Garrett Culliton: from the rugby pitch to the Paralympics

From by Martin Healy on 23rd November 2018

Garrett Culliton always had a ball in his hand as a youngster growing up. He played everything he could, but he was particularly skilled at rugby and honed his skills playing at school level in Roscrea.

Once he moved to Dublin as a student, he joined Wanderers, one of the country’s oldest and most-established rugby clubs. Sadly, at just 21, his rugby playing days came to a swift end due to a horrific and life-altering injury.

‘I broke my neck in a kind of an awkward tackle’, Garrett explains. ‘It was down in Naas in 1992.  That was the extent of my rugby career.’

What came next for the young man was a blur of surgeries and rehab.1992.

‘I went into Naas general hospital first,’ he continues ‘And they realised obviously what damage was done. They got a helicopter down and flew me up to the rehab in Dun Laoghaire.’  Garrett explains that when he says he ‘broke’ his neck at the time, he means in his own words that two of his vertebrae ‘hopped over each other’ and were pressing into his spine.  While doctors tried to put the vertebrae back into the place, they couldn’t safely do it.  From then on, Garrett was permanently wheelchair-bound.

‘Then I was brought over to the Maher and had an operation on the back of my neck,’ he says, but that just caused swelling around the affected area. After that, he faced seven or eight long months in rehab.

Despite his hardships, he didn’t let the injuries flatten his attitude. He went back to college in Dublin to finish the engineering degree that he started and he flung himself into the world of wheelchair sports.

Even in rehab, Garrett got quickly involved in sport once again. He started with table tennis, shot put, and discus and once he was out of rehab, he had a number of sporting choices.

‘I started playing a bit of basketball,’ he recalls. ‘At the time I was a jack of all trades and I used to try everything. I kinda just got into everything.’

Spurned on by a newfound interest in wheelchair sports, Garrett qualified for the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta and went on to compete at Sydney, Athens, and Beijing.

He admits that it was a great experience to be a part of. ‘It kept me busy anyway for a few years’, he says with a laugh.

He found some real success while performing at the highest level. At the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, he finished fifth in discus, setting a new Irish record at the time. He would’ve competed at London 2012 but he narrowly missed out on qualifying.

His journey was aided by the IRFU Charitable Trust, who helped him straight after the injury at the time.

‘They got the word that someone had gotten injured and were helping out. Like when I was trying to get set up back in college – they were great, got me a laptop which at the time was the new thing.’

‘Over the years, they’ve been a great help. Especially with the sports I’m doing. Basketball and rugby chairs are not cheap, and neither are racing chairs.’

While his days of competing at the Paralympics are over, Garrett still stays active. He plays wheelchair basketball and rugby. Despite competing in chairs, he assures that there are still plenty of knocks and contact in the wheelchair variety of rugby.

‘It’s all in, and to be fair, due to small numbers it’s a multi-sex sport’, he explains ‘and the girls get as much of a hitting as the guys do.’

‘It’s the chairs you hitting, you’re giving a good thumping and they are built to take it.’

A Leinster star has even gotten in on the action. ‘Sean O’Brien actually came down and hop into a wheelchair rugby chair and bashed around for an evening one night’, he recalls. He’s been to a number of Charitable Trust events over the years, helping out when he can. This includes dinners before big games, plus he’s had the opportunity to met some current internationals like Johnny Sexton.

‘I happened to bump into Stephen Ferris after the [All Blacks] match just the other night at the Aviva – everyone was just on cloud 9.’

Garrett has shown remarkable resilience to battle his way from injury to competing for medals for his country. It helps when he has a charity like the IRFU Charitable Trust by his side.

‘They’ve always been there to help me out. Anything you need and they are there to help out.’

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