Getting the recognition he deserves
Paralympic swimming champion Darragh McDonald talks to Cliona Foley about the influence the London Games had on his life, how he balances full-time study with full-time training, his difficulty trying to find sponsorship and his ambitions for the future
"Moderation is for cowards"
IT WAS a tiny incident coming home from a training camp in Fuerteventura before this summer's World Championships that convinced Darragh McDonald that a vital shift in perception had finally occurred.
He won his first Olympic medal when he was just 14 and became Olympic champion before he'd even sat the Leaving Cert.
But he knew that the 'Para' prefix in front of those sporting milestones somehow lessened his achievements, that most people still didn't understand how hard he trained or how well he swam. Some even still confused Paralympics with Special Olympics and thought he had an intellectual disability, not a physical one.
But London 2012 changed all that.
All that live television – particularly Channel 4's ground-breaking coverage of the athletes they dubbed 'The Superhumans' – meant that, for the first time, people could finally see for themselves what he can do in a swimming pool.
South Africa's Natalie Du Toit, who lost one of her legs in a traffic accident, famously finished 16th in the Olympic open-water event.
McDonald points out that, at 50m freestyle, the difference between his disability category (S6) and the able-bodied world record is just seven seconds.
So this time, when an Irish family clocked himself and his team-mates in a Canaries airport, he didn't hear a small child ask "Mammy, what's wrong with that boy's arm?"
What he heard was "Oh look, there's some Irish Paralympians!" – they recognised the perma-smiling, tousle-headed swimming star from Wexford.
"London changed things, definitely," he says smiling. "It doesn't bother me in the slightest people looking at my arm or my limbs, I never cared but it has actually stopped.
"Where once it was two or three glances and a kid asking 'what happened?', now it's just a look, maybe a double-look, but that's it. People understand what we do now. That's a huge deal and it's so rewarding.
"You get the medal moment for five, 10 minutes up on the podium but that aftermath, for people to understand now, that's a way bigger thing really."
That new-found respect couldn't have come at a better time.
McDonald (19) likes to quip that swimming saved him from the "little fat blob" that he'd become, but you would have to travel far to find someone with less self-pity.
He learnt, a long time ago, to zone out from the finger-pointing and double-takes, and becoming an elite athlete has played a major role in making him a confident, bubbly character who jokes that parking permits are one of the perks of his physical differences.
He relishes the fact that his parents didn't mollycoddle him, but Caroline and Derek McDonald had to search hard to find a sport that physically suited their only child, who was born without any lower legs and only half a right arm.
"In fourth class I was 60 kilos, probably went up to 70 and I'm 64 with my legs off now," he explains. "But I can't say I was ever self-conscious and that's down to my parents, they're very positive people."
Horseriding initially provided his sporting outlet until the day one of his prosthetic legs came off mid-ride and he ended up being dragged around an arena with it caught in a stirrup.
"I was galloping on my own by then and loved it but I got a right shock from that and couldn't get my confidence back," he reveals.
McDonald then found his true sporting vocation when he turned to swimming, helped by coach John Kealy; the only difficulty he encountered was learning how to breathe on both sides.
Last year, he became the S6 400m freestyle Paralympic champion.
A different challenge – his Leaving Cert year – immediately followed, so he didn't suffer the initial post-Olympic slump that often affects champions
But even McDonald's resolutely positive mental attitude was tested to its limits when he constantly monitored his email box and didn't even find acknowledgments, let alone replies.
Even before London 2012 he started writing and seeking sponsorship, conscious that he wanted to go to college and, like all elite athletes, would need all the help he could get while combining full-time study with full-time training.
It did not help that his sport rarely features on television; he has turned up just one sponsor, Hegarty Financial.
"To be honest the past year has been hard and I often got down about it," McDonald admits.
"I always felt, after London and all that coverage, that things were going to be so different, that there would be sponsors and people who'd want me for the Rio cycle but, apart from Hegartys, there has been nothing at all. It does depress you.
"I went, I swam every metre, won the ultimate thing you can win in my fastest times ever and still nothing. It's hard to keep motivated."
He believes that if he was an Olympic swimming champion, not a Paralympic one, things would be better. But that family's reaction at the airport proved that perceptions have, at least, turned a corner.
McDonald still remains the most enthusiastic of poster boys for Paralympic sport, conscious of how randomly he fell into swimming (spotting an article about it in an amputee magazine) and how sport could have a similarly transformative effect on others with disabilities.
His own life has been transformed again recently. The daily early-morning grind from Arklow pool to Gorey CBS has been swapped for a commute from Blackrock to Belfield, where he is a first-year commerce student.
He used to train for nine hours a week in a 25m pool where he was the biggest fish. Now he trains twice as much in a 50m pool, just another minnow on UCD's elite swim squad, which is coached by Earl McCarthy and includes "half the national team."
UCD awarded 64 sports scholarships this year, six to swimmers. McDonald is there on merit, not tokenism; the only world and Paralympic champion on campus and one of only two London Olympians.
Training alongside many of the country's best able-bodied swimmers is his latest huge challenge but he welcomes the chance to pit himself against breaststroke and individual medley star Shanni Stallard from Kilkenny, who is five seconds faster than him over 400m.
The stump below his right elbow has never stopped McDonagh doing anything "except playing a piano."
Even when he did a typing course in school he was the fastest, knocking out 45 words a minute.
He once got a special clamp for it to help him hold a violin bow and is now looking for something similar to allow him add weight-lifting to his training regime.
He's also needs to find a way to replicate the additional cardio training that his able-bodied team-mates do, that will help to banish "that little tyre around my midriff.
"It's hard to shift it because I can't run or cycle but getting rid of that would make me so much more water-dynamic," he explains and, one of his former school teachers is currently designing a tricycle for him towards that end.
McDonald's efficiency in water is, partially, down to the speed of his arm stroke, twice as fast as the rest of his UCD team-mates.
But that means his rotator cuffs are more prone to wear and tear, so he's unlikely to be able to cope when their mileage is upped to 100km a-week.
"I'm fine up to 60-70km but higher than that gets tough for me and if I build up too much muscle on my left shoulder I won't be able to spin as fast either," he explains.
The only allowance he's given is to skip the Saturday morning session, but otherwise the Wexford teenager, whose Twitter ID reads "moderation is for cowards", doesn't want any special treatment.
The only ripples in his water are potentially financial.
McDonald receives the Sports Council's top grant (€40,000) but that is part-funding his education. The ISC's cash-for-medals bonus scheme is gone, he hasn't turned up the sponsors he had hoped for and he is particularly worried about speculation that grants will be receipt-based next year.
"The Sports Council grant is great but if they don't accept that you need some of it for education and stuff like that I won't be motivated enough to go on," he confesses.
"Studying is a full-time job, swimming is a full-time job so we're working two jobs at the same time and you can't do that if you're not being paid to do one of them."
Yet McDonald remains delighted and challenged to be just another track-suited elite athlete on campus, regarded and treated equally.
"If you look at my Olympic final I'm technically the most disabled swimmer in it, I've the least limbs but I win anyway!
"That has definitely changed perceptions because people asked 'how can he beat people more able-bodied than him?' They're looking at the performance side of it now and that's what they can appreciate."