John Fulham is a four- time Paralympian wheelchair racer over 100m and 200m, winning European and National Titles. He won the Dublin Marathon three times and played on the Irish Wheelchair Basketball Team for 14 years. He is currently President of Paralympics Ireland. John was born with Spina Bifida, a congenital defect in the spine. Here he tells his story of a great life in sport.

Expectations weren’t high. “Hard Luck Gerry” my Dad was told as he played golf with his friends after I was born. “We don’t know how long Johnny is for this world, so we won’t operate,” my mother was told as she waited for me to have surgery that would help me along. Such were the levels of expectation that people had for me back in 1971, it’s any wonder I managed to achieve anything at all, let alone be successful in sport.

Thankfully, I had a mother who allowed me to go headfirst down the slides, climb trees, go to ‘normal school’ alongside my friends and adventure wherever they adventured. I had a family who entertained my fantasies that I too could be a Jedi Knight like Luke Skywalker. My family encouraged my childhood innocence, allowing me to understand that I was unique, and that world was my oyster. I might do things a bit differently, but that world was still my oyster, full of my own anticipation and expectation. This was a belief that would form the foundation I would call on for when I wanted to achieve; for when sport and life came my way and brought challenges along with it.

What would I say to my 15-year-old self if we crossed paths now? If I knew then what I know now? Alas, there would be too much to say and not enough time to say it. Also, it would be unfair to deny my young self that education which we call experience.  The reason we go through experience is because we need to learn as we go, it makes us who and what we are. So, what would I say?

I did not get involved in sport until I was fifteen. My childhood innocence took a few knocks as I grew older and picked up on the perceptions of the world around me. I started to believe their expectations that sport was not for me as there was only Football, Golf, Rugby and GAA. In school PE teachers tried in vain to include me, but just did not know how. Sport for people with disabilities was only developing; the Paralympic Movement was not what it is today. I did not see any people like me taking part. However, eventually I was spotted by some people with disabilities and discovered amazing role models like Harry Pierce and Sean O’Grady, who showed me that there was a way, even if I could not then see how.

I tried everything from table tennis to athletics and found my love, track racing. I borrowed, shared and tried all types of track chairs. I raced, crashed, stripped skin off my fingers as I learned my racing trade. Through it all, I wondered about what worked for others which did not seem to work for me. Thankfully, the role model (the aforementioned Harry Pierce) I found or more accurately, found me, took me under his wing and showed me so much. He built me a one- off unique chair for me. In those moments of trial and error as we created the chair which would be my stepping stone to an international career, I discovered that what worked for others, may not be right for me but could contribute to what was, the how. That lesson gently imparted by a wise and patient man to an arrogantly impetuous messer stood by me in years to come. I came to realise it always had been and would remain my mantra, there is always a way, it’s just the matter of ‘how’!

When a gym had no hand crank to help me warm up for the early morning weights sessions, I sat on the ground and used the pedals of a stationary bike. Unusual for people to see, but necessary for me. When I moved from Limerick to Dublin to work and train, I lived in a two-storey house for many years. A wheelchair upstairs and a wheelchair downstairs, crawling up the stairs to get from one to the other sorted me out. Not ideal, but it worked for me. Whether during the extreme devastation after my first international competition where I was truly trounced or in the ‘call room’ before the European Championships where the inevitable pre-race nerves could have stopped me winning that day, that lesson about believing in my own expectations and remembering there is always a way was often the reserve I called on.

I look at my three-year-old son now and marvel at his belief that I can do anything. Even when climbing or playing football, as he says, “Come on Dad keep on trying”. A reminder to me to keep pushing on those expectations.

So that is what I would say. Surround yourself with people who believe in you, you will need them and remember other people’s expectations of you should never matter. What you expect of yourself will be what counts and when faced with a challenge, there is always a way, it is simply a matter of figuring out your own ‘how’. Sport is truly for everyone.

Yours in Sport,

John Fulham

This essay is an extract from Be the Best You Can Be in Sport- A Book for Irish Youth

Copyright Paul Kilgannon 2021
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