Mary Fitzgerald is an Irish Paralympian and Enable Ireland Ambassador. Mary attended our children’s services in Kilkenny until she was 18. She qualified as an Occupational Therapist in 2022 and made her Paralympics debut for Ireland at Tokyo 2020.
As the saying goes; “Never tell me the sky's the limit when there are footprints on the moon!”. There really is no limit to what you can achieve once you have a goal. If I were to say something to a young person, it would be - don’t let your “disability” define you. Do not let anyone tell you that you cannot do something - you can do anything you put your mind to. Remember your abilities and your strengths, and what you can do!"
I first started attending Enable Ireland Kilkenny when I was just a few months old. Even though I had a disability, my parents and I were struck with a can-do attitude from day one. I was able to avail of a wide range of services, such as physiotherapy and occupational therapy. My experience was so positive and the staff were always so welcoming and friendly. Whether you were of short stature, a wheelchair user or an amputee, it did not matter - you could do anything, maybe just in a slightly different way to your peers.
I was always a very active person, and I hated sitting down and 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.
"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 have competed internationally in javelin, discus and shot put since 2014, but since I joined the Irish Paralympic team in 2019, I have focused predominantly on shot put. Since then, I have competed at the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai (finishing 7th), the 2021 European Para Athletics Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland (winning bronze), and the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics (finishing 6th). My main focuses at the moment are the world championships in Paris later this season, and of course the Paris 2024 Paralympics next year.
I cannot emphasise enough how important sport has been in my life. It’s 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 doesn’t represent everything an individual is or can be. Despite some challenges, I believe every individual can do pretty much anything they put their mind to, perhaps in a different way to the norm, once given an opportunity and the right support.
In relation to the lifespan as a whole, a professional sporting career can be relatively short-lived, so I believe keeping an eye on and developing your professional career outside of sport is also essential. Reaching a high level in sport was a goal from day one, but I also wanted to pursue other interests and develop in other aspects of my life.
"Being the type of person I am, what I am passionate about, and what I like to do, a career in occupational therapy felt like the perfect fit for me. My childhood experiences at Enable Ireland very much inspired me to pursue this career, so that I too could enable and empower individuals to be independent and reach their fullest potential in life."
I believe my personal experience of having a disability, being an Occupational Therapist, and competing as a Paralympic athlete all complement each other really well. While I am currently a full-time athlete preparing for both the upcoming world championships and the Paralympics, I hope to return to OT work, in either a part-time or full-time capacity, soon.
Alongside my training and competitions, I really enjoy getting involved with young people with disabilities - the next generation of para-athletes. Whether someone wants to get involved in sport to represent their country someday or to make friends and develop their confidence, sport is really powerful beyond just the sport itself.
Recently, I have also expressed my thoughts on more coaches getting involved in para-sport, because it offers them a golden opportunity to broaden their horizons, beyond just their coaching knowledge and experience. It’s easy to get caught up in what people can’t do or what they are limited by but, if you strip it down to the fundamentals of every sport, the goal is the same, you may just achieve it differently. I feel there are great opportunities for coaches to enhance their coaching knowledge if they are encouraged to think differently and adapt the skills they already have.
Watch Mary talking about life as a student in UCC and her goal to represent Ireland at Tokyo 2020.