In the history of sports, a number of athletes have competed with a disability.
Natalie Du Toit was the first swimmer to participate in the Olympic Games with most of her left leg missing. Baseball’s Jim Abbot advanced all the way to the major leagues, pitching with one arm, highlighting his career with a no-hitter.
Now, there’s Sean McCarthy, a 46-year-old amateur boxer from Boston, Massachusetts. McCarthy has compiled an 12-0 record in what are billed as special exhibition fights. Impressive for someone over forty.
But more impressive is the fact that McCarthy was born with cerebral palsy, a malady that weakens muscle coordination. His hands and legs shake. He can’t stand in one place for very long for fear his limbs will stiffen.
The sweet science is all about coordinated moves and perfect timing. How does McCarthy manage?
“I haven’t lost a fight,” McCarthy told this writer during a telephone interview.
“Unfortunately, I can’t go pro because of my disability. I have sparred with a couple of pros without headgear.”
Pugilism can be a dangerous sport. It takes courage to step inside the ring and face another bent on beating you. McCarthy understands the risks. He not only has the mettle to fight, but the heart to battle a debilitating disease. Boxing, which he took up fifteen years ago after being told by a doctor that mixed martial art (MMA) was out of the question, has been his saving grace.
“I usually get up about four-thirty to five o’clock in the morning,” said McCarthy. “I then go to the gym to work with a trainer and a pro boxer. I train for about two hours.
“I used to run, but the medication I was taking for my condition was really kicking my butt.”
McCarthy has fought the negative perceptions of his disease most of his life.
“I have CP (cerebral palsy), but I can walk and talk” McCarthy says with no bitterness. “I don’t have any regrets. The tricky part is the gait with my walk.”
Cold weather poses a problem. But McCarthy confronts frigid northeastern winters like he does everything else in his life—head on.
“Warm weather helps,” he says, with a chuckle.
When McCarthy steps inside the ropes, he can feel a change. But first he has to get there.
Sean states, “My biggest problem is getting into the ring, the ropes, you know. In the ring, I’m different. As soon as I get in the ring, things change.”
After getting the go ahead to box from his doctor, McCarthy wasn’t sure what to expect when he wandered into a gym in 2002.
“They told me my disease affects my hands and feet,” McCarthy said. “But with me throwing fast punches – I don’t know how I can have that. Jimmy Farrell was the man who taught me how to box. I came to his gym. Jimmy was in the ring working with someone. I told Jimmy that I was interested in boxing.
“I asked if he would train me. Jimmy said sure. I said great and started to walk away. He asked me where I was going. I looked at him. He told me to get a pair of gloves on and get in the ring.”
Sparring with professional fighters has become part of the normal routine for McCarthy. His determination and drive inspire others in the gym to improve.
“People think you have a disability,” McCarthy said in a hushed tone. “So what, you just have to train a little extra.” McCarthy understands who he is. Hard work doesn’t faze him.
“Instead of being a regular a guy, I train five or six days, instead of three or four,” he says.
His gritty resolve to fight did cause some consternation with his late father.
“My dad was on his deathbed,” said McCarthy. “He didn’t like me boxing. He was afraid I was going to get hurt. Stuff like that is understandable. So, I went into his hospital room. We (his family) used to call him ‘Chief’ because he was the man of the house.
“I walked into his hospital room and said, ‘Hey,Chief’. He smiled and said, ‘Hey, Champ.’
“I kept that name.”
McCarthy’s mother was also worried about her son.
“She didn’t like me boxing at first, but she’s excited for me. She still gets nervous, but I know she’s proud.”
As a youngster, McCarthy didn’t follow boxing. In was only after he began to compete that the sport became all-consuming. One of his favorite programs was ESPN’S Friday Night Fights. He imagined being in the ring with some of the professional he saw on the screen.
With all his success, McCarthy is keenly aware that he can’t fight forever, although he’s hoping to have two or three more fights. He has a hunch what he’ll do next.
“I was offered a job teaching some kids how to box,” said McCarthy. “It’s something for me to do. It’s educational.”
A few years ago McCarthy was told by a trainer that if he had started fighting earlier in his life he could have captured the Golden Gloves.
But he’s already won. McCarthy has defeated not only his disability, but the naysayers who told him he shouldn’t fight—and that alone makes him a champion.