It’s quite rare in life that an email arrives in your inbox with the subject line “A sports story to overcome adversity and trauma”. It’s even rarer for the subject to be the least surprising thing in the email.
The story of Mary Whelan, former referee of the International Basketball Federation (Fiba), is extraordinary, symbolic of a helping hand and what sport can bring to your life. Her story is documented in The Whistleblower’s Secrets and is one of true courage, determination, loneliness and difference.
Born deaf, Mary Whelan grew up knowing she was an outlier, but never really understanding what set her apart. People were screaming and getting mad at her; she realized early on that life would be different for her. Naturally, Mary retreated into books and sports, two places where she could use her imagination.
“I didn’t know what I was reading, but I made the story up as I went along,” Whelan explains. “I also liked escaping into a good book. The disability I had was not visible and I could put my head in a book, which made me look normal because I was like everyone else who read the book. And you know, when you have a disability, there are times when you feel very abnormal and very different from other people. Then there are times when you just want to feel the same as everyone else. Having my head in the book and reading made me look normal. ”
Mary also found her other passion: sports. A nun from her school, Sister Patricia, created a women’s basketball team. The school Mary went to had an orphanage attached to it. Sr. Patricia was looking for things for the children in the orphanage to do in their free time. No one knows how or where she saw basketball or even why she picked it up, but luckily for Mary, she found her niche.
“When I was young, I stayed at my grandmother’s house a lot, and there were a lot of kids on the road there, and we played together every day. We were playing all different games so I had to improve my visual senses tremendously to see what everyone was doing because I couldn’t hear what they were doing.
“One of my aunts, who lived with my grandmother, was trying to help me afterwards to understand what the game was about. She could write stuff for me or draw stuff and things like that, and I would watch just like crazy and I was picking things up with my eyes. Thus, my visual senses intensified. It came to me later when I started playing basketball because it made me a much better player because I was much more observant and able to see things that other players couldn’t. .
Then hope, or something that actually looked like hope, came around the corner. Mary began having surgery to try to regain her hearing. Of course, it could be seen from the outside as a happy occasion, but the reality was different,
“I didn’t get my hearing back immediately. It took a long time. And when he [my hearing] started to come back, it came back in very, very small, very small increments. So it was very frustrating at first because when I could start to hear I couldn’t hear the words or think things properly because I could only hear the sounds. It was very confusing and quite traumatic in another way. So when I started hearing words, which I finally did, it also became traumatic because I couldn’t hear the words well.
“So if you said ‘I think there’s a cake’, I might choose something different. So I started to think you said ‘wrong’ and you said ‘cake’. This sentence wouldn’t make any sense to me. I couldn’t put it together and it was very traumatic. Although it was great to get the hearing back, for all those times it was very traumatic, until that in fact I finished all the rehabilitation afterwards, where I had to relearn the whole English language, learn to read, write, spell correctly again”.
Fortunately, the world of basketball still existed, somewhere Mary felt safe. During her career as a basketball player, she achieved National League status and won numerous national and local trophies and medals. She was nominated for the Dublin League Most Valuable Player of the Year award and has several tournament most valuable players to her name. But she really earned her stripes as a referee.
“At first I didn’t want to be a referee because I was training so hard and playing so well. I didn’t want to lose that. I just entered it. Because my friend is gone and someone had to do [it] because each team had to have its own club referee, otherwise you couldn’t play in the league. So I was very resentful when I walked into it.
“I walked out and was very bossy because it was like, ‘if you think you’re going to abuse me, and I’m giving up my precious time to be there for you, you’ve got something else coming up.’ I approached it from a completely different angle. Now it served me well because it made me look great. I had a great presence as a referee. And people were more afraid of me than I was. Normally, people are very nervous when they referee and they are afraid that they will be shouted at. I was terrorizing them instead of them terrorizing me because I was so angry.
The bossy lifestyle accidentally ended up working out for Mary as she rose through the ranks and ended up becoming Ireland’s first female Fiba referee.
“The feelings I had growing up were very lonely feelings. You feel like I’m so different from everyone else and it’s not a nice difference. It’s really nice to be different because we have something to offer in our difference. But in that difference, I felt like… I had read the Elephant Man book. I used to feel like him and I was ugly .
“People didn’t understand me. I couldn’t understand them. I had to try. It takes a lot of hard work, effort, commitment, time and dedication, it’s not easy.
“But you can’t give up. You have to deal with all the rejections, you have to deal with all the ups, downs, setbacks, disappointments, and it’s very difficult emotionally to go through all of that and stay at the highest level and keep yourself in a place where you can’t make mistakes. Yet it is possible with hard work, dedication and resilience. You can never give up. You just have to keep working very, very hard. It doesn’t matter how talented you are. People who work hard will outperform talent.