Monday 16 December 2019

From tragedy to triumph: How a horror accident killed Gerry O'Rourke's soccer dream - but failed to halt remarkable career

'I remember being down the hospital and I had to wait for consent forms to be signed'

Gerry O’Rourke bounced back from losing his legs as a teenager in a rail accident to represent his country at 2 Paralympic games. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Gerry O’Rourke bounced back from losing his legs as a teenager in a rail accident to represent his country at 2 Paralympic games. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Stephen Bennett

If events had transpired differently, Gerry O’Rourke would be dusting off some green velvet caps from a long, successful football career.

The dream was to play at the highest level, and more importantly, for Ireland. His abilities certainly matched the youthful ambition.

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It was the path in which the sports-mad teenager was heading down and also the journey he had set his heart on growing up in the Dublin townland of Inchicore in the late 1970s.

English club scouts had him on their radar and there was big interest in the young centre-back, who played for Emmett Rangers and then the St Patrick's Athletic youth teams.

Gerry fitted the bill. At 15 years of age, O'Rourke cut an impressively strong figure in his favoured position in the heart of defence.

"I played with Emmet Rangers up to the age of 13 and then went on to St Pat's from age 14. I was doing very well," he says.

"It was a very good club. We used to play in Brickfields in Drimnagh and the odd time we'd get the chance to play in Richmond Park."

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Gerry O'Rourke a former international Irish athlete pictured holding some of his medals for Stephen Bennett interview. Picture; Gerry Mooney

At school, he captained St James' CBS to their maiden Leinster Senior Cup success in 1978, winning the final at Tolka Park.

It wasn't long before an English club made an approach. Coventry City were interested and offered him a trial, through the usual route of talking to the manager.

Gerry was aware of the interest but not the trial. Possibly a way of keeping the young player grounded.

"I would have loved to get the chance to go away and play in England. There weren't many kids going over there," he recalls.

"I had been told by my manager at St Pat's at the time that Coventry were interested in me.

"In fairness, I didn't really think too much about it, I was only 16."

Then fate dealt him another hand entirely.

"Some days you think about things and you look at it and say, 'I'd love to have been able to play over there,' and especially for your country. It was just a dream you'd have, but then it was all cut short."

The living nightmare

Friday, September 14, 1979. Just a normal weekend day in the CIE Estate where Gerry lived with his parents, five brothers and four sisters – Gerry being the youngest.

The area is located beside CIE Works which lies adjacent to the train tracks that flow into Heuston Station.

Gerry's father worked in CIE and Gerry himself had taken a summer job in the Works in 1979.

A large stone wall cordons off the estate and the Works. One road and a small doorway known locally as ‘the wicket' are the only points of access.

It was through ‘the wicket' that Gerry and his friend Pat Mitchell passed to take the short journey to the Memorial Park for a kick-about.

Late in that afternoon, Gerry and Pat decided to head for home.

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Gerry, however, was going to take a short cut. The two friends walked to the other side of the Con Colbert Road where the train tracks lay.

The plan was to jump on one of the trains going from Heuston and get off again near to the CIE Estate.

Using his upper body strength, Gerry grabbed on to a bar of the slow-moving train. He would then hoist the rest of his body onto the train and wait to jump off further up the tracks. Then, one moment in time would change the course of his life forever.

Losing his grip, he fell underneath the train, the locomotive relentlessly milling through the legs that were to achieve his dreams.

His friend Pat witnessed the horror. Gerry maintained consciousness throughout the ordeal and Pat, despite his state of shock, raised the alarm.

The ambulance sped down the train tracks to Heuston where Gerry was transferred to Dr Steevens Hospital, directly across the road.

"I remember it as if it was today. I actually still remember, as I was in pain, the lights of the corridor in the hospital as they rushed me in," he recalls.

"I was lucky Pat Mitchell was with me because I don't think I would have survived otherwise.

"I just tried to jump onto the train. It was a stupid thing and I went underneath the train. I remember being down the hospital and I had to wait for consent forms to be signed.

"They were trying to track my parents, who were out doing their weekly shopping and the guards had to track them down, which eventually they did. They came in and signed the papers to do whatever had to be done.

"It's still so vivid."

The sheer agony gave way to despair after his first operation.

"After that first operation I was awake. I remember Dublin were playing in the All-Ireland final and that evening I just went into meltdown," he recalls.

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Flying Star: Anton O’Toole of Dublin gets to the ball ahead of Kerry’s Jimmy Deenihan in Croke Park. Photo: Independent Newspapers Ireland

Then nothing. Sedation, operation, recuperation. The road to a semblance of recovery would be long.

"The next thing I remember, it was about a month later. I'd gone through numerous operations. Infection and gangrene kicked in and I was having operation after operation for the first couple of months."

The toughest decision of all, the amputation of his legs, had to be made.

That contract with Coventry City and the promising football career was far from his youthful mind, until he found out that the offer of a trial from the Division One club had been made.

"It's true. I only found out about the trial after the accident and all those operations. But I had to do something. I had to set out on the road to recovery."

As the weeks and months passed, pain, bitterness and anger fleetingly filled his mind. Gerry credits his family and the friends who stuck by him for helping him recover mentally from the ordeal.

But none more so than his father, John.

"My Dad got me back into school. When I came out of hospital the first thing he said to me was, ‘You need to continue and do your Leaving Cert'," he says.

"At that stage I wasn't up to it. I couldn't go back to James' Street. I went to Ballinteer Community School. I'd be collected every morning on a bus and dropped off in the evening."

As the wounds healed, Gerry started to face the outside world again, with the help of his friends, this time in a wheelchair. Another friend Paul Kiernan helped, as did Davina Ryan.

As his family and friends soothed the devastating mental and physical injuries, most importantly, he didn't give up on himself.

"Forty years ago, thinking about it now. My Dad didn't allow me to wallow. We'd have some days where we'd have a few tears. But it was the best thing to get back into school because it helped me get back into the community again," he said.

"Meeting new friends, a new school that was a huge challenge," he remembers.

The facilities at Ballinteer, however, reignited that passion for sport that burned within him. He didn't take a backward glance.

"They had a big sports hall and a gym so when I was there I'd be doing weight training so you had something to do in a sporting context as well as educational," he recalls.

"Fair play to my Dad, it was the right thing to do."

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The drive that brought him to the attention of those English football scouts had returned.

"There were good days and bad days. When I got out and I started to go to football matches it would hit me that I should be out there playing," he says.

"But the window of opportunity was when I heard about the Irish Wheelchair Association and the sports on offer that really kicked in because the drive and the hunger came back.

"I wanted to be successful and I met great people out there and it got me competitive again."

In an RTÉ documentary in 1986, ‘Turning Point', Gerry revealed his struggles and his triumphs. He also revealed what he described as "phantom feelings" – where he felt that his legs were still there.

The brain playing tricks on reality. He had to scratch the mattress of his bed to bring himself back to the reality of his situation.

As the months passed by in the 1980s, his strength, both mental and physical, improved. By March, the determination which won him that ill-fated move to Coventry City was back.

Determination again

Gerry O'Rourke was looking at his options. Basketball was doable, as was table tennis. He represented Ireland in both. But the wheelchair marathon was his focus. October 1982 would prove to the start of something quite extraordinary.

Focus and drive also got him a position at the Department of Education, where he still works today. Things were taking shape. Including his personal life, where a romance with Davina began to blossom.

"The Irish Wheelchair Association got me competitive again. You knew you could do something and there was hope," Gerry says, describing his decision to devote his life to becoming a champion in wheelchair sports.

"I missed the first marathon (in 1981) because I hadn't got a chair. In 1982, with my job in the Department of Education, they all joined together and bought me a wheelchair and after that it was training and more training.

"You get hungry for success and that's what drove it for me. But again, without the people in the Irish Wheelchair Association, it's what kept me going. There was light at the end of the tunnel.

"I was getting a bit of success and getting in the papers. People got to know me. I was being invited on different television programmes and it certainly helps."

Among these was an appearance on RTÉ's ‘Know Your Sport', with Jimmy Magee and George Hamilton.

"My first Dublin Marathon in 1982, there was Mick Cunningham who won the marathon the first year and I remember coming through Finglas, I was very powerful on hills, and in Finglas there was a hill and I just saw myself getting away and I said to myself, ‘I'm going to make a break here and go on to win it'," Gerry recalls.

"Luckily enough, that's what happened to me. You win it once, then you're travelling away to different marathons, Cork, Galway and Belfast, you just want to win.

"I wasn't just there to compete. I wanted those accolades for winning all the time. The more I won the more it drove me to keep it that way. It felt brilliant."

Winning indeed became a habit. Gerry won his first continental medal at the European Championships in Brussels back in 1983, claiming bronze in the 5,000m.

A trip to the Los Angeles Paralympic Games in 1984 yielded more success.

"They gave it the title Paralympics, as in being parallel to the Olympics, and '84 was my first one. I finished second in the 1,500m, second in the 800m and third in the 400m," he says.

"I trained with my coach Carol Hayes, she was my first and only coach and she was brilliant. I used to train with her in UCD in the winter nights on the track and she drove me on. She was an inspiration."

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In his first London Marathon in 1985 he finished second. By then, he had won his third Dublin Marathon in succession.

"I was beaten on the line in London. My Mam and Dad were with me, and I was disappointed," he says.

Before he would return to London the following year, another devastating blow befell him. His Dad had been diagnosed with cancer.

0"Even though I came second in 1985, which was a fantastic result, I was disappointed because my Dad wasn't well, he was suffering with cancer," he recalls.

"But I went in 1986 and won it, my Dad was too sick to travel."

Gerry recalls arriving back to the CIE social club in the estate where he grew up on the night of his London win.

"It was brilliant, it must have been 12 o'clock at night and the whole place erupted when I came in the door".

Success, and the adulation that followed, more than made up for the hard yards of training. Younger kids in the area wanted his autograph. "They were brilliant times, unbelievable really".

However, nobody was there to pat him on the back or ask him for his scribble in the early hours of the morning when training kicked in again.

"The winters were tough. Some mornings I'd get up at 6 o'clock, I'd do ten miles, come home, get showered and into work and then out to Belfield in the evenings on the track doing repetitions of 1,500m and 5,000m," he says.

"It was a great place to train. Dave Taylor was there, a brilliant athlete and you got to know them and you'd be trying to keep pace with some of them.

"The commitment was huge. I used to train probably five or six nights a week, and it'd be lonely. I'd be out on the roads training. But I had to do it. When I went away to LA in '84 and the World Championships in '86 in Sweden, I was racing against professional athletes.

"It's nearly all professional now and rightly so. People are sponsored well thank God, and because it is the parallel Olympics and they're all outstanding athletes.

"In those days, I was training just to keep up with them, but once you got into competition I was driven and they were no different than me, really."

"When I went to Korea in 1988, I took three months off work to train because I had to. I didn't medal in Korea. I got to four finals and finished fourth in all of them which broke my heart.

"But if I didn't take three months off work I probably would have been knocked out in each event."

A bittersweet symphony

Amid all the hard work and medals, Gerry was falling in love with the woman who stood by him through thin and thinner. Gerry married his sweetheart Davina Ryan in September 1986. What was supposed to be a year of celebration both on and off the track, with a London Marathon winner's medal to add to his collection, proved bittersweet.

Gerry's father, John, the man who lead him out of the abyss and lifted his spirits at their lowest, passed away, and to compound the agony, tragedy struck Davina's side of the family in the same week.

"My Dad died in August of '86 and Davina's brother John died the week before my Dad," he says.

"I was in England at a championships in Stoke Mandevillle when a message came over the tannoy for me. It was unbelievable. My coach Carol Hayes had been told what had happened. I thought it was my Dad but it wasn't. It was Davina's brother John. He'd been killed in a car crash.

"I went home straight away and the following weekend I buried my Dad. It was a week I'd rather forget, the way it all happened within seven days.

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"It was a tough year in the end but the crowning glory was that we got married in September, and it gave everybody, both families, a boost," he adds, the positivity in the face of pain shining through again.

Gerry went back on the roads in pursuit of another victory on the streets of his city. He duly added another Dublin Marathon victory in October 1986 to make it his sixth victory in succession and added a seventh in 1987.

His grip on the Dublin Marathon ended in 1988, amid some mitigating circumstances.

"In 1988, I got back from the Paralympic Games in Korea on the Friday and I raced on the Monday morning. I finished third," he recalls.

"I was going well but a chap from England, Andy Haynes won it. He was a fine athlete. It all caught up with me."

In 1987, Gerry received an Outstanding Achievement in Sport award from RTÉ. Rubbing shoulders with cycling hero Stephen Roche was a special thrill.

"Stephen won the Sports Personality of the Year and it was brilliant just to be in their company. We were out in RTÉ, Davina was due to give birth to our first son so one of my brothers came with me," he remembers.

"It was just amazing to be in with all those great sports people from all different fields; cycling, soccer, GAA, rugby and to get an award was great.

"It kind of capped off a lot of stuff that I'd done over the years. It was superb recognition. It was a breakthrough for wheelchair/disabled athletes whereas nowadays it's tremendous the coverage it gets.

"Rightly so, because they are fantastic athletes. Certainly when you see the Paralympics now. Seeing Jason Smyth recently winning his eighth gold medal. It's a tremendous achievement."

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Gerry took a break from the Dublin Marathon in 1989 to represent Ireland at the European Wheelchair Basketball championships. He returned, however, in 1990 triumphantly. "That was my last Dublin Marathon."

Although still only 28, Gerry didn't return to competitive wheelchair athletics. He lost his love for the sport.

"I regretted it. I went to the World Championships in Holland and won three golds, a silver and bronze on the track and I really going very well at that stage. I was probably in the best shape of my career, but then I didn't compete after that," he adds.

"I missed Barcelona in 1992. I tried to go back a few years later and I just didn't have the stomach for it. I was on the track training and I just felt empty. I didn't feel the passion for it anymore.

"It was more the team sports, the basketball after that, and I enjoyed it.

"We played in the European Championships and there was a European League in which we competed in the ‘B' Division and we made it to the ‘A' Division which was tremendous.

"We travelled all over Europe. That's the one thing I did say to myself, if I didn't have the accident I don't think I'd have travelled to many of the countries I've been to.

"To see the places I've seen out of something that you really love doing it was brilliant."

Pastures new

The positive outlook on his accident has sustained him.

"I know it's not easy for anybody who has had accidents, but the one thing I did find was that sport gave me that lease and that drive," he says.

"Sport helped me get over the loss of my limbs. I'd be telling lies if I said you don't have bad days, even still.

"Certainly when I used to look at Denis Irwin and Roy Keane playing football and I'd say, ‘I was a good footballer, maybe I could have had a chance.' But, all in all, getting involved in wheelchair sports kept me going.

"You have two choices. You can either sit down and crumble or you can get up and carry on. I was lucky enough to get up and carry on.

"But with the great help of a great family and with Davina, we're married 33 years, we're so fortunate with two sons and a granddaughter and grandson, so, you couldn't ask for any more."

These days, Gerry is still working for the Department of Education, is a regular attendee at Ireland soccer matches and holds a Leinster Rugby season ticket, which he attends with his sons Stephen and Corey. Happy and content.

The boy who lost his legs is now the man who is glad to have made a contribution to Irish sport's tapestry.

Ultimately, he hopes to inspire more to do the same.

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