cara launched their “I’m in too“ movement with the aim to capture the voices of people with disabilities to understand the impact that physical activity and sport has on their lives. Gareth Mc Neilly is their newest ambassador. Gareth talks us through his golfing journey as an amputee.
When I was younger, I played lots of sports including Gaelic football and golf. After my accident, I spent a month in hospital after which I had to learn to walk again with a prosthetic limb. Learning to walk again was no easy task but with the huge support from medical professionals, family and friends, I began to see improvements daily. I am very grateful to all who helped me through this tough time, but I am particularly grateful for my uncle Eamon who drove me to physio every day for almost three months. He always ensured my spirits were high.
Within a year of my accident I wanted to keep fit and took up swimming. Once I was in the water, I realised I didn’t miss my leg. I could swim comfortably and really enjoyed the sense of freedom. The hardest part was getting from the changing rooms to the pool itself as the tiles are often shiny and slippy. My prosthetist informed me that the amputee games were being held at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in August 2010 and I used this as further motivation to train hard. For about four months I trained solid and was over the moon to win four medals at the games.
I didn’t really play golf in the first 10 years after my accident. My first prosthetic leg wasn’t built for the demands of the golf swing or walking on a golf course. It came with its challenges and I didn’t have the confidence to swing like I used to in my junior years. After receiving a new computerized knee which allows a lot more stability whilst walking, I took my golf clubs out again and started off in the driving range and playing a couple of holes with my friend and coach Johnny Foster.
While scrolling online one day I came across the European Disabled Golf Association (EDGA) and decided that I wanted to play in a disabled golf event. As a result, I re-joined Massereene golf club working towards playing 18 holes again and getting an official handicap. The club were very accepting, encouraging and helpful when I joined and couldn’t do enough for me.
With practice and time, I began to believe in myself as a golfer again. I swapped the pools for fairways and swimming shorts for polo shirts. Golf and swimming are very different, swimming is very repetitive, and you only see marginal improvements over time. Golf on the other hand was more of a challenge for me. One day I could play badly and the next could be the best day ever. Being out in the fresh air socialising and competing with my friends was something I had missed and now really look forward to.
At the beginning, it was mentally challenging but over time the initial anxiety about returning to golf was overcome and I had a renewed focus. I love being out on the course with my friends and continuing to improve my game.
I was quite competitive growing up and I was keen to keep this going so I decided to play in some of the EDGA international events. My first event was at St Andrews in Scotland and it was a real eye opener for me both on and off the course. The standard was incredible and I realised that no one was defined by their disability, that we were all just regular people, who happened to be missing an arm or a leg or had a serious health condition, but still had a huge passion for playing golf and wanting to do their best.
The travelling elements of competing were also an eye opener. Things like limited seats, slopes and stairs in airports are just some of the things I used to take for granted but now prove a bit more difficult. The travel is tiring so I have learned that I need to give myself plenty of rest both during and after an event. It does take a lot physically, but it is the price to pay for following my dreams.
I am lucky with the course setup at Massereene as I have the option to play a loop of three, six or even nine holes in the evenings after work or just for a quick game with friends. I take a buggy when I am playing 9/ 18 holes due to the physical demands and comfort of my prosthetic leg, but I am able to manage three or six holes walking with the aid of a crutch and I just love the feeling of being able to walk the fairways in the fresh air.
Golf has brought me many opportunities including representing Europe at the Phoenix Cup in October 2018. I was one of 14 players selected to represent Europe in Florida competing against the United States. The competition was played over three days with different formats and I was delighted to contribute two points to our winning total of 13.5 over the home favourites. The people I met were hugely inspiring and it is an experience I will never forget.
Earlier this year I also got to travel to the Portugal Masters where I was an ambassador for EDGA and we took part in a number of clinics and challenges with the pros. From start to finish we were treated exactly the same as the pros. This was a great learning experience for me as I have never been in a stressful environment while playing and suddenly, I was playing in front of large crowds with TV cameras pointed at me. My first shot on to the 18th green was 107 yards over water, and I was never so glad to see my ball hit dry land!! The experience was a real confidence booster for me, and it will certainly help me to deal with pressure situations in the future.
My advice for coaches would be to be patient and open minded when coaching someone with a disability. Everyone has a different way of learning and there isn’t a one size fits all policy. Don’t jump to conclusions about someone, just because they have a disability doesn’t mean they can’t do something, there is more than one way to get the job done so keep encouraging them. There are not many sports like golf, thanks to the handicapping system it allows people of all ages and abilities to be to play together on a level playing field and it truly is a game for all.
I hope to see more amputees take up sport. My advice for anyone with a disability looking to take up a sport is to just go for it. Also, do not hesitate to try new things and give them a real go, because not only will the new activity have many health benefits, you will also meet new people and might even get to travel around the world just like I have. Clubs are very welcoming, and sport is a great way to get out of the house. The people you meet are also very open and will offer you advice on how to try something new.
My Golf goals for 2020 are to get into the top 50 in the nett world rankings for golfers with a disability and I want to get to a handicap of 13.9 as 14.0 was the lowest I was as a junior golfer before my amputation.There is life after an accident, there is life after an amputation so go for it!!