At the age of 22, GAA player Jamie Wall lost the ability to play his beloved sport due to an infected abscess. Now a GAA coach, he tells us why he has become a Sport Ireland ambassador, urging everyone to get back into physical activity
Like most children in Ireland, Jamie Wall was introduced to sport at an early age and having tried his hand at many different games, he decided very early on that GAA was definitely his favourite.
“I have always loved all kinds of sport and my earliest memory is of me kicking a ball around the sitting room,” he says. “My Christmas presents were always associated with some sort of sport, and I was massively encouraged from the beginning by mam and dad to try any number of things. There is a picture of me out the back with golf clubs and a big hat. I could barely stand with the weight of it all and I’m sure my dad thought I was going to be the next Tiger Woods, but right from the start I was set on GAA.
“We moved to Cork from Navan when I was five and pretty much straight away I started playing hurling as it’s very big in the area. I joined the local club at Kilbrittain and from age 14 on, I was playing at intercounty level and was also playing football, involved in both minor hurling and football in Cork.
“I loved them both equally, but football probably took off more for me when we ended up winning a Munster championship and played in Croke Park. It was all the things that you would dream of as a kid, and I absolutely loved it. I was playing both hurling and football from about six or seven up until I was 21 or 22 and was at training or a match up to seven days a week in peak season. One year, I was playing with 14 teams, which included school, college, club, intermediate and county — when I look back on it now, it seems insane.”
The whole family has always been into sport and Jamie’s three siblings, Ellen and twins Kate and Philip, also have very active sporting lives. So when, seven years ago, he developed a problem with his back, it was a total shock for everyone when his career on the pitch came to a close.
“In June 2014, I started feeling a bit of a niggle in my back,” says the 29-year-old. “It was just a bit of discomfort in the beginning and I didn’t think too much about it. But over the course of a week it turned into a debilitating pain and I went to the doctor, who thought it might be some sort of back spasm, which I suppose it was.
“I was prescribed painkillers and the next day I remember going to stand up and my legs buckled beneath me — everything is a bit of a blur after that, but the ambulance was called and there was a bit of a panic as I was rushed to Beaumont Hospital.
“It was discovered that I had an abscess on my spine which got infected, and I was in hospital for 10 weeks, during which time I was prescribed steroids and medication to try to jump-start things. I also was having physio twice a day as I had no power in my legs at all. I was then transferred to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dun Laoghaire where I stayed from September to February as they tried to improve the situation. It was an unusual injury, I suppose, as it wasn’t a physical ‘trauma’ as such so there was a lot of ‘let’s wait and see’ and as much physiotherapy and rehab as I could do.”
Jamie, who qualified as a primary school teacher and in recent years went back to university to study law and accounting, found the transition from his hectic lifestyle to one where his movement was curtailed to be very difficult.
“Dealing with the reality of my situation was very hard,” adds Jamie, who became paralysed from the waist down. I was allowed to go home for Christmas, which was a means for them to see how well I could cope out of hospital. I did improve somewhat but was left with no function from the mid-thoracic region down. I would describe myself as a wheelchair user as I don’t spend all of my time in it, but I still don’t really like the term disabled, even though I have to realise that’s what it is.”
Jamie had to come to terms with the fact that he wouldn’t play sport like he had in the past. However, instead of letting it get the better of him, he has kickstarted his GAA career and is now the coach of Mary Immaculate College and Kilbrittain GAA.
His determination to return to sport is the reason why he was asked to be an ambassador for the recently-launched Sport Ireland ‘Let’s Get Back’ campaign, which is aimed at encouraging people to return to organised sport. Research has shown that people have been slow to get back to sport in the numbers they were playing prior to the pandemic, with disadvantaged areas being particularly hard hit.
Jamie says that reigniting his passion for sport has given him a new lease of life and he would encourage others to do the same. “It took a long time to get back in the headspace where I wanted to be able to get up in the morning and get going,” he admits.
“I remember the first time my team was playing a big match and I felt as though I should have been playing with them. I wanted to go and watch but couldn’t even get out of bed as I had what seemed to be a terrible migraine. Once the game was over, the headache went so it proved to me that my body and my brain just weren’t able for it.
“But since then I have gone from a place where I couldn’t even watch them play, to managing them. It has taken time, but I am back to my sport in a different way and I am really enjoying it. I love the feeling of being part of a team and doing what I loved best and that is what gets me out of bed in the morning.
“When I was asked to be an ambassador for the campaign, I knew I could get 100pc behind it as not only does the Let’s Get Back message relate to me but also to my sister who is doing a PhD in Cambridge, England, and had been out of sport for a while, but now travels to London to play GAA with other people from Ireland, so she has also got back into it.”
The Let’s Get Back campaign is aimed at encouraging people who are anxious about returning to physical activity that it is possible to do so in a safe and secure manner. And having adjusted to living with paralysis, Jamie is an inspiration to anyone unsure about getting active once again.
“I’ve seen what getting back into sport can do for people,” he says. “I wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t got involved with sport again and I don’t even think I would have returned to third-level education. I have also seen what it has done for my sister who has become connected to others in a new place by getting involved in sport.
“The message might be broad, but it is applicable to so many people, whether, like me, they were forced abruptly to stop playing or just drifted away from it, or even if they never really played at all. Getting into sport is so beneficial on many levels; improved physical and mental health, fun, confidence and team-building — it ticks so many boxes.
“I would say that it is never too late to get back into sport or even to get into it for the first time — it doesn’t have to be competitive, just a bit of fun, camaraderie and exercise.”
Despite his experience over the past few years, Jamie remains upbeat and says while he has just as many ups and downs as everyone else, right now he is positive and looking forward to the future.
“My condition is ongoing and I’m not going to get to a place where I say ‘right, I’m happy now’ and that’s that,” he says.
“Like everyone, I have days where I feel good and days when I find it hard to get out of bed. We all have to work at being happy and I would say to others who are in the situation I was in 2014 to find what works for them. It is sport for me, but it might be something entirely different which helps others to get through it.
“Good mental health is an ongoing thing and at the start there were more tough days than good, but thankfully it’s now the other way around. However, that doesn’t mean it will stay like this. That’s just the way life is.”
Jamie Wall is an ambassador for Sport Ireland and Healthy Ireland’s ‘Let’s Get Back’ campaign, which is encouraging people to get back to organised sport in a safe and secure way. For more information on the campaign, visit sportireland.ie/letsgetback