GAA Football

Tokyo dreams to come true for former Armagh GAA physio Paul Carragher

Paul Carragher played a major role behind the scenes with Armagh's footballers for over a decade and the physio will be a major part of Ireland's bid for Olympic glory next summer. He spoke to Neil Loughran about the challenges, and opportunities, facing sportspeople as we come out of lockdown...

Armagh man Paul Carragher has been named as part of Ireland's physiotherapy team for the Tokyo Olympics next summer. Picture by Sportsfile

IN a roundabout sort of a way, Paul Carragher has ex-Armagh forward Denis Hollywood to thank as he looks ahead to working with some of Ireland’s top athletes at the greatest show on earth.

“In sixth or seventh year at school I wouldn’t even have known what a physio was,” he smiles.

“I was at the stage of filling out my UCAS form and it was all engineering or accountancy. The week before that was to be submitted I picked up a hamstring injury, Denis took me to see a physio, and I became interested from there…”

Now, all these years on, Carragher is among the most respected in his field, and beat off stiff competition to be named part of Ireland’s team of physiotherapists at next summer’s delayed Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Hollywood - currently a selector with Kieran McGeeney's Armagh - was involved during the early stages of his fledgling career too.

The pair played through the different age groups in Newtownhamilton and would be reacquainted in the name of the county cause when Carragher was asked to lend his professional expertise to an Orchard minor panel headed up by his St Michael’s team-mate, Jim McCorry, Paul Kelly and Brendan Hughes.

That was the start of a 13-year association with his native county that only came to an end two years ago when the competing demands of his Windsor Hill clinic in Newry, alongside his roles as lead physiotherapist for Athletics Ireland and head of performance support for Cycling Ireland – as well as working with athletes in gymnastics and taekwondo – meant something had to give.

“I do miss it. I was with the minors for three years with the seniors from 2008, and they had a fantastic bunch that whole time.

“I’d have seen a lot of them either early in the morning or late in the evening, they’d have been coming to the house here and sure my kids absolutely loved it. I had a great time with Armagh.”

Gaelic football remains a huge passion and Carragher will be an interested observer when games return this weekend following four months of inactivity.

Renowned strength and conditioning coach Mike McGurn - who was also previously involved with Armagh - has predicted a “pandemic of injuries” when club players return to competitive action, and Carragher shares similar concerns.

“Everybody wants to get back to games - that’s why people play sport. But if it’s not well thought out it’s a recipe for disaster. The risk of injury during a match is significantly higher if you haven’t had sufficient training to lead into that.

“The potential of having matches two to three times a week, with inadequate preparation, it’s fairly obvious a spate of injuries will follow that.

“People are underestimating the effect of three or four months of no activity. You’ll have a whole spectrum there of what players have done – you’ll have guys who have kept themselves in reasonable shape, some who have done nothing at all, some who think they have kept themselves in shape with endurance-based stuff, but that’s not specific to what they’re going to be asking their bodies to do when games start up.

“If their body is not ready for those demands, it’ll break down and you could see a spike in the likes of ACLs. Hopefully that isn’t the case.”

There are timing issues at play for all those athletes going in search of their Olympic dream too, as the 2020 Games would be getting under way in just over a fortnight had it not been for the all-encompassing intervention of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Whether they go ahead as planned next summer remains a matter of debate in a fluid and fast-paced situation that barely allows for short-term hypothesising, never mind crystal ball gazing 12 months down the line.

That presents a conundrum for athletes across the world, and Carragher expects the extra year’s wait will have different ramifications for different disciplines as they prepare for the high point of any sporting career.

“The biggest difference is for those who have qualified and those for whom the qualification process is still ongoing. Cycling’s qualification process has finished and, particularly for the track guys, it’s probably a big opportunity for them to focus on getting in the best shape they can possibly be in for next year, whereas if the Games had gone ahead, they’d have been coming off a very heavy qualification block and a very tough 12 months.

“Rhys McClenaghan [gymnastics] and Jack Woolley [taekwondo] would be in a similar boat. Their qualification is done, they’re probably at the younger age of their competition so they have 12 months to develop further and improve. There’s massive potential there, so it’ll be really interesting to see how that goes.

“The athletics qualification process will be going on for another nine or 10 months so it’s a different situation. Some of those junior athletes who were very successful over the last couple of years, it’s a big opportunity for them as this summer might have come a bit too soon.

“For any athletes who had been looking at possibly retiring afterwards, this has pushed that on another 12 months, so they’ve got a whole different set of issues to deal with.

“All that ties into how you’re feeling on a day to day basis. For us, it’s about trying to support them to achieve their goals.”

From a personal perspective, despite having been involved at the London Paralympics in 2012 and then the Rio Olympics four years ago, his wider remit means Tokyo represents exciting new ground for Carragher.

However, it has also forced him to put on ice plans for his own sporting comeback.

“After I stopped playing football, I ended up getting into triathlon. I had been working late hours in the clinic in Newry and a guy, Milo McCourt, asked did I do anything myself. I couldn’t swim at all but I went with him down to the triathlon club, went through that process over two or three years, and got quite big into it.

“The first Ironman I did was in Zurich in 2012, then Nice, then Mallorca but when I took on the role with Athletics Ireland in 2013, two or three days a week and transitioned into a full-time role. As travel up and down to Dublin increased, my training went downhill, but there will definitely be one put in the calendar soon.

“If the Olympics had gone ahead this summer I would have signed up for something next summer because once you have that in the diary as something to aim towards, your discipline improves. Maybe in 2022 I’ll get a go at it again.”

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