Joanne O’Riordan: Mary Fitzgerald an inspirational figure for those who dare to dream

Paralympic athlete in shot put keen to raise awareness for her peers who make significant personal sacrifices to pursue their sporting careers

When you think about athletes in Ireland, two words spring to mind: sacrifice and commitment. For Mary Fitzgerald, Paralympic athlete in shot put, and occupational therapist, this is no different.

Fitzgerald was like other children and was involved in many sports, from football to ice hockey, ice skating to horse riding. The type of child that couldn’t sit still for more than five minutes.

She is a person of short stature but her family never allows it to hold her back. In fact, they didn’t treat her any differently from any of her siblings. Fitzgerald, like a lot of athletes with disabilities, found a shortcut through the Irish Wheelchair Association sports day. A lot of people sometimes think that the IWA sports day is mainly for wheelchair users, but in fact, it caters to everyone, disability or not.

Fitzgerald is now raising awareness for those Paralympic athletes who are sacrificing their careers for their sporting careers. She acknowledges that a sports career can be incredibly short-lived and the most should be made out of it, but keeping an eye on your professional career is also essential.


“For me, I wanted to reach a high level in sports, that was very much a goal, but I still wanted to pursue other interests and develop in other areas of my life, other aspects of my life. I felt with the type of person I am, and what I like to do, something like occupational therapy was the ideal career.

“I definitely went in [to college and occupational therapy] looking to give everything to both. I know everybody has a different experience, and everybody has different goals and focuses but, for myself, personally, it was very much to develop to my highest possible potential in both,” she explains.

Research by Paralympics Ireland and Hays Ireland revealed that two-thirds of Paralympic athletes have sacrificed their professional careers to entirely focus on their sporting careers.

There are obviously many downfalls to this approach but, most importantly, it is shows that many Paralympic athletes define themselves by their sporting achievements rather than what they can also do outside of the sporting arena.

Fitzgerald has pretty much lived this life. She competed throughout her secondary schooling while also competing at an incredibly high level when studying at UCC under a Quercus scholarship programme. Quercus scholars are deemed to be students who are at the highest level of their respective fields, whether in sport, academia, active citizenship, music or business.

“There were so many days where I was like, ‘Geez, am I doing too much? Am I pushing myself by doing too much?’ but I didn’t think about it very much,” she explains. “I just took it day by day and kind of focused on what I could do best at any one time. So naturally, around exam time, your exams are going to take a bit more of a priority.

“And then, as we approach competition season, or if I’m travelling for a camp or a competition, I’d have asked for extra time or submitted my assignments early, and in fairness, the lecturers were very accommodating.”

Fortunately, she achieved her carded funding due to performances which saw her climb to the top five in the shot put world rankings. Of course, this didn’t come without financial and personal sacrifices.

“It’s a tricky one because in order to reach a certain level, it’s kind of that commitment and to commit you have to sacrifice something else. I’m fortunate to be funded. I understand that not all of the athletes are fortunate enough to be carded or funded. I also understand that in order to be carded, you have to achieve a certain level.

“And to achieve that certain level, you have to put in so much work and sacrifices. And in the early days, I wasn’t funded. And you do have to kind do the best with literally what you’ve got. You’ve got to focus on what’s there. What resources are there, and what people are there to support you to achieve what you can do? And then once you get to that level, it’s great, but I’m in a fortunate position right now where I can focus much more on my sports”.

We need more people with disabilities like Mary Fitzgerald and other Paralympic athletes in the public eye. Not only as standard-bearers but also to challenge public perceptions.

The push to get more Paralympic athletes into the workforce is obviously crucial for the athletes themselves, but more importantly, it encourages recruiters and those in HR to consider a person with a disability when hiring season comes around.