FOR every professional athlete, there is a certain inevitability about retirement at a relatively young age. It’s the nature of the beast.
For 30-year-old Cork athlete Orla Barry, that day came last month when she announced her retirement from paralympic sport after a 17-year career that has seen her represent Ireland at three Paralympic games in the F57 Discus.
She retires having won nine medals at major events, including European Championships and World Para Athletics, and having become a record holder in 2013.
“It wasn’t a decision made overnight but made over a number of weeks”, reveals Orla, a native of Ladysbridge.
“I knew I would do it when the time was right — and it was the right time. And I’m happy I made my decision.
“2019 was a difficult year for me in sport. I found I wasn’t having the heart, the drive, the determination and the motivation to keep going. It just wasn’t there.”
After spending so much time at the top of her game and making so many sacrifices to be there, she questioned why she was feeling that way.
“I was frustrated that I wasn’t as motivated as I had been”, she says. “But I have so many new, exciting things going on in my life and I want to be able to enjoy those things. For so long I gave 100% and if I can’t give 100% then I don’t want to do it any more.”
Those new, exciting things include the building of a new house in Killeagh and wedding planning for her upcoming nuptials at Christmas, 2021.
Add to the mix Orla’s new teaching qualifications and one can see she has more than enough to focus on, away from the high performance career that has consumed her since the age of nine.
Orla is a double amputee above the knee, something that has never held her back.
“I don’t know any different; this is my life. When I was born I was missing my shin bones and knee caps and was operated on at 11 months old, so I don’t remember it. But I was walking a couple of months later,” she says.
The operation allowed her to walk with prosthetic legs, her preferred way of getting around to this day.
From her first competition at the age of nine, through to her first major championship at 14 (Paralympian European Championship), to her first Paralympics in Beijing at the age of 18, to her first major medal in 2012 at the IPC European Championships in the Netherlands, her star was continually in the ascent. It didn’t happen without a lot of hard work, dedication and endless hours spent training.
“I’d have ten sessions per week. I’d be in the gym three times per week lifting weights and doing medicine ball throws (weighing 2kg- 6kg) to develop a powerful throw and a powerful release.
“I’d have outdoor training sessions three times per week. I’d also do Pilates with a physio and I’d have cardio sessions to be fit enough to do long training sessions.”
With all that commitment to her sport from such a young age, does she feel she missed out on anything?
“I don’t think so. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without family. I depended on my Mam and Dad to bring me everywhere; to training and competitions. And as seated throwing is very specialised, my coach was in New Ross. I had the same coach for 17 years. So we were driving to Wexford every weekend.
“I had one older sister and two younger brothers, so one parent would take them to their training, whatever they were involved in. So it did affect the whole household. I’m grateful for the sacrifices they made. They’ve been so supportive of me for my whole career.
“I’d be going to school during the week, so, looking back, how did I even manage to squeeze it all in? Then I had college and passing exams... You just have to do it; you get on with it. Because I led that life for so long, maybe I don’t know what I missed out on. I was in that bubble for so long.”
When she finished school she studied Business Management and Law at Waterford Institute of Technology, a college chosen because of its relatively close proximity to her coach.
“All the decisions I made were because of my sport and I don’t regret any of those decisions,” she says.
Last year, she completed a Master of Education through Hibernia College in Dublin, originally not planning to use her new qualifications until after the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic games, but now that she won’t be competing there she’s glad she has her house in order.
“It’s great that I have it done, as it’ll be a smoother transition knowing that I have all my qualifications,” she explains.
While she is looking forward to job hunting, now is the time for reflection on a career that has brought her much glory and satisfaction.
Seeing as she has been in the game since the age of nine, she has surely seen much change within her sport?
“Oh my God, it’s evolved hugely. Just technology in sport alone — the video analysis and ways of monitoring your training, plus seated throwing has come on hugely; the bar is raised every year.
“What would have won a medal when I first started mightn’t get you into a final these days. The field was always moving on and I was moving with it.”
She also cites the foundation of the Sport Ireland Institute in Dublin as a positive development, which didn’t exist when she started out. But ask her what improvements still need to be made, and it is people’s attitudes to Paralympian athletes, rather than any facilities or services that Orla would most like to see changed.
“People who participate in the Olympics or Paralympics are on a par but people don’t see that. Sometimes there’s an attitude of ‘anyone who turns up can win a medal’. They don’t understand the elite level of it. We’re the same as Olympians except we have a disability.
“The times and distances we’re achieving, for a normal, everyday person, there’s no way they could achieve it. And the sport deserves more coverage; it’s a constant battle to get coverage.
“We’d go to a major championship and come home with a haul of medals and maybe get five seconds in the news. The throw mightn’t be shown or the race mightn’t be shown. I’m hoping that will change going forward. A team could come home with 10-15 medals across all the different sports but a lot of people seem to forget very quickly.
“In Ireland, some athletes are put on a pedestal — and rightly so — but Jason Smyth (legally blind sprint runner) is undefeated. He’s won so many medals for Ireland and been nominated for Athlete of the Year but never actually wins it. If he was an Olympic athlete there would be gold statues of him around the place. He’s probably the greatest athlete we’ve ever had in Ireland and he’s not getting the recognition.”
The blight of performance-enhancing drugs in sport is unfortunately something Orla has witnessed, although she is confident that Irish athletes play by the book.
“Sport Ireland are absolutely fantastic for testing their athletes. You can be 100% sure that 100% of athletes in Ireland are clean because of testing. Abroad, some are only being tested at major championships or games or when they become a medal winner. They could go year to year without being tested until they get to a major championship again. But you just have to trust in the system and focus on yourself; that’s all you can do. You just make sure you’re 100% clean.”
Orla was always careful, even declining to use supplements or powdered protein because of a risk of cross contamination. However, the lowest point in her career came when an athlete she had spent a decade competing against was found to have violated anti-doping regulations. Orla had won the bronze medal at the IPC Athletics World Championships in Doha in 2015, while this athlete had claimed silver.
When the violation was discovered, Orla’s medal was upgraded to silver but any celebration was marred by thoughts of whether possible cheating had cost her medals in previous competitions too.
“Did she hold my career back? What if when I was fourth I should have been third? The difference is huge between fourth and third. It affects your funding from Sport Ireland and whether you get a medal and get on the podium. Maybe she doesn’t owe me more but sometimes I think ‘God, I wonder is there more she owes me?’ But I’ll never know,” she muses.
I notice how Orla doesn’t mention the offending athlete by name (it was Bulgarian, Stela Eneva). Why?
“I don’t want my retirement interviews to be about that. I want all my interviews to be positive. It’s about the great success I’ve had and the great career I’ve had. ‘Forget about it’ is my attitude. Maybe it comes back to having a disability. You accept what you have and get on with it. It all ties in together.”
Going forward, Orla would like a coaching role with the Wheelchair Association, seeing as she relied so heavily on volunteers when she was starting out. “It would be a shame if I walked away and didn’t pass on the knowledge I have and give something back”, she says.
And although her retirement has been announced, her exercise regime will certainly not drop off suddenly, but rather will be altered to suit a new lifestyle.
“I’m in transition now with physio and a strength and conditioning coach. I’ll learn how to keep my body moving; not let it get stiff. I’ll exercise every day to keep my body moving. I’ve big shoulders and I lifted lots of heavy weights to be powerful. I don’t need to be powerful now but I do need to mind my shoulders. I’ll do exercises I enjoy for the purpose of being healthy, not for competing.” She also has the not-so-small matter of a wedding to organise after her engagement to Michael O’Neill on Valentine’s Day last year. They had been friends for years before getting together and she didn’t have far to go to find him, seeing as he works with her father in a business servicing milking machines. Was she expecting the proposal?
“Not really. We went to Belfast for a weekend away. He brought me into a jeweller, we looked at rings and he bought one.
“I said, ‘Are we engaged?’ and he said, ‘I suppose we are’. There was no getting down on one knee!”
Perhaps there will also be time for travel now, seeing as Orla only saw airports, hotel rooms and competition venues when globe-trotting with her sport. As she says herself, “I’ve travelled the world but I haven’t seen the world”.
There is much to look forward to, but does Orla think she will miss her elite level Paralympian career?
“I’ll miss the competitive side of it because I’m naturally competitive anyway. I have three gold European medals and it’s amazing to be on top of a podium, hearing the Irish national anthem and seeing the Irish flag flying.
“The memories are amazing and I know I’ll never have that again but I’m grateful I was able to experience it.”