Focus on…Mary Fitzgerald & Sean O’Riordan
As UCC Students Union embarked on Ability Awareness week we focused on a couple of student athletes who’ve gone from strength to strength in their respective disciplines.
Nineteen-year-old athletics para-athlete, Mary Fitzgerald hails from Kilkenny. The first year Occupational Therapy student is a very proud recipient of the UCC Quercus Talented Student Sports Scholarship. There were many reasons why Fitzgerald chose UCC for third level education. “The sporting facilities, mentoring and coaching here in UCC are second to none. There’s the Mardyke gym and I also have access to the Leevale Athletic Club High-Performance Centre, which is right on my doorstep. One of my coaches John Fitzgerald is also from Cork, it’s a huge advantage having him nearby.”
Sport has been a key part of Fitzgerald’s life, “at just over four foot in height. I was always a very active person, and I hated sitting down for more than five minutes. I didn’t see the fact that I was a little shorter than my friends as a reason to hold back. I could still do everything that they could. Of course, I had to work a little harder, but I always loved a challenge.”
Fitzgerald was first introduced to para-sport, when she attended a try-out day in conjunction with Irish Wheelchair Association Sports. “It opened a totally new amazing world for me. I prefer to use the words ‘physically challenged’ rather than disabled; after all these athletes showcase what people can do and what they are ABLE to do”
From there Fitzgerald never looked back as she continues to excel at her main event – javelin, discus and shot put. “UK National Junior Championships, Birmingham in 2010 was my first international competition, and it gave me so much confidence. When I won my first gold medal in javelin, I was on top of the world.”
Her first taste of International representation was in 2013, travelling to Michigan State University, USA. “Representing Ireland and walking out in the Irish tracksuits while the Irish anthem was played made me extremely proud and I will never forget it. I was delighted to bring home three gold medals, two silver medals and two bronze medals, as well as setting two championship records in 100m and javelin.”
Success continued at the IWAS U23 World Junior Games in Prague in 2016, winning gold in all three events, and personal best in javelin which ranked her no1 in the world. Despite travelling to Portugal in 2017 for the IWAS World Games during her leaving cert year, Fitzgerald once again returned with two gold medals. More recently on home soil, the 2018 IWAS World Games, held in Athlone saw her pick up two gold and a silver medal.
“Sport is an invaluable asset for so many reasons. You keep fit and healthy, you get the opportunity to compete and meet so many amazing people, who will be friends forever. Don’t let anyone tell you that you cannot do anything, you can do anything you put your mind to. I would recommend everyone to get involved in sport or some kind of physical activity. Even if you’re not sporty, getting any sort of exercise will benefit you so much. It’s never too late to start.”
“At the moment, my next goal is to qualify for the World Para Athletics Championships which will be held in Dubai in 2019, and of course the next Paralympics in Tokyo, Japan in 2020. As the saying goes; ‘Never tell me the sky is the limit when there are footprints on the moon.’
Para-swimmer Sean O’Riordan
Cork native, 19year old Sean O’Riordan, is a first year UCC student of Speech and Language Therapy. “I wanted to go to UCC since I was a child. I’ve always liked the campus and I think there’s a great atmosphere around the place.”
O’Riordan took to the pool from just four years of age. Over the years, took part in school swimming and began competing from the age of thirteen. Since joining Sunday’s Well swimming club, he has never looked back and just gone from strength to strength.
O’Riordan has a visual impairment called myopic astigmatism. Basically which means he’s very short-sighted and particularly sensitive to light. In sunlight he finds it very hard to see and if the light is behind you he can’t see you at all until about a hand’s distance away.
“After a few competitions, my parents and coaches, Deirdre Cunningham, Richard Cassidy and Tom Cross, thought it would be a good idea to approach Paralympics Ireland. I was around 13 or 14 at the time.”
From there O’Riordan attended an open day, where he got classified nationally, and in 2017 got classified internationally. “I have represented my country on numerous occasions. I have been to two World Series events, hosted in Berlin and Sheffield.”
Earlier this year, the National Aquatics Centre hosted the World Para Swimming Allianz European Championships. At his first major event, he showed no sign of nerves, smashing some personal best records along the way. “This event stands out to me the most. It was my first major event and it was great to have a home crowd. I am currently ranked in the top 10 in Europe for 100m backstroke in Paralympic rankings.”
O’Riordan takes great pride in representing his country on the world stage. “To me, it is a great honour to represent my country on an international stage. I intend to give it my all and do my country proud.”
There are many individuals who help athletes achieve reach their potential. For O’Riordan, he was quick to highlight his parents influence, “My parents have been the most influential people in my sporting career. I don’t know if I would’ve made it to where I am today without them.”
So what’s next, “Currently, I am working towards 2019 World Championships which will take place in July next year. I’ve achieved two of the qualification times so far. After that, it’ll be Tokyo 2020.”
“It’s important to never give up. Whether you’re training just to keep fit or you’re aiming for a big competition. You must motivate yourself and always feel hungry for more.”