A decorated wheelchair basketball player who recently took up para rowing while studying at University of Limerick has his sights set on the Paris Paralympics in 2024.
Tiarnán O’Donnell graduates from University of Limerick this Wednesday with a Bachelor of Engineering in Mechanical Engineering from the Faculty of Science and Engineering at UL, one of over 3,500 students graduating this week.
Tiarnán, who captained an Irish U23 wheelchair basketball team to a European Bronze in Finland, decided to pivot from wheelchair basketball to rowing after receiving an encouraging message from world champion rower Katie O’Brien.
“Katie is at the top of this sport and messaged me saying: ‘I think you could be amazing at rowing if you gave it a go’. I decided that once my degree was secured, I would commit everything to this goal of going to the Paralympics next year.
“I walked straight from my final exam to the UL boathouse. The day I started rowing was the day I finished my studies.
“I have since moved down to the National Rowing Centre in Cork to train with the para rowing team alongside some of the best rowers in the world. Being surrounded by Olympians every day is a huge inspiration to train hard to get to the level they have competed at.
He has already won a national title in rowing for UL and in the process, earned the opportunity to row for Ireland in an international regatta this summer, which he said, “was a great experience”.
The Limerick native was diagnosed with a rare malformation in his right leg at the age of five.
He underwent operations every few months throughout the rest of his childhood and when he reached his teens, his condition began to rapidly deteriorate. Following consultation with doctors from the USA, he was re-diagnosed with a rare tumour called a Fibro-Adipose Vascular Anomaly.
“I was just the sixteenth person in the world diagnosed with this condition. In the summer before my Leaving Cert year, I underwent an extremely risky procedure to try remove a large portion of the tumour from my calf. Unfortunately, during the operation I got severe nerve damage leaving my leg paralysed,” he explained.
“Although, my leg had been paralysed, the nerve damage caused excruciating pain in my leg and foot. The only way I can describe it is like having my foot on fire or being stabbed in the foot all the time. I underwent weekly treatment to manage the tumour and its side effects all while trying to attend school.”
Tiarnán continued: “I became extremely ill in my Leaving Cert year due to my treatment but was determined to sit my exams with my twin and my peers. In the days leading up to the exams I was in hospital paralysed from the belly down to give my body a break from the pain and stress it was under. This meant I was lying flat in a hospital bed when I should have been doing the last bit of cramming.
“After my Leaving Cert I made the difficult decision to amputate my leg. I was so tired and ill from fighting that this seemed like my only hope of a normal life. After consultation with experts in every field, my family and I decided it was the best option for me.
“So, I moved to London in 2018 for the procedure. I spent two weeks in hospital after the surgery and then moved home to allow myself to heal up. After six weeks I flew back to London and learned how to walk. This took me just 13 days of vigorous physio and gym work to achieve. I went from 10 plus years of crutches to walking in just three months. This was the best decision I ever made, and I have never looked back,” he explained.
Tiarnán has won several national titles and cups with his local team, the Limerick Celtics and has also won national player of the year awards as well as European All-Star awards.
“I have played for the senior national team for several years and four European championship events, leading the team in scoring in some of these competitions.
“I am still competing in basketball and will be traveling to Bosnia in a few weeks to compete at the European championships. The team has never been stronger, and we are really hopeful to have a strong podium finish this year. However, this will be my last action in basketball for the foreseeable as I put all my time and energy into the goal of Paris 2024.”
Tiarnán credits his strong work ethic to his parents and attributes his drive and determination to them, while graduating from UL fulfils a lifelong goal.
“They are both extremely successful in their professional lives and in their sporting careers when they were my age. They have never pushed me in any direction but have allowed me to find my path and guided me along the way. They make sure to let me know how proud they are of me anytime I achieve something whether it be big or small.”
Neasa O’Donnell is the Senior Executive Sports Manager at UL but will attend the conferring ceremony this Wednesday in a personal capacity, as Tiarnán’s proud parent.
“We are so thrilled for him, would you believe today, to the day, five years ago, he was a mere 13 days post-amputation, weighing 48kgs and we had no idea what was ahead for him. A very, very different young man today and all down to pure grit and somewhat stubborn determination. We are buzzing and so proud of him.”
Tiarnán’s academic goal was always to study Mechanical Engineering in UL, however he did not start the course in the traditional way.
“I was extremely sick in my Leaving Cert year, undergoing treatment for the tumour in my leg for the 18 months leading up to the exams. As a result, I didn’t get a result that reflected my true academic ability and didn’t get a place on the programme.
“However, I was determined to study engineering in UL. Having met with faculty heads, they advised me that if I attended Mechanical Engineering in TUS for one year and finished top of my class that I could transfer directly into Engineering in UL. I managed to finish top of my class and earned my place in UL. Finally, I was on the academic path I had always hoped for,” he explained.
Tiarnán made a lasting impression in that meeting with the Assistant Dean Academic Affairs (ADAA) for the Faculty of Science and Engineering, and Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering in the School of Engineering, Reena Cole.
“I really do still recall that first meeting with him, he’s an exceptional young man. While he was unassuming at this meeting, understating the difficulties he had overcome and how successful an athlete he was in spite of this, the resilience he had shown over such difficult years was obvious and I knew he would bring this drive to his engineering studies,” said Reena.
Tiarnán outlined how the “amazing sporting facilities on campus allowed me to pursue my sporting goals while attaining a top-class education.
“I was fortunate to receive a sports scholarship for the duration of my time here, and it was a huge achievement as UL has the most competitive sporting academy in the country. Receiving the scholarship has allowed me to excel in my sport - I am twice the athlete I was when I arrived in UL and this is down to the facilities, and supports I received while here. I have achieved so much during my time here.”
Tiarnán will take more than his many athletic achievements with him as he graduates.
“The friends you make here are truly friends for life. The co-op portion of my degree was my favourite part of the course as I learned so much during the nine months in industry and it really gave me the grá for research and development in engineering.
“I have been offered a job when I graduate because of my co-op placement, which was a huge relief when going into employment. Having a strong backup has given me confidence as I leave UL and try to make it on my own. I am committing everything for the year leading up to the Paralympic Games and after that the goal is to utilise my degree and eventually work with prosthetics in the future.”
Asked about graduating today, Tiarnán added: “It’s an extremely emotional feeling, it’s only now I am beginning to realise all I went through to get here. At the time, my family and friends kept me going and made me feel just the same as everyone else, so I felt no different. It just shows if you want something bad enough, you can achieve it.”