My name is Mary FitzGerald and I am an 18 year old para athlete from Kilkenny.
I am of short stature; I am just over 4 foot in height. I have just completed my Leaving Certificate examinations. I was always a very active person, and I hated sitting down doing nothing for more than five minutes. From kicking around a football playing with the boys at school and ice-skating, to horse riding and ice hockey with Kilkenny City Storm, 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 as my stride was shorter, but I always loved a challenge! Initially, I didn’t know that para sport existed.
However, that all changed when a friend brought me along to one of IWA Sports’ try-out days in Crettyard when I was 11 years old. It was great to see other athletes who were of shorter stature just like me. Everybody that was there had some challenge, from amputees to wheelchair users, to those with Cerebral Palsy or short stature. However everyone was accepted and nobody was judged based on their physical appearance. I felt that I could ‘let my guard down’ as such. It opened a totally new amazing world for me.
Sport means so much to me. As well as giving me the opportunity to compete on the international stage for my country, I have gained so much confidence and independence. I know it may seem ‘cheesy’ to say but I have gained so many life skills through taking part in these competitions, both nationally and internationally. I am a far more outgoing person as a result. I cannot see my life without para sport to be honest!!
My main events are javelin, discus and shot put, and my para classification is F40, which means I would compete against those similar to me of short stature, within a certain range of height. I am now almost nineteen years old, and within eight years I have gotten so many opportunities through para sport.
Since 2010, I have competed at three DSAUK (Dwarf Sports Association United Kingdom) Games. All competitors are of short stature, and it offers a great opportunity to compete against those of the same height as you, a much fairer competition. It 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. It was a huge honour to hear my name called out, receiving my first international medal in front of my family and friends! My attitude to sport changed completely and I was so excited for my next competition! It gave me a huge sense of achievement and marked a huge change in my life. Throughout my time competing at DSAUK games, I have won gold and silver medals in track and field (javelin, discus and shot put), as well as cycling and hockey too!
In 2013, I was glad to be part of the fifteen-membered Irish team that travelled to East Lansing, Michigan in the US. It brought together 400 athletes from 17 countries to compete in events from swimming and archery to athletics and basketball. Walking out in our 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 games records in 100m and javelin. Apart from the competition itself, I made so many amazing friends there, who I am still great friends with today.
I was so proud to return to my school in my Irish tracksuit with my medals around my neck. It proved to others that I could achieve, and I could win medals, not only around Ireland, but internationally too! At that stage, I was the only world champion in the class. My fellow students began to view me in a different way from then on.
In 2014, I competed at my first I.W.A.S. (International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports) World Games in Stoke-Mandeville, UK. It was my first international para event. I was introduced to other athletes with other physical challenges (I prefer to use the words ‘physically challenged’ rather than disabled; after all these competitions showcase what we can do and what we are ABLE to do!). I met so many inspirational athletes, and I was in awe from the minute I stepped on the track. I competed in javelin, discus and shot put, and I won a gold medal in shot put and a silver medal in discus at these games.
In 2016, I travelled to Prague, Czech Republic for the IWAS U23 World Junior Games. I competed in discus, javelin and shot put and won gold in all three events
. I was also delighted to get a personal best throw in javelin, which placed me in the no. 1 world ranking in javelin in my category!
In December 2017, I travelled to Monte Gordo, Portugal for the IWAS World Games. Initially, I was reluctant to attend these games as it was during my leaving certificate, while I was preparing for pre-exams a few months later. However, I sat down with my parents and we discussed how it could work. I had to make the most efficient use of my time in order to get time for training and study. My school were very accommodating in allowing me to use my PE classes and other free classes every week for gym sessions and athletics training at my local athletics track. It was busy, but it was definitely worth it as I returned home with 2 gold medals in discus and javelin. When I look back on it now, post-exams, I feel that it benefited me hugely. It allowed me to take my mind off the dreaded leaving certificate for an hour every day, without missing out on any school work. When I finished a training session, I was in such a positive mood, and I was ready to get back to work that afternoon.
In July 2018, I competed at my fourth I.W.A.S. World Games, which was held in Athlone. It was great to have it on home soil, even though I love travelling the world with the Irish team! I competed in javelin, discus and shot put. I was delighted to come home with a gold medal in discus and javelin and a silver medal in shot put. Like every competition, national or international, I met so many amazing inspirational people, and I have made friendships that will last a lifetime. It totally surpassed my expectations, as I just completed my Leaving Certificate exams in June.
I cannot emphasise enough how important sport has been in my life. In everyday life, it is often difficult to avoid being faced with the negatives of having a ‘disability’. It’s often what you are not able to do that is highlighted, whether in public or in the media. I believe that the word ‘disability’ is inappropriate, as it doesn’t represent these amazing people, who despite their challenges, are able to do pretty much anything, just in a different way to how a ‘normal’ person would do something. Of course an amputee can throw a javelin, of course someone in a wheelchair can play basketball, just because you are four foot tall doesn’t mean you cannot swim!
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! It is often said that the only disability in life is a bad attitude. We are not disabled by the disabilities we have, but we are abled by the abilities we have!
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. My mission in life, through this career, would be to enable others, to live life to the fullest, without limits. As far as I’m concerned, I may be four foot tall, but I feel there is no limit to what I can do! As the saying goes; “Never tell me the sky is the limit when there are footprints on the moon!”