NIAMH McCarthy quips that she popularised knitting in a sports stadium long before British diver Tom Daley.
“I’m not as good as him, I can only do basic stuff, but I was knitting baby Irish flags in Rio and people were using their Paralympic pins to stick them on to their bags,” says F41 discus silver medallist Niamh McCarthy grinning ahead of her competition, which starts Wednesday at 1.34am Irish time.
“I was laughed at for asking could I bring my knitting into competition with me to stay calm between throws. I know exactly why he does it. It’s very peaceful! I’m going to have to get back to that,” she laughs.
McCarthy is only half-joking.
Whenever medal winners return to a major arena they are expected to replicate their best form.
With fellow Corkonians Orla Barry and Noelle Lenihan now retired McCarthy, 27, is feeling the pressure of expectation in Tokyo.
Five years ago she was the sassy newcomer from Carrigaline, a sky-diving fanatic with killer eye-liner who casually wore street sneakers in the throwing circle.
“I was a good athlete and a good competitor but my naivety was a blessing. I was like a kid then. A lot has happened in the last five years. I’d say I’m a very different person now, especially mentally. I know so much more now that it’s a lot scarier.” Her potential was first spotted at a Paralympics Ireland talent ID day and, within a year, she had won bronze at the 2015 World Championships.
Since 2016 she’s won lots more - World silver in 2017, a European title in 2018 (with a record throw of 32.67m) and World bronze in 2019.
But Paralympic standards keep soaring. Her penultimate throw of 26.6m in Rio clinched silver but she’ll need 30-plus to get a sniff of a medal this time.
She threw 30.03m to retain her European title in June and has a season best of 31.18m but the reigning Tunisian champion Raoua Tlili, who took gold with 33.38m in 2016, has noticeably already retained her F41 shot title in Tokyo with a world record.
“She’s actually number two now. There’s a Moroccan who threw a world record this year and there’s a Canadian on my tail now as well,” McCarthy explains.
Morocco’s Youssra Karim actually threw the shot in Rio but has since switched events and threw a 10-metre PB to take silver ahead of McCarthy in the 2019 World Championships.
It’s a stacked field and the last two years have been particularly tough for her as she had a change of coach in 2019 and had her 2020 training completely disrupted by Covid.
If McCarthy medals again she would love people to appreciate just how hard it is.
That some people still don’t regard Paralympians as elite athletes frustrates her and she blames it on poor media coverage which only ever spikes around the Games.
"It can’t just be that we get coverage whenever we win medals. Everyone should know about the whole team.
“Throwing the discus is something I do, that’s not all that’s about me and I don’t tell people I do it,” she reveals.
“But people find out the odd time and some ask ‘oh really, how often are you training? A couple of times a-week?’ and I’m like 'a couple of times? Are you for real?'
“They’d never think that of an Olympic athlete. They think they sleep, drink and eat training but that’s exactly what we do as well.”