IT’S a long way from a farm house in West Cork to the world stage in Tokyo, competing at the Paralympics — 9,792km to be exact.
But going the distance has never bothered Donnacha McCarthy, who became blind at the age of 10 after battling leukaemia.
“Once I get my mind set on something, I’ll just keep hammering away at it,” says Donnacha, aged 30, who is a blind paratriathlete.
He shot on to the international stage a couple of years ago and has plans to represent Ireland at the Tokyo Paralympics later this year.
“Making the squad to compete in Tokyo this year is my goal,” he says.
Did he ever dream he’d make the leap from being diagnosed with leukaemia and becoming blind to landing international fame in the sports arena?
“When I lost my sight, that was the moment I gave up doing sports,” admits Donnacha.
“It was a huge change in my life. I felt cut away from my friends because sport was how we connected with each other and how we socialised down in West Cork.
"My friends were still going out at lunch-time at school playing football. I couldn’t join in when I became blind.”
Was he a sporty kid?
“I was always active,” says Donnacha.
He had no choice.
“Growing up on a farm, I ran after cattle and sheep to move them through fields in the farm. That wasn’t a sport, but it should be!
“My national school head teacher, Dan Daly, now deceased, was a huge advocate of sports and he promoted sport and physical education in school.
"We always had dedicated time to play soccer and football in school and I joined my local GAA club in Drimoleague and played under 10 and under 12 football before I lost my sight. I used to love doing fun runs too.”
He was a grafter.
“We trained once a week and I remember on Saturday mornings I would always have to get up early and help my parents on the farm and then try and escape down the back fields half-way through the chores and get changed and run down the road to be on time for football.
“I always had a very competitive spirit.”
Donnacha was stopped in his tracks when he was diagnosed with leukaemia at the age of 10.
“Fortunately, it was treatable but it manifested itself in my eye-sight failing. My eye-sight became blurry and I needed glasses.
"Under-going chemotherapy treatment for the cancer, my eyesight worsened over a period of six weeks. The optic nerves in my eyes were destroyed.”
His young life and the world as he knew it appeared damaged beyond repair.
“It put me off sport completely,” Donnacha admits. “I fell out of love with it.”
There seemed no light at the end of the tunnel. Only darkness.
“I couldn’t imagine how I was ever going to be able to play sport, not being able to see. I’d never heard of Paralympics or para-sport or visually impaired sport,” says Donnacha.
“I decided to focus on my studies instead. I just assumed that after I lost my sight, sport wasn’t going to be part of my life anymore.”
He was to be proven wrong. Donnacha was to be going far.
“I remember my sister putting me on her bike and peddling on the roads near home while she ran ahead of me. That’s one of my first memories getting active again.”
It felt good.
“It was just great to be active again and to get that feeling you get from sport.
“My headmaster was good too. He got me involved in sport when he could and he always tried to come up with games where he could include me in some way and I think that was important for me getting back into sport.”
He had other help from his friends.
“Victoria Elliot, child mobility officer, did important work with me, doing the ground-work to live independently being blind,” says Donnacha.
“I learned how to use the long cane and I got my first guide dog Holly, who became my shadow. Aero is my companion now.”
He learned how to navigate the bustling city when he was a student studying IT in UCC.
“The city environment was very different from country-living,” says Donnacha.
He learned something else as well.
“As a student, I learned to cook!”
Donnacha is no quitter in any field.
“I joined training sports camps and got involved in blind football playing five-a-side. The squad competed in club and international tournaments. It was good fun and my first foray back into sport. The ball had a ball-bearing so you could hear it on the pitch. You could take the balls home with you.”
He was back in familiar territory.
“I could kick about with the lads again and hang out with them. It was great to re-connect.”
He was on a level playing field.
“I progressed with the football squad to playing in Europe, playing the European qualifiers against Romania in 2017. Wearing the Irish jersey was a great moment.”
As the endorphins kicked in, so did Donnacha’s competitive spirit
“When I started working with Vodafone back in 2013, they were sponsors of Triathlon Ireland,” he says.
“There was a lot of talk about triathalons in the company. A few of the guys encouraged me to do one.”
Donnacha wasn’t persuaded at first.
“I thought, no way! I can’t even swim! Why would they think I could do a triathalon? I just thought he whole sport was crazy.”
But Donnacha, no quitter, was willing to give it a go.
“One of the guys took me out running with him at lunch-time,” says Donnacha.
How did that go?
“Neither of us had a clue,” says Donnacha.
“We were just experimenting with what worked guiding-wise and tether-wise. We had a few close calls with lamp-posts!”
That didn’t deter him.
“I loved it and the competitive side of me started to come out again. I entered 5km and 10km races. Keeping up my fitness levels made me feel good.”
Enter triathlon coach Eammon Tilley.
“A friend at work was being coached by Eamonn and she mentioned they were holding a paratriathon day. Eamonn mentioned to her I should go along. So I did.”
Donnacha was thrown in the deep end.
“Eamonn said it’d be grand to come along and that he’d throw me in the pool to see how I’d get on.”
Donnacha came close to throwing in the towel.
“The technical side of swimming was hard to crack. But I was very lucky to team up with Eamonn’s brother, Dave. He acted as my guide and he was determined to get me swimming.”
The two men made a good team.
“Dave pushed me on the days I didn’t want to be pushed to crack the swimming,” Donnacha says. “We progressed from duathlons to triathalons.
“He was a brilliant mentor and taught me everything he knew. He did my first races with me and we got my first international medal together. The sense of achievement was amazing.”
Donnacha had the bug.
“The competitive bug, the pressure, the challenge, the goal, they all drive me,” says Donnacha.
He didn’t hang about.
“I competed in local races and national championships and I represented Ireland at the international triathlon championships in 2017.”
Standing on the podium became familiar territory. “The accolades were lovely,” says Donnacah.
“I never had any great expectations. But it was always nice to win. Experience in that level of competition was brilliant. For a small nation, we punch above our weight in the sports world.”
Tokyo was not on Donnacaha’s radar.
“It was not on my mind. I thought it was too soon for me. Even though I am doing sport for years, I am still a newbie. I’m still getting places, always improving.”
“In 2019, the Paralympics in Tokyo 2021 became a possibility,” says Donnacha.
It became his goal.
“I went over for a mock event to experience the environment and the conditions in Tokyo.
“It was a test process where you accumulate points. I finished 6th in the triatholon. It was a great result.”
Donnacha intends to return to Tokyo for the Paralympics, representing his country.
“I’ll keep the fires burning,” he says.
“Keeping up my fitness levels to peak at the right time is crucial.
“The body reaches that state only a few times a year. Hopefully things will go my way.”
And he’ll return to Cork victorious.
“No pressure!” jokes Donnacha.
But doesn’t he thrive on pressure?
“I do,” admits Donnacha.
His parents must be proud of their resilient son?
“They are,” says Donnacha.
They are also typical West Cork people.
“When I come back home from winning a competition, they say, oh you’re back!”
No fear of him getting ‘notions’ then!