Rio Paralympics: David heading to Brazil with medal as his dream goal
David Leavy will make history this month as the first Northern Irish player to be selected for Team GB at the Paralympics in 7-a-side CP (cerebral palsy) football.
The recent Queen’s graduate, originally from Downpatrick, only discovered the sport while watching the London 2012 Paralympic Games. Now he’s the captain of the Northern Ireland team and heading to Rio to play hosts Brazil and hopefully come home with a medal.
Four years ago, Leavy was a fresh-faced undergraduate student, happy to be still playing 5-a-side once a week with his friends but focused on pursuing his academic goals. Tuning into Channel 4’s coverage of the 2012 Games, his career path was about to take an unexpected turn.
“I thought wow, this could be something I could possibly pursue,” says the 24-year-old who was born with cerebral palsy that has affected his playing development and made it difficult to compete at senior level in mainstream football.
“When I found out about CP football and the fact it was in the Paralympics, it gave me a new dream because, at the end of the day, most kids who grow up playing football always dream of being able to participate in a major event and represent their nation.”
Leavy will not be alone in making his debut. Of the final 14-man GB squad, who finished seventh at the London Games, only two have tasted the Paralympic experience.
“They’ve told us what it’s like in the Paralympic village, what kind of distractions there can be and how to stay focused,” says Leavy of the returning Michael Barker and Jonathan Patterson.
Great Britain have been drawn in Group A with Brazil (ranked third in the world), Ukraine (ranked second) and the Republic of Ireland. They take on the hosts in the opening game on Thursday at 10am.
“We have to be up brave and early for that,” says Leavy who has just returned from a 10-day training camp at St George’s Park, where the squad put the finishing touches to their preparations for the Games.
“Hopefully it’ll be worth it and there’ll be a big crowd at the game, with it being Brazil. That’s something all us boys are looking forward to.”
Leavy and his GB teammates have trained at the FA’s National Football Centre in Staffordshire once every month since August of last year.
Leavy first graced the St George’s turf in June 2015, when he captained Northern Ireland at the World Championships.
“I was happy and proud to be able to represent my country at an elite level,” says the former Rossglass player who returned to playing the 11-a-side game this year with Belfast-side Realta to help with his preparations for Rio.
A devoted Manchester United fan, Leavy spent his childhood playing in the streets with friends after school, idolizing Paul Scholes and then Cristiano Ronaldo.
“Football had a big influence on my life growing up,” says Leavy, who plays in centre-midfield for Northern Ireland but in a slightly wider role for Team GB.
“It helped me overcome one or two difficulties I was having growing up with a disability. Football taught me not to let my disability get in the way of everything I was doing.”
Leavy tried his best to participate at senior level but seeing limited game time, decided he was best playing recreationally with his friends.
Fast forward to 2012 and a phone call to Alan Crooks, the IFA’s Disability Football Development boss, who has guided Northern Ireland to 13th in the world, and suddenly he was at an international training session.
“I felt excited to see how I would be able to play football against people with similar disabilities to myself,” says Leavy, who jokes that he never played for any of his high school sports teams.
Crooks, who had stints at Ards and Crusaders, as well as playing college football in the United States before moving into coaching, says Leavy is always the first name on his team sheet.
“We were delighted to get David in — I knew we had a player straight away,” says Crooks.
If Leavy has one regret, it’s that he didn’t discover the sport sooner. CP football will not feature in the 2020 Tokyo Games, with no indication it will return.
“It was a surprise to only find out about it when I was 20 years old,” says Leavy, who laments a new talented generation of CP footballers coming through who may never get the chance to compete at the Paralympics.
“It would have been nicer to have possibly been around and push for London but I knew nothing about the sport then.”
Leavy joined the GB squad for a training camp in Rio earlier this summer and is optimistic they can improve on the fourth-place finish at a spring Pre-Rio tournament in Spain.
Russia took home the gold medal in 2012, but the Northern Irishman thinks a podium spot is within reach for his team.
“I would be lying if I said that’s not the goal,” says Leavy. “We feel if we can get it right and execute the things we’ve been working on in the last year, we can go into the competition and surprise a few teams who might think there won’t be much about us.”
Leavy won’t be the only Northern Ireland man playing 7-a-side football at the Paralympics. Ryan Walker, Jordan Walker and Cormac Birt are in the Ireland side.
All in all, as Disability Sport NI revealed recently, there are a record 10 athletes from Northern Ireland competing in Rio.
Paralympian greats Michael McKillop and Jason Smyth will go for gold in athletics for Team Ireland, who will also be represented by Philip Eaglesham in shooting. Paralympian champion Bethany Firth will aim for more swimming glory for Team GB, along with Claire Taggart in Boccia and Katie Morrow in Wheelchair Basketball.