Access exclusive podcasts, interviews and analysis with a monthly or annual membership

Become A Member
Dublin: 10°C Tuesday 20 April 2021

'You want to go to college in September? You'll be going back with no hair but don't worry about that.'

Pat O’Leary was diagnosed with cancer while preparing for his Leaving Cert. 20 years later his leg was amputated. Now he’s going to be Ireland’s first paracanoeist.


PAT O’LEARY HAS survived bone cancer, lost a leg and is now set to be Ireland’s first ever Paralympic canoeist.

Canoeing will be included in this year’s Paralympic Games for the first time ever, and the 43-year-old science lecturer will make history as Ireland’s first entry.

When O’Leary had his leg amputated in 2011, it ended a tough 20 years of his life, having been diagnosed with bone cancer at the age of 18, just months before sitting his Leaving Cert.

“Looking back on it, I suppose, I’ve two young kids now, it was much harder on my parents and I probably didn’t appreciate it at the time,” says O’Leary.

The inclusion of canoeing in Rio Paralympics was announced shortly before the London games in 2012, and the seed was planted in the back of O’Leary’s mind.

Growing up in Cork, O’Leary got interested in canoeing, but took it up properly in college. Over the years his canoeing had mainly been in the form of canoe polo, white water events and marathons, but the last four years have been geared towards the 200 meter sprint in Rio.

His coach, former world-champion Neil Fleming, has “had to beat a lot of the dents out” of O’Leary from his other canoeing disciplines.

Now, a month out from the race, O’Leary is focused on going out in the “best condition possible”.

His alarm goes off before six every morning, and O’Leary gets his first training session of the day in before work. He usually gets another in at lunchtime, and then spends the evening with his family.

Ireland Paralympic Team Announcement Pat O'Leary at the Irish Paralympic team announcement. Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

His schedule demands commitment but O’Leary says it takes more than that.

Be part
of the team

Access exclusive podcasts, interviews and analysis with a monthly or annual membership.

Become a Member

“You couldn’t do it if you didn’t enjoy it”, he said.

O’Leary is certainly used to taking the positives from life and enjoying it when he can. When he was diagnosed with cancer in 1991, his attitude had a lot to do with him getting through the leaving cert.

“If I had to sit down and repeat the year, there are worse things in life,” he said. “I see that now in college, teaching people in university, and you get the odd student who has to repeat an exam or repeat a year and you say to them: ‘Look, there are worse things in life’.

“You occasionally sit down and go ‘mother of lord what’s happening to me’, but you know you have to get up you have to get on with it and do the next thing.”

O’Leary underwent chemotherapy and had the bone of his left knee replaced with a metal joint. The joint lasted 15 years, but then it “wore out” and had to be replaced.

Looking back, O’Leary now knows that he got an infection at that point, but it didn’t flare up properly until 2010.

“Over two years I had constant infections. They could clear it, but they couldn’t completely get rid of it. The decision had to be made to amputate the leg,” he said.

“It was staying on the metal, and the only way to get rid of it was to take out the metal.”

“It was an indication of how sick I was that the day after the operation I felt better than the day before. So it really was a case of this thing was dragging me down.”

O’Leary had the operation in November 2011, was back on a leg the following February and back in a boat in April. It had been over 700 days since he had been in a boat.

“I did 10 minutes, and I was dead”, he said. “But I was saying to myself, this is something I can do.”

Since then, he has been competing in paracanoeing events internationally and qualified for Rio during the World Championships in Germany last year.

He will be giving it his best shot when he races on 15 September, and says “whatever that brings, brings. But regardless of what happens in Rio or beyond, I’ll still be getting up on a Saturday morning and going for a paddle”.

Graham Henry: ‘If you always say ‘how can we score from here?’ That’s a good mentality’

Diaz believes rematch is an attempt by the UFC to ‘weed me right back out’

About the author:

Eoin Lúc Ó Ceallaigh

Read next: