MICHAEL McKILLOP from Glengormley is hoping for the best 21st birthday present ever when he lines out at the World Paralympics Athletics Championships in Christchurch, New Zealand next week.
McKillop already has a formidable reputation. At the age of 16, he won his first world title at Assen in the Netherlands, setting a new world record of 2:02.13 for 800m. Two years later, he was crowned Paralympics champion in Beijing, smashing his own best time when he clocked 1:59.39.
McKillop has cerebral palsy, and although he has slight limp when he walks, this disappears as soon as he starts running. "You couldn't tell that I have CP when I run," he says, "But after a hard session, or when I'm tired and find it hard to concentrate, my limp gets worse." His right arm is also affected and, among other things, he can't open cupboards. Fortunately, he is left-handed. "I don't think about it too much -- I just get on with it."
With the 800m final taking place on January 27 Irish time -- his birthday -- McKillop aims to make it a day to remember.
By coincidence, team manager James Nolan and Paralympics newcomer Ray O'Dwyer also celebrate their birthdays that day. It could be some party! Against able-bodied opposition, McKillop more than holds his own. The highlight of his career came in 2009, when he won the national junior intercounty title.
With that came a place on the Irish team for the European Championships in Santry a month later.
On the track, he continues to improve, and finished second in the Northern Ireland 1500m championships last season.
When he returns from New Zealand, he will compete at the National Indoors in Belfast and then the National Intermediate Cross-Country Champion-ships at the Alsaa with his club team, St Malachy's.
"I'll be there to make up the team -- but isn't that what it's all about?" he says. A team of seven competes at the World Paralympics Athletics Championships, starting on Friday. Also on the team are throwers Rosemary Tallon, Orla Barry, Garrett Culliton, Ailish Dunne, Nadine Lattimore and Ray O'Dwyer. Team manager James Nolan is hoping for two or maybe three medals.
"Our best chances lie with Michael McKillop and Orla Barry who is the European discus champion," he says.