How a tragic accident which left her partner paralysed led Emma McQuaid to become a world class athlete
While in America with her boyfriend David Wray who was undergoing pioneering medical treatment in a bid to walk again after a horror quad bike crash, Newry girl Emma McQuaid discovered the gruelling sport of CrossFit and is now soaring up the ranks. Declan Bogue reports.
The first thing that greets you when you pull up at the home and Personal Training studio of Emma McQuaid (26) are the dogs. Buster is a Retriever. Henry is a Newfoundland. Henry might just be the biggest dog you have ever seen.
He was bought as a present from Emma for her partner, David Wray (27). The reason we are doing this story is because of Emma's rapid progress in CrossFit, jumping over 6,000 places in a year, to 20th place in the world, but we soon learn that her story goes far beyond sport.
Growing up on the outskirts of Newry sandwiched between younger brother Eugene and elder sister Janine, Emma became hooked on quad bikes after her father John bought them a dinky little Suzuki LT50.
By the age of eight, she was already racing competitively. Through her love for quad biking she met David Wray of Ravernet, just outside Lisburn. He was one of the fastest riders in Europe. But three years ago he was racing at the Tandragee track.
"Basically there was a really bad bump and it kept getting bigger and bigger all day," recalls Emma.
"He landed into it, the bike catapulted him off and the bike crushed him to the ground. It dislocated his spine and did enough damage."
He was instantly paralysed, spending three months in hospital between operations and rehab. They located to a hospital in San Diego called 'Project Walk' that specialised in cases such as his.
Emma takes up the story.
"(It was) The only place you can go to try and prompt anything on. Nothing really came of it for David, but generally, his life got better because he was able to get stronger to move about.
"In Musgrave, they just want to get you from your chair to your bed, back to your chair. They don't really care about general living as such. Whereas in San Diego, they help you with everything. Get you off the floor, get into your chair, get into your car. Just teach you and make you a lot more comfortable with it."
David has never walked again, but they came to terms with it and he was able to move more freely. Emma presented him with Henry when he came out of hospital.
He works with the family engineering company in Hillsborough and never allowed his accident to get the better of him. Nowadays, he even mentors young riders coming up through the ranks, and he and Emma recently took a trip to Dunkirk to supervise the progress of a protege, Dean Dillon.
While in San Diego during David's morning physio session, Emma would visit the gym.
"I was just training in the gym one day and looked into the basketball court. I saw these girls doing crazy stuff, loads of pull-ups, walking on their hands. I was just like … Whoah, I would love to do this," she laughs.
"I went in and got chatting to the woman who was running it. She was maybe in her fifties or sixties, so fit, so strong.
"I asked if I could join in with the class some time. She was like, 'No. Not really. You have to do it for so long'."
But Emma was persistent and asked if there was a quiet class she could join in. The instructor said there was one at 6am. A test of her resolve more than an invitation.
"I came into the class the next morning and there were loads of exercises I had never done before like Olympic lifting. I struggled with that and I think she thought I was a bit of a g******e at that point.
"I was always fit, but I just had to learn all the skills.
"She invited me back for the rest of their sessions and I trained with them for the rest of my time."
While she has a Personal Training studio in the garage of David's parents' property, she has cut back her clients to two evenings a week. You ask if you could make a living from CrossFit earnings and she points to the novelty oversized cheque for €12,000 pinned to the back wall that she earned from a fitness tournament at the ExCel Arena in London.
Now, she has the CrossFit Open in her sights. Late one Thursday night, a workout was released online. She had until 1am on Tuesday to submit a video of herself completing it and get it verified.
A live leaderboard will then go up as all the entrants come in.
"The purpose of the open is to get the top 30 females in Europe to go to Madrid to take part in a live event, on the 26th, 27th and 28th of May," she continues.
Last year, she came sixth in qualifying, so she and her coach Neil Laverty have talked about just qualifying and not much more, in order to peak for the Madrid event.
"The whole goal is to get to the CrossFit Games. Out of the 30 people that go to Madrid, five people get to go to the Games in California.
"The top five of every region go to the Games in California; there is like £275,000 if you win it."
There has been some criticism of CrossFit as a concept.
Fitness professionals are not keen on the idea of heavy exercises presented in a competition format. In such an environment, they argue, form goes out the window. Squatting and pull-ups and other strenuous movements should be executed with perfect form in order to avoid injury.
Emma addresses the question as a personal trainer and a competitor.
"A lot of people say it is the worst sport ever and should be banned," she acknowledges.
"The best thing for me to say is that it is the same as everything; you can get absolutely rubbish dentists, physios, doctors, teachers. It's just finding the right approach, finding the right facility and sticking with it. You are going to find bad coaches everywhere. Qualifications are easy to get. I have the CrossFit qualification, but it's not my goal to have a CrossFit gym. I prefer Personal Training and the Motocross side of things."
You have to hand it to her. She has put in the work. A while back, she spent two weeks in small-town Iceland, breaking down her Olympic lift and reconstructing it with the world-class barbell coach, Erik Lau Kelner, just like a Padraig Harrington seeking perfection with his drive on the golf range.
"He has totally transformed how I work under a barbell. It's amazing," she says.
Recently, she booked flights to Atlanta for April 5. She will be there for five and a half weeks at a specific camp. Her hands are chapped and cracked from all the pull-ups and muscle-ups.
If there's one thing she isn't lacking in, it's dedication.
Away from all this in Ravernet Road, herself and David live across the hedge from the site of their house.
Construction only began a few months back, but already the roof slates are almost complete. Life is moving along almost as fast as the sport of CrossFit.
In the evenings, she does what's required, while David spends his time building quads, preparing for the weekend events.