Thursday 8 December 2016

'I'm proud to live the life I have, I'm lucky, very lucky'

Cathal Dennehy

Published 12/09/2016 | 02:30

Michael McKillop celebrates his gold medal run in yesterday’s T37 1500m final. Photo by Paul Mohan/Sportsfile
Michael McKillop celebrates his gold medal run in yesterday’s T37 1500m final. Photo by Paul Mohan/Sportsfile

As he stood before us, the gold medal draped around his neck, Michael McKillop tried his best to hold back the tears. He gritted his teeth, paused for a moment, but his eyes told the story better than words ever could.

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It had been building for months, this rising tide of expectation that threatened to pull him under, his body not co-operating with his demands and his mind in turmoil over his loss of form.

For him, beating his rivals in the T37 category has always been inevitable, an athletic mis-match. At the past two Paralympic games, the Newtownabbey runner won gold like a man on a casual Sunday morning trot. This time, he knew, would be different.

Rewind four weeks, back to a nothing town in Scotland where McKillop ran his final race before flying to Brazil. At his peak, he has run 3:51.74 for 1500m, but on this day he labours home in 13th place, running all out to clock a miserable 4:31.49.

"The next couple of days, I couldn't get out of bed," he said. "I was rockbottom."

The diagnosis was a vitamin B12 deficiency, an ill-timed condition which left him feeling like he was hauling a sack of spuds on every run. For the past month, all he could do was jog, hoping muscle memory and the permanency of his class would see him through.

Mobilisation

There was also injury, a cyst in his foot which meant the first step of every day was an agonising one. It required constant mobilisation, maintenance, and sometimes left McKillop hoping for a miracle.

He told no one, knowing his rivals would be on the lookout for signs of fragility. Instead he put the message out there that he was in peak shape, although doubt had made itself at home in the back of his mind.

"It was really, really tough, but nothing was going to stop me being on that start line," he said. "I knew if I could get through those dark days I can get through anything."

In recent years McKillop's form has often regressed due to injuries, which have left him unable to challenge high-quality able-bodied athletes, something he has done throughout his career despite having cerebral palsy.

All the same, this is his kingdom, the place he has ruled for the past eight years with dictatorial superiority. When the gun fired in the Olympic Stadium for the T37 1500m final yesterday, he ran like he owned the place.

McKillop knew not to follow the early move of Algeria's Madjid Djemai, who took off like a scared rabbit and passed 400m in 66.21 seconds. Instead he remained in the pack, steadily reeling in Djemai by the halfway point.

Right on his shoulder, however, was Canada's Liam Stanley, a talented 19-year-old newcomer. Slowly, steadily, McKillop began to shovel more coal on the fire, moving through the gears in the middle of the race until, with 200m to run, the Canadian couldn't stand the heat.

As he turned for home, McKillop stole a glance at the big screen and knew he was safe, crossing the line well clear in 4:12.11. Afterwards he flopped to the ground, exhausted, his face wedged against the track as he contemplated his fourth Paralympic gold medal.

"It was a really tough race," he said. "He made me work for it, but I like a challenge. It doesn't matter what efforts other people are doing, I can come out on top because I know I'm the best."

After the race, McKillop grabbed a tricolour from Irish fans, draped himself in it, and danced his way along the back straight, even waving a small Brazilian flag as a way of saying thanks to the locals.

"We saw today how much the fans were involved," said McKillop. "They wanted to be involved in Paralympic sport and that shows we're moving in the right direction."

Few athletes have done as much for the Paralympic movement as McKillop, and when the dam finally broke on his emotions, he spoke like a man who knows just what it all means.

"In the dark times you realise what life's about," he said. "It's not just about gold medals. It's about living, and I'm proud to live the life I have. I'm lucky, very lucky."

And he's not done yet. McKillop revealed yesterday that he intends to break the T37 mile world record in Dublin next summer before targeting the world championships in London. Tokyo 2020 is also on the agenda, where he hopes to bow out on top.

"2017 is going to be the year I get back and showcase my talents," he said. "Hopefully by the time I get to Tokyo I can hang my spikes up with pride."

There were tears in his eyes as he said it. Tears of pride.

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