For Kilkenny’s Paralympic athlete Mary Fitzgerald, life has no limits. I had the great pleasure to meet Mary for a coffee and chat after the recent announcement that she will be this year’s Grand Marshal for Kilkenny’s St Patrick’s Festival.
Mary, who hails from Callan, is a Paralympic athlete who competes in the shot-put, as well as javelin and discus. Competing since 2010, Mary’s most recent international achievements include winning three gold medals at the 2019 IWAS World Games in Sharjah, UAE, a bronze medal at the 2021 European Para Athletics Championships in Poland and competing at the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai.
In 2021, she realised her dream by competing at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics in Japan. In tough conditions, Mary finished sixth overall in a very impressive Paralympic debut, and she says this is ‘only the beginning’.
I was really surprised to learn after interviewing her that she is only 22 years of age. She has packed so much into her incredible life already. Here is a glimpse into the world of an Olympian…
Mary, congratulations, you have had some year. Have you come down from cloud nine yet?
I don’t think it has sunk in yet, it has been such a fabulous time. From the beginning of 2021, I’ve had such amazing support. To get the bronze at the Europeans and to make the Paralympic team, compete at the Tokyo Paralympics, and finish sixth - I couldn’t have asked for better really.
When you returned from Tokyo last September, did you go straight into training for the Paris 2024 games?
Less than a week after I came home, I commenced my final year of Occupational Therapy studies at UCC. Yes, I had a short break from training, but I was back into the shot-put circle pretty quickly.
The focus long term is very much on the Paris Paralympics. Tokyo was my first Paralympics Games, so I am looking to raise my game and perform better in 2024.
You must be excited that your family can go to the Paris games?
Yes, certainly, that’s another reason why I’m so excited for Paris. Competing on the highest level possible, it was pity that my family couldn’t make it to Tokyo - they have always been there for me from day one. But I did have fabulous support from home throughout my time in Japan. I spoke with family and friends back home every day really. Although I will be based in the Athletes Village with the team, it will be great to have my family in the athletic stadium in Paris, plus it’s great that it’s only a short flight this time!
On top of the serious athletic training schedule, you are also working hard in UCC on your Occupational Therapy course.
Yes, when I came home from Tokyo, I went straight into a 12-week placement in a residential unit in Cork. Working during the pandemic presented its challenges, and it was busy to say the least, but it was a valuable learning experience for sure.
Tell me about your famous housemates, one of the rowing O’Donovan’s brothers. Are you still living with him on campus?
Not at the moment, but yes, I did share an apartment with Paul O’Donovan - an Olympic champion now - during my second year. To learn so much from somebody who’s the best in the world and at the top of their game, you couldn’t ask for better really.
It’s thanks to the UCC Quercus sports scholarship that I get the opportunity to meet individuals who achieve so much. It’s great to be around like-minded individuals who understand the level of dedication it requires to perform at your best.
What was his top tip for you before he went to Tokyo?
I don’t think we ever sat down and spoke about it specifically, but I learned very quickly that he was and is a person who does not leave any stone unturned and gives it 110%. It’s every minute of every day, that level of commitment that separates you from the rest. In Paul’s case, it did.
Paul is just your regular human being, but he has an insane work ethic which makes him stand out. He goes above and beyond what is required.
Tell me about the sports scholarship with UCC.
So, when I started at UCC back in September 2018, I was very fortunate to be awarded a Quercus sports scholarship. It’s a full scholarship for the full four years, so to have that backing and support from the beginning is great.
UCC and the Quercus scholarship programme have been behind me every step of the way, which is really valuable, especially when you’re balancing academics and sports, on top of travelling so much and competing at the highest levels like the World Championships and Paralympics.
How do you break down your day and pack it all in?
It does vary from day to day, but generally I get up probably around 7am and I get a gym session in before my lectures. From nine to five, I get my lectures and study sessions in, and after that, I go straight into a throws session. When I get home from training, I’m catching up on my studies for the following day.
Is your food all prepared for you or do you have to batch cook?
You learn over the years what works for you. So yeah, batch cooking is really helpful. On Sundays, I usually make my meals in preparation for the week ahead and it definitely makes a difference.
I must admit, I’m not the most organised person in the world, but I try to do little bits here and there to try to be as efficient as possible that allow me to perform at my best in my sport and my academics.
There’s no free hour really, so you must prepare and be organised the best you can.
What is a go-to meal for a Paralympian?
Something with plenty of protein, be it a turkey stir-fry or chicken stir-fry, just pack it with protein. I must also have carbohydrates for that refuelling component, which is typically brown rice or brown pasta, and sometimes quinoa. Protein is my go-to at the moment!
Of course, nutrition is what fuels you, so that part of my day is really important.
Do you have to count calories and grammes for every meal?
Yes, it’s something I monitor, but I don’t get too hooked on calories. Our diets are quite sports specific. I would have a different diet compared to a 1,500 metre runner or an endurance athlete, for example. I would be considered an explosive athlete, so I need that intense high-level energy over a very short period of time, whereas endurance athletes need to be able to last the full five or 10 minutes of a race, or however long certain races typically last. So, it’s very much specific to your sport and what you need.
I just think - what will enable me to perform at my best? You pick up tips along the way, but I feel it’s about figuring out what works for you and sticking with it.
I presume you are lifting weights too in your training. Dare I ask how heavy?
I’m not going to reveal all my training secrets, Siobhan! I can tell you that I am throwing four times and in the gym three times per week, with all my mobility sessions in between.
You were asked to be Kilkenny’s Grand Marshal this year - the first St Patrick’s Day parade since the pandemic hit. Were you surprised?
I was just going about my typical day; I think I was actually in the middle of a training session when I got the call. I was so happy and surprised. It’s such a huge honour, especially when you hear about the Grand Marshals in the years gone by, like Vicky Phelan, Bobby Kerr, and Cartoon Saloon’s Tomm Moore.
I am so grateful to be taking on this role, and I hope to make the people of Kilkenny proud.
Will all of Callan be out supporting their girl?
Hopefully! Callan has been a great support to me over the years, along with Gowran Athletic Club.
Whether I’m going to local competition or to the Paralympics, I’ve always had great support. People like Dave Denieffe or Liam Kealy, both head coaches in the club, have really been amazing. I was the first para-athlete to train with Gowran AC when I joined back in 2017, but they have been amazing in embracing the world of para sport.
I know they are eager to start working with more para-athletes, which is great.
The night you won the Kilkenny People of the Year Sports Award 2021, you really wanted to thank one of your coaches.
Yes, my throws coach John McCarthy. He has been such a big part of my journey. He’s had so much experience working with Paralympic athletes, and I was very lucky to start working with him in 2018. He is incredibly passionate and such a valuable part of the team around me.
The team around me is what makes it work. I have my family of course, they have been there every step of the journey, and I cannot thank them enough. Friends, strength and conditioning coaches, nutritionists, sports psychologists - the list goes on!
At the end of the day, it’s an individual sport, but it’s really thanks to this team that allows me to compete at a Europeans, Worlds Championships, and of course the Paralympic Games, while also getting to the final year of a university degree, by the age of 22.
Subscribe or register today to discover more from DonegalLive.ie
Buy the e-paper of the Donegal Democrat, Donegal People's Press, Donegal Post and Inish Times here for instant access to Donegal's premier news titles.
Keep up with the latest news from Donegal with our daily newsletter featuring the most important stories of the day delivered to your inbox every evening at 5pm.