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From Paralympian to the 9-to-5: planning for the world of work

By Mary Fitzgerald, Irish Paralympian

She made her paralympic debut at the Tokyo 2020 Games and is now fourth in the shot-put world rankings, but getting into the world of work can be a whole different challenge, says Irish Paralympian, Mary Fitzgerald.

You might assume athletes like Mary are paid for their sporting contributions, but earning potential is limited; Paralympians have to juggle their intense training schedule with sourcing an income. Performance athletes often miss out on the careers and advisory support work that others may receive – including help with drafting CVs and arranging interviews – making the transition to the workplace less achievable.

Many former Paralympians find themselves working in fields related to their sport, such as commentating, yet can struggle to break into the other industries and professions they may wish to pursue.

Being a ‘former-Paralympian’ can be a real challenge

Unexpectedly, for many Para athletes, one of the hardest difficulties they face when leaving high-performance competition is overcoming the label of being a ‘former-Paralympian.’ Being such an all-consuming profession, it can be easy to be defined – or to define yourself – narrowly, making transitioning to the arena of work a challenge.

We took the chance to talk with Irish Paralympian, Mary Fitzgerald, who suggests that by having different channels open, you’re less likely to lose your sense of self-identity when leaving the world of sport.

Mary’s currently preparing for winter training, with her sights are set firmly on the 2023 World Para Athletics Championships and the 2024 Paralympic Games – both to be staged in Paris. But while she’s fully committed to her athletics career – a “huge part of her life” – she comments on the value of having other outlets to explore; both in a professional and personal sense.

“I value building a diverse skillset”

“Although I have a passion for sport, I really want to keep developing in different areas and channelling new skills,” Mary says.

Mary has recently completed her four-year degree in Occupational Therapy at University College Cork, and is now a qualified Occupational Therapist. She also works on a part-time basis with Enable Ireland – a charity that provides services to children and adults with disabilities – giving back to the very organisation that provided her support from a young age.

How can athletes represent their skills to employers?

“It’s important to be able to separate yourself from just being a Para athlete,” says Mary. “You should also remember that you can have other interests and personas in life. You also still have the core attributes that allowed you to become an elite performer in the first place, which can be taken with you on your future endeavours.”

Performing in a sporting environment at the Paralympics is not that dissimilar to performing in a high-pressure role. Competing in tense environments requires great resilience and mental fortitude, which can be hugely beneficial in the workplace. However, Mary also accredits the interpersonal skills that Para athletes develop as being equally valuable. Whether it be communicating with coaches and fellow competitors, or the media and governmental bodies, athletes are often required to develop professional relationships and work alongside a diversity of people.

Athletes have so much to offer to the world of work

“Paralympians have so much to offer employers, with their different perspectives and experiences being a real asset for any organisation. Diversity shouldn’t simply be seen as a buzzword, but something that can bring real value. To help bring onboard former Para athletes, employers should do what they can to ensure that workplaces, and their recruitment processes, are made accessible for everybody.”

Despite the progress in recent years, it’s clear that more can still be done to make workplaces more inclusive, and help Para athletes transition to the world of work. With the right networking, knowledge and guidance, Para athletes can make a positive difference in whatever field they choose to work in.

We’re running research with Paralympics Ireland to gain new insights into the challenges athletes face when seeking meaningful employment, and how workplaces can be become more inclusive. And by becoming the #LifelongPartner of Paralympics Ireland and their athletes, we’ll be supporting them on all their recruitment needs, working with their athletes on their tomorrow as they transition into the workplace.

About this author

Mary first encountered throwing through an induction day with the Irish Wheelchair Association when she was 11 and immediately fell in love with it. She is a person of small stature and competed in the World Dwarf Games in Michigan in 2013. She was selected to join Paralympic Ireland’s High Performance squad in 2019 and first represented them at a grand prix in Grossetto before competing in the 2019 World Championships in Dubai and since then has added on two metres to her personal best.

She went to Tokyo in the best form of her life. She won bronze at the European Championships in Poland in June 2021 with a throw of 7.35. Mary performed really well at the Tokyo 2021 Paralympic Games where she finished in 6th place with a throw of 7.79m. She has continued to improve ever since and recently threw a huge Personal Best of 8.12m at the Munster IWA Championships in Templemore.

After making her Paralympics debut in 2021 Mary finished her degree in Occupational Therapy at University College Cork. She was the recipient of a Quercus Scholarship for her academic/sporting achievements while studying at UCC.

Mary is currently in Winter training where she is preparing for her next two major tournaments which are the 2023 World Para Athletics Championships and the 2024 Paralympic Games, both of which will take place in Paris. She is also working on a part-time basis with Enable Ireland.

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