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'I was at breaking point. I couldn't go on... I was thinking about giving up on life'

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Michael McKillop has won four Paralympic gold medals since 2008, but has faced a number of battles off the track. Photo by Ben Booth/Sportsfile

Michael McKillop has won four Paralympic gold medals since 2008, but has faced a number of battles off the track. Photo by Ben Booth/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Michael McKillop has won four Paralympic gold medals since 2008, but has faced a number of battles off the track. Photo by Ben Booth/Sportsfile

"I point-blank lied to my parents," he remembers. "That was the low point."

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It's 2012 and Paralympic star Michael McKillop, then 22 and the proud owner of a six-year winning streak, is sitting in a room with people who love and care about him - and he is lying to them all.

He can't tell them the truth.

That he is struggling.

That he doesn't know what to do.

That he doesn't know what he might do.

Already he has amassed the kind of success that athletes dream of - Paralympic, world and European medals have all been hung around his neck.

But as the success increases, so do the expectations. And as the expectations increase, so does the pressure.

There is always another race to be run; another medal to be won.

It is getting too much for him, but at this moment his only solution is to keep going, to use athletics as a short-term fix to a long-term problem.

At the 2012 Paralympic games, Michael McKillop would go on to win the 800m/1500m double, a remarkable feat made even more remarkable by what he was going through off the track.

"Ahead of London 2012, I met with Liam Harbinson, who was the CEO of Paralympics Ireland, Dr Joe Conway [Paralympics Ireland medical officer] and my parents," he says.

"I was struggling and they thought I might not be able to compete. Dr Joe said that my health was more important than being an athlete, but I said I was fine.

"Winning races made me forget about it for a bit, but then you would go back to your room and think, 'that's another high gone, where is the next one going to come from'.

"I lied to my parents and it was another three years before I really confronted it."

It wasn't until the build-up to the following Paralympic games in Rio de Janeiro that McKillop finally sought help. He had pushed away his girlfriend Nicole, who is now his wife, and lived a double-life while initially getting treatment, hiding it from his parents.

The 30-year-old admits now, as he gears up for his fourth and final Paralympic games in Tokyo next summer, that his mind took him to the darkest places possible.

"I was at breaking point. I couldn't go on... I was thinking about giving up on life," he says.

"I eventually got in touch with my GP and he put me in touch with a psychiatrist. I hid the letters from my parents. I would get them sent to my GP and he would organise another appointment with the psychiatrist.

"I broke it off with my wife, who was then my girlfriend, around that time. I pushed her away. I was selfish. She has since said that I should have told her and we could have worked through it but someone with mental health issues doesn't think about it like that."

Finally telling his father and mother was a seminal moment in McKillop's recovery and he urges other people struggling with their mental health to reach out and talk to someone.

"One of the first steps was telling my parents," he says.

"It was embarrassing in some ways to admit you had a problem because everyone thinks that being at the top of your sport and living that life, that everything must be amazing.

"But when you are a world champion and successful at such a young age... I put a lot of pressure on myself and thought about what people would say if I was beaten... if I wasn't successful.

"I think athletes need to understand that it's okay to feel sad and down but the most important thing is that you have to reach out. You have to talk about it when not everything is rosy in the garden."

It is a testament to McKillop's performance level that he was able to maintain his place at the top of the sport while battling fiercely with his own mind. Maybe it would have been easier to face up to his problems had his winning streak come to an end sooner, but being the Paralympic prodigy that he was, there was nobody who could touch him on the track.

It takes McKillop 22 seconds to recount all that he has won since first representing Ireland as a 16-year-old: nine world titles, one world silver medal, four Paralympic golds, two European golds and two European silvers.

"It's an obscene amount of medals and an obscene about of success. Not many people would be able to have that sort of consistency to perform every single year regardless of injury and things that happen in your life."

It gets even more impressive: between the 2006 and 2019 world championships, Michael McKillop didn't lose a race. When he crossed the line to finish fourth in the T38 1,500 metres world championship final in Dubai last November, it ended one of Irish sport's most remarkable winning streaks.

Over 13 years had passed since the Belfast middle-distance runner had last walked off the track in an Irish jersey having not secured yet another gold medal.

As a 16-year-old in the Netherlands way back in 2006, McKillop responded exactly as you might expect a teenager thrust onto the world stage would when confronted with an unexpected setback.

He stropped off the track. He threw down his running spikes. He tore off his number.

"I remember my dad saying to me after that race, 'don't disrespect my sport'," McKillop remembers.

"I was on the world stage, not at a local race in Belfast. I had to show maturity and I think that was the first time my dad realised that I was still a boy who didn't know how to deal with defeat. Fast-forward 13 years and I think I did show maturity and respect to my competitors who beat me that day."

In Dubai, he stayed for the medal presentation, committing to memory every feeling of pain, disappointment and, strangely, pride. While it hurt to finally lose a race, McKillop could very well not have been competing at all in Dubai - aside from his mental health issues - after being robbed of over a year of his career through a troublesome groin injury.

It wasn't until getting a second opinion on his ailment that a small tear was finally discovered and McKillop could finally get back on the track in the build-up to Dubai.

"It's a pity we didn't find the tear ten months earlier... that's how sport goes," he says.

"In that period before I got the surgery, I had four MRI scans. We were shooting in the dark and trying every single thing possible to allow me to run pain-free. I spent about ten months rehabbing without any real success.

"After I got the second opinion, I was in front of the surgeon two weeks later and had surgery three days after that."

McKillop battled his way back to fitness in time for the world championships in November, but knew he wasn't quite at his usual level. Defeat not only brought an end to his remarkable run, but also the tandem winning streak he had in conjunction with Jason Smyth. The Derry sprinter has never been beaten in his 14-year Paralympic career, winning five Paralympic golds along the way, and McKillop admits that keeping pace with his close friend added extra pressure, but also drove him on.

"Jason and me were on a journey together from when I was 15 and he was 17," McKillop says.

"From 2006 we were both unbeaten and were branded the golden boys in the Paralympic set-up. We always had to live up to that brand. I felt that if Jason won, I had to win, but it was nice to have that competitive edge too."

Heading into the world championships, Smyth was concerned about how McKillop might take his first defeat in 13 years. So too were the 30-year-old's parents, who thought it might send him back into a dark place, especially after working so hard to overcome his injuries.

But after investing a similar amount of effort in his mental fitness, the Tokyo medal hopeful was able to apply perspective to the race and draw from the experience ahead of next summer.

The T38 1,500 metres world championship final in Dubai was Michael McKillop's first defeat in 13 years - and at the same time one of his greatest victories.

"To be able to run and even be competitive was a massive accomplishment," he says.

"When I was beaten in Dubai, my parents thought that might be a trigger for me but it hasn't been, it has probably been the best thing that could have happened to me because it has made me even more hungry.

"I realised after losing at the world championships that the people who are the most important to you will still support you and love you. There is more to life than sport."

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