Dual Olympian: Terry McHugh

THIRTY years ago Terry McHugh did something unique in Irish sporting history.

He didn’t just compete in a Winter and Summer Olympic Games – something that only two other Irish athletes have ever done - he did both in one year.

1992 was the last time that the Summer and Winter Olympics were held in one year.

That he took on and complete this dual challenge with a broken kneecap speaks volumes about the unique physical and mental resilience of an Irish athletics’ legend who won the national javelin title 21 times in-a-row (1984-200), made World and European finals and competed for Ireland in six Olympic Games (four Summer, two Winter).

He competed in Olympic javelin in 1988 (22nd), 1992 (27th), 1996 (29th) and  2000 (20th) and his 22-year-old Irish javelin record of 82.75m still stands.

But he was also a bobsleigh pioneer, even though his Winter Olympics debut in Albertville almost ended a month beforehand when he had an accident practising with his partner Pat McDonagh on the ice-rink in Dolphin’s Barn.

“We had tyres down one end and used to jump off before the sled hit them.

I slipped on our last push and, rather than fall, I jumped on, hunched down and thought I’d absorb it but I was catapulted up into the air and the bar smacked my left knee.”

A dash to A&E confirmed his patella was broken in three or four places: “I thought it was over. The chances of being at the Winter Olympics just dissolved in that moment.”

But, once the swelling went down, he discovered that he had no pain if he didn’t bend his knee below 90 degrees so continued, undeterred and made history in France where the pair finished 32nd and Gerry Macken and Malachy Sheridan were 38th.

McDonagh had recruited him for bobsleigh at the Seoul Olympics in 1988: “We’d been competing (internationally) for a couple of years and the real highlight for me was the day we secured Olympic qualification in Calgary.”

Conditions veered dramatically from bright sunshine to -20 that night so the sleds that went down later in the draw went faster, drawing objections from the traditionally strong nations who usually benefitted from the fast early ice.

“Our first run was the best I ever had in a bobsleigh, Pat’s driving was flawless. It felt like we were just flying. There was 50-something sleds and we were inside the top 20 but then all the first runs got cancelled. They actually used us as an example to get the whole thing re-started.”

The competition didn’t finish until 2am but their consistency that night was enough: “We knew we had qualified and were ecstatic.”

His bid to repeat it with Garry Power in 1994 ended with the OCI’s decision not to send a bob to Lillehammer but McHugh was central to recruiting and qualifying a large Irish bobsleigh team for 1998.

He and sprinter Jeff Pamplin were 27th, Pete Donohoe and Simon Linscheid finished 34th and the four (McHugh, Pamplin, Linscheid and Garry Power) were 30th.

“Nagano was a much better experience because we were actually in the athletes’ village and competed in four-man as well. As brakeman you have your head down but I remember hearing cheering at every bend, which you never had at a World Cup.

“We had also gone and got our gear embroidered ourselves and I remember seeing the Olympic rings and the Irish logo on the inside of my gloves while I was holding on. You really knew where you were!”

After 1998 he concentrated his energies back on javelin and looks back fondly on his historic dual achievements.

“1992 was the last time anyone could compete in both in the same year because they were breaking the Olympic cycle. To do that was an amazing thing, I can’t deny that.”

Terry was born in Clonmel and introduced to track and field by the late Sean Naughton in Nenagh before his family moved to Navan.

He now lives in Switzerland, near Lausanne, where he is married with a teenage son. He has been Switzerland’s national coach for javelin and discus since 2005 and is also the ‘athlete manager’ for the annual IAAF meeting in Lucerne, responsible for recruiting all the international entrants.

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