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Dublin: 4 °C Tuesday 25 February, 2020

Rebels Abú! Cork room-mates share Paralympic glory on memorable Rio night

Niamh McCarthy used Orla Barry’s silver-medal winning performance earlier in the day to spur her on to emulate the feat.

The sweet taste of success for Niamh McCarthy.
The sweet taste of success for Niamh McCarthy.
Image: Diarmuid Greene/SPORTSFILE

– Ryan Bailey reports from Rio de Janeiro 

UNDER THE SPOTLIGHT of the Olympic Stadium lights, Niamh McCarthy took a step back, walked away and found her coach. In the heat of the battle, she needed to rediscover her composure in the most testing of circumstances.

It’s not that the Cork discus-thrower lacks confidence but she had just lost her focus for a split-second. A foul on her third throw during last night’s F41 final left her languishing in fifth. All of a sudden, her dream of a Paralympic medal was in danger of creeping away.

So she had a quiet word with herself — ‘Jeez Niamh you need to cop on here’ — and searched for the familiar faces in the crowd. Dave Sweeney, her coach, was a calming influence.

“He is the man,” McCarthy, 22, said afterwards, with a silver medal around her neck. “I’m not usually the type to go and see the coach after every throw but I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing anything because when you’re in there with everyone around you it’s easy to not notice the smaller things.

“I came out of throw four thinking ‘what did you just do.’ I didn’t try hard enough and I went over to my coach and said there was more in me and he said just leave nothing behind.”

And that’s what she did for throw five, catapulting herself into second position with an effort of 26.67 metres. That’s where she remained to claim her first Paralympic medal, sparking jubilant scenes amongst her family in the crowd.

McCarthy grabbed the tricolour and celebrated with the Brazilian fans, much like Michael McKillop did last Sunday after storming to gold.

Rio 2016 Paralympic Games - Day 8 Source: Diarmuid Greene/SPORTSFILE

Rio 2016 Paralympic Games - Day 8 Source: Diarmuid Greene/SPORTSFILE

“It was amazing, they don’t know who I am but they were pumped with me, I loved it like. It was the cherry on top I suppose,” she explained. “My mum was here today, she gave me a little wave. I kind of had to be like ‘ok, I have to compete in a minute, chill, think about the competition’.

“I came in here really gunning for a medal and I wanted that silver. I mean I know I’m ranked third but my training has been going so well and I knew I was in a really good place. I’m absolutely ecstatic that I got what I came here for.”

Earlier on Thursday, in the same stadium, McCarthy’s fellow Cork woman Orla Barry enjoyed similar success. One sport, two very different athletes, two silver medallists.

Barry is a much quieter personality and goes about her business in an understated manner — but just the same there’s a steely determination and drive to an athlete who has enjoyed incredible success.

What is it about Rebels and producing their best on the biggest stage? Already this summer we’ve had the O’Donovan brothers and Pat O’Leary make headlines from Rio and now this discus duo delivered to bring Ireland above the Paralympic medal target of eight.

In doing so, Barry went one better than her bronze in London and added another medal to her growing collection, which also includes European gold.

But, unlike the self-belief of McCarthy, doubts reverberated around Barry’s head in the week leading up to her final. Would she produce her best form, would she be able to throw over 30 metres?

Rio 2016 Paralympic Games - Day 8 Source: Diarmuid Greene/SPORTSFILE

Rio 2016 Paralympic Games - Day 8 Source: Diarmuid Greene/SPORTSFILE

She didn’t need to worry. A third attempt of 30.06 secured her second place and with it a second Paralympic medal.

“I can’t wait to wake up in the morning and not have a weight on my shoulders and think about competing and all that,” she admitted afterwards. “I can just wake up and do what I like for the day.”

A weight off Barry’s shoulders, but McCarthy embraces that pressure.

“The hairs on my arm were going up, Orla’s success really spurred on. My preparations had just gone absolutely perfectly, I wouldn’t have changed one thing the last two months.

“I think I’m just that type of athlete. I have a lot of self-belief and I think that’s where my success comes from, not really amazing skill, I just believe in myself so much and I know I have it in me.”

Early on Friday morning, as the celebrations were no doubt only winding down here in Rio, Michael D Higgins offered his congratulations to Ireland’s latest Paralympic medallists on Twitter.

In a reply to the President, McCarthy’s Mum, Caroline, who lived every second of the final, simply said: “As Niamh’s mother I can’t begin to say how special it is to read this tweet. Thank you.”

A proud day for the athletes, their families, Ireland and Cork.

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Ryan Bailey

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