It’s not every day that you get to meet a gold medallist but perhaps even rarer to meet
someone with the persona of Niamh McCarthy. Wearing silver sandals with purple
toenails and fingernails to match, the most obvious feature of Niamh instead becomes the least. With a beaming smile etched across her face and a gold medal tucked away
“somewhere” in her clutch bag, Niamh was ready to chat about her most successful
achievement to date.
Niamh is a native of Carrigaline in the south of Cork and previously studied Biological and
Chemical Sciences at UCC for a year before putting it on hold. That was nearly five years ago
and a lot has changed for the now 24-year-old. Niamh has always known that she is was
shorter than others, as she describes to me, but never before had it ever dawned on her
that there was actually a reason for her small stature. It was only when someone who her
family knew had suggested that maybe Niamh should try and take up a Paralympic style
sport that she actually became aware of her dwarfism.
Ever since then, Niamh’s life has been consumed by one sport in particular, discus.
Competing in the F41 classification, McCarthy has been winning continually medals over the
past three years, with her first being a bronze at the World Championships in Doha, 2015.
Since then Niamh has gone from strength to strength and her medal haul includes a silver at
the 2016 Rio Paralympics. While she also secured a silver medal last year in London, Niamh
was not very pleased with her personal performance. There were a lot of distractions for the
young woman in 2017 but all of that seems to have been put behind her.
A new training structure amongst other things has propelled Niamh to make the most of her
powers and in late August this year, she won her first major championship by securing gold
at the World Para Athletic European Championships. In doing so, McCarthy also broke the
European record for her classification, with a throw of 31.76 metres. As a result, she has
written herself into the history books. “I felt quite nervous on the day of my event”, Niamh
tells me. “I’m not usually that nervous and I don’t know why I was, I think maybe it was me
just putting pressure on myself to do well more than anything”. Niamh had been in pretty
good form heading into the championships and she informs me that she had actually
thrown a score of 32.67 in June of this year at an event in France, but for some reason this
was never made official.
Niamh has been playing catch-up with her main rival, a Tunisian named Raoua Tlili, who is
the current Paralympic champion. In 2016 the Irish athlete was nearly seven metres off Tlili
but this gap has now been cut to about two metres. While she still remains behind, Niamh is
pleased to see the progress that she has made. “Yeah I suppose it’s great that I’ve managed
to close the gap with her but at the same time open the gap behind me. I feel like I can
concentrate on competing for that gold medal now more seriously, where as I was
previously fighting for silver and bronze,” Niamh explains.
The Paralympian has settled into a more practical training routine which now sees her only
having to travel to Dublin for every second training session. Niamh also trains in the
Mardyke on Monday nights with her strength and conditioning coach, alongside some other
familiar names like boxer Gary ‘Spike’ O’Sullivan and former Cork City captain, Johnny
Dunleavy. Having grown up with very little interest in sport, Niamh suddenly finds herself
engrossed with it. She also believes that it’s really important for others to try and take up
some sort of activity or exercise, particularly students. “I think everybody gets something
different out of sport but for me I suppose I love knowing what exactly I’m doing for the week so it gets you out. I know people who get up, go to work, come home, watch TV and
just go to bed, it’s all work orientated. I think people in college should really try and join
clubs and societies. If I was still involved with UCC, I would definitely be pushing people to
take up a sport just so that they can keep relatively fit mentally and physically because
students can lose the run of themselves a bit from time to time. I really don’t think there’s
an age limit to these things because I was 18 or 19 before I even started throwing and look
at me now.”
As an international athlete who has performed at the highest level, getting an insight into
the routine of a gold medallist is a special thing. When asked about the motions that she
goes through on the day of an event and whether she has any superstitions, Niamh replies,
“well to answer the last question first, yes I do have superstitions,” she laughs. “I wear the
same pair of socks for every competition. I started wearing them in Rio and ever since then
I’ve kept the same pair, washed of course every time I use them. In terms of planning I think
you have to know in the days leading up to your event exactly where you need to be and
when. In terms of food for me it depends on the person and how they’re feeling, I don’t
have anything specific that I would eat. However, I would say that rest is important so my
event was in the afternoon in Berlin so I got up as late as I could, so sleep is the biggest
thing. I like being around happy and cheery people on the day, I don’t like being in awkward
company because I want to keep as relaxed as possible,” Niamh explains. One thing that
Niamh does do is talk to herself in the third person, in her head of course, she’s quick to
point out. “Yeah so I came across this technique of talking about yourself in a positive way.
Like saying, ‘Niamh is a good thrower, Niamh is going to throw well today,’ there’s definitely
a method behind the madness for sure,” she laughs.
For now Niamh is taking a couple of months break before she begins training for the World
Championships in November 2019. She has not ruled out returning to UCC but all of her
attention is currently focused on her role with ‘Dell EMC’ in Ovens and her athletic career.