On March 28th 2021 Para-Powerlifter Liam McGarry announced himself to the world by lifting 202kg at the World Cup event in Manchester, breaking the British Record on his international debut. He picked up a silver and a bronze medal to help Great Britain to the top of the medal standings and showed everyone the result of his determination and hard work in the sport.
Liam was injured back in 2017 whilst studying sport psychology and coaching sciences at Bournemouth University. At the end of the first year Liam was heading home on the bus and was unable to move his legs, and a week after he then collapsed whilst on his way to the end of exams summer ball. Liam would later be diagnosed with transverse myelitis, the inflammation of the spinal cord caused by a recent rugby injury, and it resulted in a T12 complete spinal cord injury.
After spending time in hospital Liam was then transferred to The Spinal Treatment Centre situated at Salisbury District Hospital where he continued his rehabilitation. As he explains, “During my rehabilitation I was based at Salisbury spinal unit. I have very fond memories of time at Salisbury and at the top of my list was Horatios Garden. Going there gave you that escape from the devastating experience and challenging days that you found yourself in.”
Liam settled in to his time in Salisbury and was supported by the staff there to regain his independence. “When I was first admitted into the spinal unit they were experiencing a shortage of physios which unfortunately meant that gym/hydrotherapy time was limited. The staff there did a fantastic job with the resources they had and in the long run this time was also a blessing in disguise for me. It forced me to be independent and try things for myself, which I put my complete independence to this day down too.”
Whilst in the spinal unit Liam met with a WheelPower Physical Activity Advisor. “I spent many a day talking to the advisors and passing time in between rehab work. They helped me to see my injury differently, not as the end of the road but instead as the most rewarding challenge I was ever going to embark on.” It was also during this time that Liam was reintroduced to sport and as someone who was very active prior to his injury he was well aware of the importance of physical activity to his ongoing rehabilitation, in both a physical and mental way. “I believe sport helped me hugely. I remember I tried kwik cricket, tennis, table tennis and a little bit of swimming whilst in the spinal unit and they really allowed me to see light at the end of the tunnel. Sport has always and will always be my number 1 passion and I quickly realised that just because I’m in the wheelchair that did not have to change.”
Whilst in the unit Liam was made aware of the upcoming Inter Spinal Unit Games 2018 which was due to take place in April at Stoke Mandeville Stadium. The games provide newly injured spinal patients with the opportunities to discover sport in a fun a friendly environment alongside units from across the United Kingdom. When the advisors mentioned the games Liam was instantly excited and looked forward to the experience.
“When I first heard about the spinal unit games it was something that I was keen to take part in. I wanted to see what the world of sport looked like from a wheelchair and this seemed like a perfect opportunity. The games as I remember were fantastic and a thoroughly well organised event. I competed in the tennis, table tennis, pool, swimming, archery, and the powerlifting. I was keen to try it all and my team manager Martin was happy enough to back me. I will always be thankful WheelPower and the spinal unit games as this is where the amazing journey that I am now on all started.”
On the last day of the games a member of the Salisbury Unit unfortunately had to pull out of the powerlifting event so at late notice Liam stepped in. He absolutely excelled with a lift of 137kg which earned him the gold medal and also got him recognised by members of British Weightlifting who were supporting the athletes during the competition.
“My background in rugby meant that I felt comfortable around heavy weights. So I gave it a go and just went for it, and ended up winning! After the competition a coach handed me their card and asked if I’d consider joining a para powerlifting squad and after some communication via email I started attending development camps and discovered this was a sport for me.”
“I think with para-powerlifting the thing that got me drawn in straight away is that you don’t have to be amazing at it to see progress. Most people initially think that para powerlifting is just about getting the bar down and back up to arm’s length but it’s so much more difficult than that. There is literally so many things that you can fail a lift on in between and that’s why I love it. Not only do you have to be freakishly strong but also very skillful if you want to take on the world in para powerlifting.”
Following Liam’s time at Salisbury Spinal Unit he returned to University to complete his studies and in the final year he was now weightlifting more and more with the support of his coach Dan. In 2019 he competed in the British Weightlifting Championships for the first time and was putting more weight on the bar. “People really started to notice me as a powerlifter, rather than for having a spinal injury, and that felt amazing. I became the para-powerlifting English and British champion within my first year in the sport and also secured a bronze medal in my first ever international competition in March 2020. Since graduating, I’ve been able to level up even more.”
Liam is now training 6 days a week and his development as a world class para-powerlifter continues to go from strength to strength. “I split my training between the gym and home. I go to Crayford weights with my training partner and attend the national training centre at Loughborough University where I meet up with all of the WCP (World Class Programme) coaches, as well as my own personal coach Tom Whittaker.”
“Unfortunately I haven’t got as many competitions in as I had hoped due to Covid but that’s something out of my control. Like a lot of people after such a long break we all wanted to come back with a bang this year and the World Cup event in Manchester was my first opportunity.”
After a good winter of training Liam was ready to compete at the Para-Powerlifting World Cup in Manchester and he was excited to show everyone what he could do.
“Being competitive runs in my blood and I love being on the platform. In Manchester I took home the silver medal and secured the British record with a lift of 202KG. As far as the lift goes, if I’m being honest I was a little disappointed on the day because I knew I had so much more in me. I knew I could have brought bigger and badder weights to the table on the day, but it just wasn’t to be!”
The lift in Manchester announced Liam on the world stage and the goal to compete at the Paralympics was now most definitely in his sights. “The next step for me is to be out competing again internationally if everything goes to plan. I am going to give it everything and I have got to put myself in the best possible position to be selected as the wildcard for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games. I also have the World Championships at the end of this year where I am looking to make a huge statement, before then looking towards my first major title at the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games.”
Speaking about his journey so far Liam reflects on what he has achieved in the sport since his injury and his hopes for the future. “What I have achieved in such a short amount of time in the sport is cool and I want to show people that no matter the adversity you are faced with, you can achieve anything if you put your mind to it. The silver medal and British record was probably my proudest moment so far as the sport goes because it was during a very difficult time for me personally so it made it all worth it.”
“I know I’ll be World/Paralympic Champion one day and I’m already closing the gap on some of the big timers at the top. I believe I have the talent and work rate to achieve my goals and this is just the start for the McGarry clan. I hope there are plenty of Paralympic Games on my journey too.
UPDATE - 23 June 2021
Congratulations to Liam who lifted a new lifetime best at the World Para-Powerlifting World Cup event in Dubai. He lifted an incredible 210kg and extended his British record by 8kg as he competed against the world's best prior to the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.
Read more about the competition from British Weight Lifting
A big thank you to Liam for sharing his story with WheelPower. It is fantastic to see how far Liam has come in the sport since attending the Inter Spinal Unit Games in 2018 and we wish him all the very best with his goals to compete at the very highest level.
British Weighlifting (Para-Powerlifting) - Para Powerlifting made its debut at the 1964 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, featuring a handful of male competitors with spinal cord injuries. Fast-forward to the present day and the sport boasts hundreds of elite male and female athletes from a variety of disability groups, representing more than 110 countries. Considered as the ultimate test of upper body strength, Para Powerlifting is one of the fastest growing Paralympic sports.
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FILM: Liam McGarry – created by Bournemouth University Students
"Meet Liam McGarry - a para powerlifter and BU student who has overcome adversity and excels in his sport. Find out more about Liam's journey."
Follow Liam's Journey on his Instagram page