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THE LAST WORD: How Nicola Tuthill fought to compete on the world stage

August 28th, 2022 6:30 PM

By Kieran McCarthy

Kilbrittain's Nicola Tuthill in action in the women's hammer at the 2021 European U20s.

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LESS than five months after dislocating her elbow in March, Nicola Tuthill was playing Jenga in a kids’ playroom against her rivals during a rain-disrupted women’s hammer final at the World Athletics U20 Championships in August.

This is a remarkable comeback story. 

It started with a horror injury on March 13th when the Kilbrittain teenager (18) was in action at the European Throwing Cup in Portugal.

Her first two throws were her safety throws, to get up and running, and included a solid 59.57m. It all went wrong on her third throw, as Tuthill went for distance.

‘I was mid-throw, turning around. As I was turning, one foot got stuck behind the other, so I put my arms out to save me – and out went the elbow,’ she recalls.

‘I knew straightaway something was wrong. I was sitting there, looking at my arm and it was not the way it was supposed to look.’

She had dislocated her right elbow.

 

Tuthill was taken by ambulance to the local hospital in Leiria where they popped her elbow back in. No pain killers. That stung.

‘They lined me up against the wall, grabbed my arm and did what they had to do,’ she says, but an x-ray showed there was more damage. She had also suffered an avulsion fracture of a bone, which had broken into little fragments after it was pulled off a ligament. Serious stuff.

The following day, Monday, she was on home soil, having more scans at Beaumont Hospital in Dublin, trying to discover the extent of the injury.

Her main aim for the year was the World U20s in Cali in early August, and that target looked in tatters. It could have been even worse.

‘I never really lost hope myself but there were people who told me that I had to be realistic, that I might never throw again and might not throw at the same level. It wasn't nice to hear that,’ she admits.

Scary words to hear, but that was her reality for a period. Her elbow needs to bend and rotate in the wind-ups at the start of the throw and then extend with full and rapid extension in the middle and final phase of the throw. Any loss of range of bend or extension, or even recurrent dislocation or stiffness would be hugely problematic, but the Bandon Athletic Club athlete always believed she’d make the plane to Colombia for the World U20s. That’s her determination.

‘I never gave up hope,’ she says, ‘but elbows are a funny thing and it was about keeping it in place so it doesn't come back out again.

‘Each time I went up to Dublin for check-ups there was a bit more hope. It was healing and getting better.’

She’s also resilient. This is the West Cork teenager who in 2020, and when she was only 16 years old, won the Irish senior women’s hammer title. She has the talent, but also has the work ethic and drive to succeed that’s needed. Tuthill’s dad, Norman, built her a home-made throwing cage on their family farm in Baurleigh, Kilbrittain. That’s where she practices, slinging the four-kilogramme hammer out over the silage pit. It’s a throw she’s made thousands of times. She’s used to hard work, and she had to graft again this year, stripping it back down to the basics.

Nicola Tuthill training at home at Baurleigh on the circle and cage built by her father. (Photo: Martin Walsh)

 

It was all about the one percenters that make the difference. Her application to her rehab. The behind-the-scenes work that only her family, coaches and physio see. There were no short-cuts here. She had exercise bands tied to banisters and door handles at the top of the landing at home so she could perform the drills she had to. Some nights it was as late as midnight when she was on the landing. She didn’t cut corners. Diligent and determined. Tuthill was also studying for her Leaving Cert exams at Coláiste na Toirbhirte in June, an extra stress as she divided her time between school and rehab. 

‘My physio, Mary, had loads of band work to wake up the muscles and make sure there was no nerve damage, because with the elbow that was a bit of a worry. I was very lucky,’ Tuthill explains, as her right arm got stronger.

She had eight training sessions a week, split evenly between the gym and drills, working her way up to one-armed throws, and then the lighter 2.5kg hammer. It was moving in the right direction.

On June 14th, 93 days after she dislocated and fractured her elbow, Tuthill threw the 2.5kg hammer. She kept building. Twelve days later, on June 26th, she had her first training session back with the 4kg hammer. Hold that plane to Colombia. 

‘I knew the deadline for the World U20s was July 17th so I knew I had to compete before then. I had to prove my form,’ she says. Tuthill had thrown 60.92m in Dunboyne in February, and then had the 59.57m from Portugal, but she had to prove she was in current form. The national junior championships were on July 17th, the final day to show she was on the way back. The pressure was on. She won gold with 57.07m. Tuthill delivered. That night she got the phone call she wanted – she was selected on the Athletics Ireland team for the World U20s.

‘It made all the heavy work worth it. I have to thank my family, my coaches, my physio, and everyone around me. Their support was amazing,’ Tuthill says, but this comeback doesn’t stop there. There’s more.

On Wednesday, August 3rd, 143 days after falling in the circle and dislocating her elbow, she threw a new PB of 61.87m (her previous was 61.55m) in her semi-final at the World U20s in Cali. On the global stage, and after three months of disrupted training and still not near her best, she pulled out the biggest throw of her life. That shows her toughness because she’s not operating at 100 percent yet. It also ranks her third on the Irish women’s hammer throw all-time list – and she’s still only 18 years old.

‘I was told it would be six months before I can do Olympic lifts and stuff like that. My arm is still quite weak. I am not doing the full gym session that I would usually do. I am not doing Olympic lifts, deadlifts or bench presses, and the arm work isn't the same as it was. It’s constantly about building up slowly,’ she says, but she was through to the final at the World U20s, ranked sixth of the 12 athletes left standing. 

The next chapter seems more fiction than fact. The women’s hammer final on the Friday had to be delayed for four hours because of rain, thunder and lightning. The throwing circle was too slippery. Not exactly what Tuthill wanted to hear, given her fall in Portugal. The competitors were brought into a kids’ play area at the Pascual Guerrero Olympic Stadium. One hour of waiting eventually stretched into four hours. The 12 finalists were all in the room together. 

‘We weren't allowed phones or anything because we were essentially still in competition,’ she explains. 

Six of them, Tuthill included, played games of Jenga, just to pass some time. Much like her comeback, she was strong, and didn’t knock any blocks. Eventually they got back out to finish the final. Her best throw was 60.47m, which was less than one metre off a bronze medal. Given the conditions weren’t ideal for throwers and her disrupted preparation, to leave Cali with a PB and top-ten finish was an incredible achievement.

‘I managed to get a PB with what was essentially three months of not-my-normal training. I never stopped training, but I wasn’t throwing with two hands. If I have a full year of training in me, I might be able to improve even further again,’ she explains.

Tuthill learned a lot about herself this year, in and out of the throwing circle. That’s what makes her future so exciting. And she’s a steady hand at Jenga, too.

 

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