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James McSwiney: “For some countries, this is their Olympics!”

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James McSwiney, part of Ireland's WorldSkills team in 2017.
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This article originally appeared on ThisIsArdee.ie

In 24 hours time, Ardee man James McSwiney will be jetting off to Abu Dhabi – where he hopes months, years even, of preparation will help him emerge victorious in the prestigious WorldSkills 2017 competition.

The joinery apprentice from Ballapousta was named National IrelandSkills joinery champion earlier this year, qualifying him for this month’s international event where men and women from 50 countries will compete to win awards in their various fields. A 14-strong team from Ireland will fly out to the Middle East for the competition tomorrow evening – and James will be flying the flag for Ardee.

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Among the fields represented by Irish workers this are James’ joinery as well as welding, plumbing and heating, cabinetmaking, beauty therapy and restaurant service.

After 10 weeks of intense preparation in the summer, James is now all set for his trip. Speaking to ThisIsArdee.ie today, he admitted the nerves have started to kick in a little. “Two weeks ago, the team spent the weekend in Naas. We did a lot of photos and we got our work gear and everything. It was then really that the nerves starting kicking on.”

When we last spoke to James back in July, he was just about to embark on an intensive summer training programme at IT Sligo, where he was been trained by John Joe O’Reilly.  The Kilpatrick native has spent the last three days away from the workshop. “On Friday, I finished training and I thought that’s the last I’ll do before I head off,” he told ThisIsArdee.ie.

“I said I’d give myself a break until tomorrow. There’s not much more I can do now. I got the best training you can get – there’s not much else I can do.”

An apprentice at IT Sligo and working for John Sisk & Son, James came through the prestigious IrelandSkills National Competition to get this far. The national finals involve such a very high level of competition, James was forced into a playoff to qualify for the this month’s WorldSkills finals.

That meant over the summer, when he wasn’t working – he was working. A keen rugby player, he’s even had to forego the start of the season with Ardee RFC to maintain concentration on focus on his Middle East trip. Over there, he will come up against 24 other competitors in the Joinery competition – from countries as diverse as Spain, the United Kingdom and Korea to Namibia, Iran and Mongolia.

As part of the summer schedule of training, competitors from other countries, including Denmark’s joinery entry Frederik Riber, visited James to test themselves up against one another.

“The training was tough,” James recalls. “We had lads from Denmark and Finland come over to here, just as a practice week for them. They were very good. We were picking up things they were doing and they were looking at what we were doing.

“That week was actually the first time that I got the two of them (two modules – flat and 3D) done in the time. The week before I got the two of them done in 13 and a half hours each but with the lads over and with the competition, I knocked off two-and-a-half hours on each one.”

That is exactly what James will have to do in Abu Dhabi. The competitors are given 22 hours across four days to complete both modules. Speed is key but all makes must be finished to the highest quality.

Recently, James and the Irish team have had to balance their training schedule with other duties – suit fittings and promotional activites among them.

“We met the Minister for Education Richard Bruton recently. It made it all feel real,” James tells us. “You see all the stuff online and it really does make it feel real. When you’re training – it feels like you’re training for nothing, just like you’re working.  Then when we do the weekends away with the rest of the team – it makes you remember what you’re doing.”

The attention will remain on them whilst over in the Middle East, a film crew will be joining them to document their progress. James says he hopes he won’t get too sweaty in front of the cameras.

James (right) says the nerves are kicking in, but he’s eager to get going in Abu Dhabi.

“The heat over there will be unreal. We’re heading out Tuesday evening and we land there at 6am on Wednesday and the plan is to stay awake for the whole day. The competition doesn’t start until Sunday so we have a few days to acclimatise and get used to the surroundings and all that.

“Even in the week here with the lads, I was absolutely sweating out of it. We have to wear sweatbands even in training to keep the sweat out of your eyes!”

“It’s a big deal. I don’t think we see it as much in this country,” James concludes. “In Korea, if they get a gold meal – they’d get a house or a car and set up for life. Some countries take it very seriously. It’s their Olympics really.  It’s not viewed as much here, 90% of the country wouldn’t even have heard of it.”

If Ireland – and hopefully James – can win some medals at the trade skills Olympics this month, they’re be plenty of talk about it in the future.

A former pupil of Ardee Community School, James returned to the school in the spring when he gave a talk to students about taking a trade and getting an apprenticeship, Interestingly, James has followed vice principal Tony Corcoran’s footsteps with his achievement. The woodwork teacher won the national final many years ago.

Suited and Booted: James is pictured with his IT Sligo mentor John Joe O’Reilly.

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