‘Tippy Tappy’ Wheelchair Hurling’s best thing I’ve Done:

You really have to see it to believe it. There is no pulling back just because someone is in a wheelchair. I remember one lad got taken to hospital for concussion because he got bashed against a wall. Another went through a fire escape because of the pace he was going at when challenging for the sliotar.

“It is anything but tippy-tappy,” says All-Ireland-winning wheelchair hurler Caroline O’Halloran, determined to banish the most common misconception surrounding her beloved game.

O’Halloran, as she readily admits, was once the person who needed convincing. Before ever laying eyes on a game of wheelchair hurling, her view — an ill-informed one, she concedes — was that this was a sport which carried none of the skill, speed, or physicality associated with Thurles or Croke Park.

How wrong she was.

A native of Ruan, Co Clare, O’Halloran was born with spina bifida. But as to how she ended up in a wheelchair, there’s a little more to her story.

Having shattered her kneecap when falling in the schoolyard at the age of 13, and with subsequent attempts at reconstruction failing to do the trick, O’Halloran underwent knee replacement surgery in her early twenties.

An infection, which took hold less than a year later, meant a second knee replacement was required. This latest knee, however, “kept clicking in and out”, and so eight years ago, O’Halloran had her third and final knee replacement.

In between the second and third replacements, the Clare County Council employee began using a wheelchair in going about her everyday life. Her walker, which she’d relied on since childhood, was no longer in daily demand. Following the last of her surgeries, medical advice recommended full-time use of the wheelchair.

“I found it very hard to go from a walker to a wheelchair, even though the wheelchair gave me more independence. With a walker, you see, I was limited in how far I could walk as the knee would swell up if overworked. It was a big change to go from being able to stand and walk to going into a chair and being confined. It was a shock.”

Back in 2014, and now comfortable with life in a chair, O’Halloran went in search of an outlet. Her first preference was wheelchair rugby. This quickly became a non-starter, though, as the majority of teams, at the time, were Dublin-based.

Wheelchair hurling was suggested to her and upon making contact with Steven Casey, a member of the Munster team, O’Halloran was invited to a training session of theirs at the Delta Sports Dome in Limerick. “To be honest, I was saying to myself, I’ll go down, this will be a tippy-tappy sport and I just can’t do that,” O’Halloran recalls of her initial reluctance towards wheelchair hurling.

“The evening I went down, the coaches, Dave Fitzgerald and Neilus Sheehy, brought me straight into the circle where the lads were and said, ‘this isn’t something you have ever experienced before, be prepared to be sore in the morning’. I kinda laughed, thinking, ‘yeah right’.

“We did sprints and other drills, and it was like nothing I’d ever experienced in a sports wheelchair. The skill and the lads’ level of fitness was unreal. The next day, I couldn’t move. That shocked me — which was great.

“It was full commitment, full force. After my first experience, I was like, this is me, I’m coming back. I haven’t left since. I am into my fifth year with them now.”

Throughout our conversation, O’Halloran repeatedly stresses that one does not need to be in a wheelchair to be eligible to play wheelchair hurling. A physical disability is the sole requirement.

“I wasn’t in a position to play sports growing up because I was using a walker. I didn’t realise how restricted I was. It was great that I could walk, but you were limited in other ways. The wheelchair gives you this extra bit of freedom. I drive, have my own place. I can do something as simple as carry my own groceries. I couldn’t do that when using a walker.

“The world has become more and more adaptable to wheelchair users. It is all down to yourself and what limitations you put on yourself. If you see an obstacle, the obstacle is going to be there. You can look at it two ways: It could be the end of the world or a new challenge that you are willing to take on. I went with the latter and started looking for an outlet. I found hurling, and it is the best thing I ever did.”

On October 27, O’Halloran was between the sticks as Munster defeated Leinster to achieve All-Ireland wheelchair hurling glory.

Played indoors, on a hard court, a wheelchair hurling team consists of six players (a goalkeeper, two defenders, one midfielder, and two forwards). It’s all ground hurling, while points can only be scored from sideline cuts. Games are typically seven minutes a half, but the All-Ireland final, which is the culmination of a day-long competition involving all four provinces, runs for three nine-minute periods. Outside of this inter-provincial championship tournament, there is a year-round league.

“You are strapped into your sports chair, so even if it tips forward following a challenge, someone on the sideline will rush in and pick you back up,” continues the 40-year old O’Halloran.

“It is attritional and very different to what you picture in your head. We have had Limerick, Clare, and Tipperary hurlers visit our training sessions and give wheelchair hurling a go. They come in and expect to be like, ‘aren’t ye great’, but they end up being the ones who go home sore and with blisters on their hands.

The skill levels also have to be seen to be believed. Maurice Noonan from Ballingarry, our vice-captain, cut over two sidelines in the All-Ireland final. If he could walk, he’d be walking onto the Limerick team right now. Young Ellie Sheehy is another who is so gifted.

Captain of the 2019 All-Ireland-winning Munster team is James McCarthy. He too was born with spina bifida. Having started out on crutches, the Limerick city native has been using a wheelchair since 1983.

His sporting résumé, before ever taking a hurl in his hand, read rather impressively.

McCarthy is a two-time Paralympian, having thrown the shot putt at the 1996 and 2012 Games. He’s also represented Ireland in wheelchair basketball and rugby.

A couple of months after returning home from the London Paralympics, McCarthy went along to the annual SportsAbility Day at the University of Limerick. Dave Fitzgerald invited him to give wheelchair hurling a go and, no more than O’Halloran, he was instantly hooked.

“In basketball, if you go in hard, you are committing a foul. Nearly everything I couldn’t do on a basketball court, I can do in the hurling field,” says McCarthy.

“It would be an injustice to the sport and the guys who created the game if we took away the hard stuff. Hurling is hard and that is what we owe the game.

“Of course, if you are challenging a young person or someone just starting out in wheelchair hurling, you’re not going to go all in. But if I am playing in an All-Ireland final against a Leinster team going for four-in-a-row, as was the case in October, I’ve got to lead by example.”

Both McCarthy and O’Halloran can’t emphasise enough the benefits of strapping oneself into a sports chair once a week and wheeling out onto a court for a game of hurling.

“First and foremost, the health aspect of it is just so important. Wheelchair hurling gets people moving,” says McCarthy.

“We are teaching them the skill of pushing themselves that little bit further, discipline too. You can then apply all of that to your education and work life. Guys who are successful in their jobs owe a lot to the sport. It would be such a shame if people with disabilities missed out on the opportunity to learn those skills. Any bit of movement is better than no movement at all. The fact that we can do it on the hurling field is a bonus.”

Such has been the growing popularity of wheelchair hurling, a Munster junior team was formed this year to cater for young people in the province (see Treaty Warriors Facebook page for further information).

If for nothing else other than the sense of empowerment the sport gives rise to, O’Halloran urges those with a physical disability to sample wheelchair hurling.

“I have always had a passion for sport, but I now get to go home and say, actually, do you know what, I’ve won an All-Ireland because I play, and I’m part of a team who did better than anybody else in a given year,” she remarks.

“There is nothing to stop me going out playing hurling with the kids at home.

“Just knowing there is nothing stopping me doing anything — that is what wheelchair hurling can prove to the young people coming up along. There is nothing there but yourself to stop you from doing anything.”

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