Saturday 18 November 2017

'If the child has no limbs the parents can still throw them in a pool. They'll float'

Darragh McDonald hates 'mollycoddling' and, along with Jason Smyth and Orla Barry, he tells Ruaidhri O'Connor how the Paralympic games in London are still making a difference

Irish Paralympic athletes Orla Barry and Darragh McDonald
Irish Paralympic athletes Orla Barry and Darragh McDonald
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

FOR TWO weeks last September they were the centre of the universe, playing to tens of thousands and bringing home medals by the bucketload.

They soaked up the acclaim in the aftermath, appearing on 'The Late Late Show' and spreading their gospel. Channel 4 proclaimed them superhuman and their efforts deserved the attention.

But, like the Olympians before them, Ireland's Paralympians had their moment and then faded into the shadows, boxed away for another four years until they are feted again in Rio de Janeiro. Right now, the athletes are performing at the IPC World Games in Lyon while the swimmers begin their equivalent in Montreal in August. Life goes on.

The slogan around London last summer was 'Inspire a Generation' and Ireland's success – eight gold, three silver and five bronze medals – has had a ripple effect, with big numbers turning out at test events to try their hand at making Rio in 2016.

But what of those who were there and did it – how has normal life been away from the limelight?

Some went on tours of schools, promoting the sport and showing off their medals, but for Wexford swimmer Darragh McDonald there was the reality of the Leaving Certificate to face.

"It was a double-edged sword because in one sense you want to get back to normal but in another sense, after how big London was, you want it to last forever," said the gold medallist.

"There's a lot of stuff going at schools, speaking to groups and everything. You kind of feel bad because you should be there and bringing the sport on, but you have to prioritise yourself and your future and realise the sport isn't going to last forever. It worked well for me, it brought me back down to where I needed to be and I'm glad it happened that way."

While McDonald has just returned to training, double gold medallist Jason Smyth was able to use the therapy of his routine to get his head right and come down after becoming the 'fastest Paralympian on the planet'.

"In some ways it is a bit difficult," said the Eglinton, Co Derry native, who claimed gold in the 200m at the IPC Worlds on Sunday and is aiming for a double in Lyon on Thursday. "You go from the hype of London and 80,000 people and everyone roaring and supporting you to going to a competition when there is nobody there and it seems a little bit irrelevant.

"What I found for myself, I was around home and did a lot of things, but then I went back to the States and you are very much going back training, you're away from all the stuff at home. I also got married in December too, I had a bit of work to do there."

Orla Barry won bronze in the discus at London and the Cork native followed Smyth's lead by using the routine of training to get back to normal.

"Last year was a bit of a shock with all the media attention we were getting and the buzz created around London," she explained ahead of her eighth-place finish at the IPC Games on Sunday.

"I suppose we didn't realise what was happening when we were in the village. Then when we came home, friends and family had kept some of the papers, we had some recordings on television.

"Everyone in Ireland was hooked on the Paralympics, but now we're used to that and are better able to cope with it and won't let it get to us.

"It wasn't as if it was completely life-changing or anything like that. People recognise my hard work and understand what I do and what goes into it. They are interested as well in what is coming up.

"It is great that they have that interest in me but at the same time, you (still) get up and have your breakfast, go training, come home – the same as I did before the Games."

For McDonald there was the additional factor of dealing with fellow pupils who had watched his achievements on television – the proximity of London and the exposure that his medal got meant that the other students adapted their opinions of him and the sport.

"The school thing was completely different," he recalled. "You see all the young kids and they're interested in footballers and all.

"A lot of them are interested in the allure of the money and when they start to realise that, sad as it sounds, Paralympic athletes: 'Oh they're getting funded by the Sports Council, the same as the rugby players are like Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll'... it clicks in their heads that they are elite athletes, we can follow them too.

"It's not just like a charity case at all: 'oh there's some disabled lads in a pool going up and down'. They actually realise it's sport and it's high performance. London did a lot for that, people began to realise that.

"It's helped immensely, even in the school where younger kids can be influenced in terms of slagging you or something – it's all changed now. They realise 'God, this guy is in the gym, he's strong, he's fit', and it's been really nice to see the difference."

McDonald believes his role in sport is not about winning medals but it is about altering perceptions.

"I enjoy the medals but I just prefer the bigger picture of things," said the 18-year-old who is hoping to study law and economics and UCD.

"I'm big into changing opinions. Loads of lads have said 'you've nothing to prove' or whatever – I don't care about that. I'm very into doing things that no one else can do and I enjoy doing it.

"I found Paralympics through luck and through that I developed myself and the way I think, to do things that normally I wouldn't be able to do.

"My goal beyond the sport, beyond the medals and beyond the records, is to be there in the public eye as, not so much a role model, but almost a resource. So that people can see, the younger parents that don't have a clue what's going on – their child is after being born with no limbs, 'what the hell do I do?'

"They need to realise to stick them out there, throw them in a pool, they'll float. Stuff like that is what I'm all about and it's what I want to bring to the table more than medals. This is just helping me to get that profile needed to be that resource.

"Mollycoddling drives me mental. I see so many people, especially parents of people with disabilities saying 'oh don't let him do that, don't let him'. My parents let me do everything."

They've inspired new participants and changed perceptions, but after the highs of London they have had to deal with the lulls on the road back to Rio, and each of them is doing it in their own way.

Irish Independent

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