NUI Galway lecturers return home as Paralympic heroes
By Darragh Berry
Dr Eoghan Clifford, a Civil Engineering lecturer at NUI Galway and Dr Patrick O’Leary, a lecturer above the bar in the School of Chemistry made headlines for their feats at the recent Paralympic Games in Rio, Dr Clifford securing Gold and Bronze medals with O’Leary finishing sixth in the final of his event.
Dr O’Leary, a native of Cork who now resides in Moycullen, became Ireland’s first ever Irish Para-canoeist to qualify for the KL3 canoeing final. Rio 2016 is the first time that Para-canoeing has been included in the games.
He finished third in his heat with a time of 45.97 seconds before eclipsing that time by a second and a half to earn him a spot in the final, which took place on Thursday 15 September.
Speaking to SIN, Dr O’Leary was asked about his look whilst canoeing, the back to front cap on his head beautifully showing off the tri-colour logo in the Rio sun; “If it’s warm I usually have a bandana on my head but there was problems with the apparel police with wearing it, so the next best thing was a cap, albeit back to front.”
Dr O’Leary lost his knee to bone cancer at the age of 18 and in the midst of his Leaving Certificate exams was subject to intense sessions of chemotherapy.
It was also in school where Dr O’Leary’s love of canoeing began and despite the loss of his knee, O’ Leary was able to keep up the sport as it didn’t put as much of a strain on his knee as other sports.
In 2011, a reoccurring infection in Dr O’Leary’s leg meant that it would have to be amputated. It was less than two months after having a prosthetic leg fitted that Dr O’Leary returned to canoeing and he had one thing on his mind: qualifying for Rio.
He finished in sixth place in the final out of a total of eight athletes who took part in the race. Winning a medal was not his sole ambition. Qualifying for a place in the Paralympics was the initial dream, followed by qualifying for the final and he smashed both of those expectations.
“It was amazing to share the experience with my family,” he told SIN.
“I am truly delighted to have finished 6th which is higher than what my expected ranking was coming into this race. It was the best race I have ever executed which is nice to be able to say and I am honoured to have been part of such a positive and passionate Ireland team at this Paralympic games.”
Like Dr O’Leary, Dr Eoghan Clifford too was competing in his first Paralympics for his country. He began his para-cycling career in winning fashion; in his UCI Para-Cycling Road World Championship debut in 2014, he won the world title in the Men’s C3 Road Race and since chalked up gold and silver at the UCI Para-Cycling Road World Cup in 2015 and 2016 respectively.
Therefore, it is no surprise that he will leave Rio with both Gold and Bronze medals. Dr Clifford suffers from a hereditary muscular degenerative disease called Charcot-Marie-Tooth, which involves progressive loss of muscle tissue and touch sensation across various parts of the body. He claimed his first medal, the Bronze in the C3 3000 metres Individual Pursuit – a race in which Dr Clifford had started so well he told SIN he had an inclination after four laps that he might “even be able to break the Paralympian record.”
The record and Gold eluded him in that race, claiming a Bronze medal but it wasn’t too long before the Gold was a reality. On Wednesday 14 September, Dr Clifford grabbed Gold in the Para-cycling C3 time trial. His first place finish was a staggering one minute and eight seconds faster than his nearest competitor. He took a different approach to that of his Bronze-winning race and was slow to start before bursting into the lead with three laps to go. The Limerick native had been struggling with a weakening injury in his knee as a result of his degenerative muscle disease but seemingly chose power over pain on numerous occasions to secure victory.
He went into his third and final race on Friday 16 September with the aim of adding another medal to his already well-embellished collection. He was part of the five cyclists who broke away from the pack and were racing for a podium finish in this pulsating finish to the 70km C1-3 road race. However, 200 meters from the line, Dr Clifford’s chain on his bike suddenly came off, despite the athlete not even changing gears at the time.
He finished fifth overall in the race and told The Irish Times; “I am very disappointed now because I love road racing and I really felt I had another medal to win in that race but it’s been a great Paralympics overall, I really enjoyed it.”
Their achievements in Rio in the past few weeks are something that has grasped the hearts and attention of anyone associated with NUI Galway. They will no doubt return back to the university to a hero’s welcome, greeted by many open arms to embrace them and many open ears to hear their tales about their fantastic adventures.
Image courtesy of the Limerick Leader.