The 2016 Paralympic javelin bronze medallist Rory McSweeney has called time on his long and successful career to focus on a new role as an Auckland-based insurance specialist.
The 34-year-old leg amputee, who also won a 2015 World silver medal when setting the New Zealand F44 record of 55.80m, has struggled with serious back and shoulder issues in recent times and felt the time was right to start the next chapter of his life.
“My retirement coincided with a job offer and reflecting on what I’d achieved across ten years of javelin throwing I was quite happy, I’d enjoyed a good career.
“I’d had a few big injuries over the last few years and I felt it was a bridge too far to carry on to Tokyo, so I felt it was the right time to make a clean break.”
Born and raised in Lower Hutt, Rory was struck by a truck at the age of three which resulted in the amputation below the knee of his left leg.
An active child, Rory played a whole range of sports and featured as an age-group cricketer and also played a number of other sports including golf, basketball and touch rugby – however, during childhood he also underwent more than a dozen surgeries in order to reduce the size of his tibia bone.
“The surgery was rough, very frustrating,” he recalls. “Most of my spare time I spent playing games with my friends, but the surgeries knocked me back and I always spent a recovery period learning to walk again. To repeat this process following surgery definitely had an impact.”
After leaving school he spent several years taking various odd jobs but suffering from chronic depression his life quickly unravelled. He dropped out of university three years in a row, he started to use drugs, he was arrested and his world started to spiral out of control.
“In 2006 I tried to take my own life, which was my rock bottom moment,” he explains. “From that point on I tried to improve myself. It was no quick fix. I practised meditation and slowly changed my life.”
Rory found an outlet in sport and after reading of a 2009 Paralympics NZ training camp in the drive to recruit athletes for the London 2012 Paralympics he decided to give it a go. Initially, trying cycling he realised his talents may lie elsewhere and the 24-year-old was persuaded to try out for the javelin. It proved an inspired choice.
“Taking up athletics was a big turning point for me,” explains Rory, who had thrown a javelin only twice before as a 12-year-old. “For the first time in my life I had something I could focus on and that I could look forward to, I knew it was my path.”
Six months after taking up javelin he moved down to Dunedin to be coached by Raylene Bates, who already coached a strong group of Para Athletes. Under Raylene’s guidance she taught him the basics of becoming a serious and committed athlete and in 2011 Rory made his international debut, finishing eighth in the World Para Athletics Championships (then known as the IPC World Championships) which took place in Christchurch – a competition which proved pivotal in his career development.
“Since I had started training for the javelin (two years earlier) I had not improved my distance but in Christchurch I threw a four metre PB of 42.41m,” he adds. “To know that I’d been rewarded for all the hard work was a cool moment.”
This gave Rory the motivation to strive for the podium. In 2013 he finished sixth at the World Para Athletics Championships in Lyon with a PB of 49.95m, although on his return home he underwent knee reconstruction following a long-term problem and he was forced to gradually re-build his career.
In 2015 he suffered another blow with a torn elbow ligament sustained at the Porritt Classic in Hamilton – a competition where he breached the 50m mark for the first time in his career.
Refusing to panic he focused on his conditioning and honing his technique, and he returned later that year an athlete transformed in the countdown to the World Para Athletics Championships in Doha.
“I came back and had a really good run of competitions,” he explains. “I was healthy, focused and really believed in myself heading into Doha.”
The Kiwi did not disappoint. In the first round he hurled the spear out to a New Zealand record of 55.80m (surpassing the mark of John Dowall set at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics) to claim the silver medal behind Marcio Fernandes of the Cape Verde Islands.
It was a huge moment for Rory and one of which he will never forget.
“It was an incredible feeling,” he recalls. “My main goals were to podium (at a global championships) and set a New Zealand record, so to achieve both really solidified the whole journey for me. I was proud about what I’d achieved after all the struggles I’d been through, it was really special.”
The following year Rory achieved another career highlight by taking bronze at the Rio Paralympics, although once again his journey to the podium was not straight forward. On the day before he flew out to Rio he picked up a back injury – which later on his arrival back to New Zealand was diagnosed as a bone stress problem.
“I felt like the wheels were falling off,” he said of picking up the injury so close to the biggest competition of his career. “But I tried to control my attitude and how I approached the competition. My goal was to throw as hard as I could, just enjoy the moment, forget the outcome and have a go. To pull it out of the bag that day with 54.99m was massive.”
Post the Rio Paralympics, Rory moved to Christchurch to link up with a new coach, Dale Stevenson, but during the majority of his time in the Garden City he struggled with injury.
The lingering back problem took 18 months to clear and hampered his efforts at the 2017 World Para Athletics Championships in London, where he finished seventh with 51.58m.
During that competition he damaged his shoulder which was later diagnosed as a torn labrum and torn rotator cuff. He underwent a total shoulder reconstruction in September last year but after returning to throwing in July this year quickly realised he could no longer compete at the top level.
“I would say the pain of throwing was almost worse than any other injury I’d suffered,” he explains. “In the meantime, I’d finished my degree in commerce and finance and I had this opportunity to take up a new role in Auckland, it felt like the right time to quit javelin. I’ve had a really hard time since Rio and I felt like I’d given it enough time. I’d had a ten-year career and it was fantastic.”
Working for Partners Life as an insurance specialist for the sales team in Takapuna on Auckland’s North Shore is “a cool opportunity” although he hopes in the future to be given the chance to share his inspirational story through public and motivational speaking.
Yet there is little doubting the debt he owes sport and more specifically javelin for turning his life around.
“Sport has always been a great medium to channel energy, it has given me great discipline, great focus,” he says. “I’ve met many good people and had incredible experience seeing the world and tasting different cultures. I just think the discipline and focus has helped me the most. Always having something to look forward to can guide you through the low times and allow you to meet your goals.”
Written by Steve Landells