to have their own club referee, or you couldn’t play in the league. So I was very resentful when I came into it.

“I went out and I was very authoritarian because it was like, ‘if you think you’re going to abuse me, and I’m giving up my precious time to be here for you, you’ve another thing coming.’ I came at it from a completely different angle. Now it did serve me well because it made me look big. I had a great presence as a referee. And people were more afraid of me than I was of them. Normally people are very nervous when they referee, and they’re afraid of being shouted at. I was terrorising them instead of them terrorising me because I was so angry.”

The authoritarian way of life accidentally ended up suiting Mary as she progressed through the ranks and ended up as Ireland’s first female Fiba referee.

“The feelings I experienced growing up were very lonely feelings. You feel I’m so different from everybody else and it’s not a nice difference. It’s really lovely to be different because we have something to offer in our difference. But in that difference, I used to feel like ... I read the book about the Elephant Man. I used to feel like him and that I was ugly.

“People didn’t understand me. I couldn’t understand them. I had to try. It takes an amount of hard work, effort, commitment, time and dedication, it’s not easy.

“But you can’t give up. You have to deal with all the rejection, you have to deal with all the ups, the downs, the setbacks, the disappointments, and it’s very difficult emotionally to go through all that and keep at the top level and keep yourself in a place where you can’t make mistakes. Still, it’s possible with hard work, dedication and resilience. You can’t ever give up. You have to just keep working very, very hard. It doesn’t matter how much talent you have. People who work hard will outclass talent.”