Paralympics 2012: Darragh aims for life in the fast lane
DARRAGH McDonald was just 14 years old when he proudly stood on a podium at the Beijing Paralympics in 2008 to accept his silver medal.
And now four years on, he is hoping for gold.
The teenager from Gorey, Co Wexford, won silver in Beijing in the 400m freestyle event and is tipped as the one to watch in this year's Paralympic Games in London, which start tomorrow.
He is missing part of one arm below the elbow, and both his lower legs -- above the knee on one, and below it on the other. But he has never let any of this hold him back.
His father Derek McDonald said he and his wife Caroline were never given an official diagnosis as to why their only child was born without some of his limbs but they always strove not to let it inhibit him.
"He underwent countless tests but they could never tell us exactly what had caused it," said Mr McDonald.
"We decided to start him swimming as we felt he would be feeling less vulnerable in his shorts in the water," he added.
Darragh later moved to the Asgard Swimming Club in Arklow, Co Wicklow, which was more competitive.
"It became obvious early on that he was a natural," said Mr McDonald.
Darragh began competing in local competitions in 2006 but progressed to bigger swim meetings including one in Swansea, Wales, in 2007.
Mr McDonald said the organisers of that event were reluctant to allow Darragh to compete in the 400m freestyle but he convinced them to "let him try".
His son came in 10 seconds under the qualifying time for Beijing.
A month later, he came in 20 seconds under -- which put him in the top 10 world rankings.
At 14 he was the youngest male on the Irish swimming team in Beijing, and his silver-medal winning time of 5m.09.75s was a personal best.
And this time, in London, he's competing in three events: 50m, 100m and 400m freestyle.
His parents have been driving Darragh to and from training and competitions for the past decade, and will be travelling to London this week with a 25 other family members to cheer on their Paralympian.
Darragh trains in Arklow with his coach John Kealy, ex-champion of the Deaf Olympics. His weekly routine involves 20 to 24 hours in the pool, and he swims 50km to 60km per week.
He believes a disability should not be used as an excuse for doing nothing.
"I would tell people to get involved in sport. I was the weight I am now when I was 10 and 11 when I really started to get into this, so it is great for managing physical exercise and all that," he said.
"Don't be under any illusion it is hard work, but the rewards at the end are worth every bit of the pain."
Darragh said he and his fellow athletes are hugely looking forward to the Games in London.
"It is a big deal how big the Paralympics is this year.
"It is finally being seen as one that is parallel to the Olympics in importance. This helps to spur us on more," said Darragh.