Sport Swimming

Saturday 19 October 2019

Inspirational McGrath confident he can shine at championships on home turf


Jonathan McGrath. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Jonathan McGrath. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Thomas Conway

Like the other seven Irish competitors competing in the World Para Swimming Allianz European Championships at the National Aquatic Centre this week, Jonathan McGrath should be an inspiration to everybody involved in sport.

The 25-year-old Killaloe man was born with a form of cerebral palsy which affects his legs, thus hindering his ability to walk and move.

This difficulty with mobility means that gravity is not his friend, though McGrath has never allowed that relationship to dominate him.

"The thing is that when I was younger, I didn't even register it. It wasn't mentioned in the house that I had a disability. I didn't even know the name of it until about 10 years ago I'd say," recalled McGrath.

"Like, I would have played hurling with my club Ogonelloe, but it just got frustrating at a certain age. The only thing that was letting me down was speed.

"Then I used to go down to the local swimming pool and beat people, beat my friends racing, so I realised that I was OK at this."

The force of gravity is the exact same in water as it is in air, but it's the buoyancy of the medium that benefits McGrath.

Even at that, it still isn't a significant advantage - because of the reduced nerve impulses to his legs, his kick is more or less non-existent, and his shape slightly angled in the pool - not ideal from a swimmer's perspective.

Most of the power propelling his six-foot frame is generated by an explosive upper body, which has been the subject of extensive training.

Those factors weren't on his mind back in the days of those casual trips down to the Lakeside Leisure Centre and they might never have been had his mother Betty not heard an ad on Clare FM promoting a swimming gala run by the Irish Wheelchair Association in Dublin.

That event in 2009 was his first time testing the waters of competitive swimming and the National Aquatic Centre.

Almost a decade later, the sport has given him experiences that few could dream of - World Championships in Montreal and Glasgow, Europeans in Berlin, Eindhoven and Funchal (Portugal), and that summer of 2012 in London, where he earned the coveted status of Paralympian.

"That was quite scary, yeah. I remember I was the first heat on the second day, and when I walked out the place just erupted. And none of us were used to performing in front of massive crowds."

Exactly six years on from that baptism of fire in the London Aquatics Centre, McGrath will walk out into its Dublin equivalent next week with a far more composed mindset, some of which could be put down to the insight gained from his academic pursuits in the University of Limerick, where he recently graduated with a degree in psychology.

He juggled that with the arduous round-the-clock training regime that swimmers are famous for, and now he's taken up work with a local enterprise called Thinking Toys, which provides educational toys to children with special needs.

"It's supposed to be something like cycling, swimming, triathlon, boxing and ballet, that are supposed to be the hardest physically.

"I know rowers are out very early in the morning as well, and the water is Baltic for them.

"We train twice on a Monday, so I'm up at 4.15, into UL for training, and then I have to go work after that. Then I'm swimming again in the afternoon, then the gym, and then back to bed."

It's unsurprising to hear McGrath describe the Europeans as a "step along the road", given that for most athletes in his discipline, the road only ever leads to one destination.

Tokyo 2020 is the aspiration and, having missed out on Rio, the Killaloe man is intent on featuring in what will be the 16th edition of the Paralympic Games.

Right now none of that is occupying McGrath's headspace. His sights are firmly set on three events next week in the National Aquatic Centre, two of which he's feeling aptly confident about.

"So I'm doing the 400 freestyle on the Tuesday and then the 100 backstroke on the Thursday.

"So I'd be hoping to come out of the heats in the 400 free - I'm ranked fourth going in so I reckon I have a reasonable chance of a third place.

"Then in the 100 back, I think I'm eighth going in so I could reach the final of that."

He'll close his championships with the 100 metre freestyle on Friday, not a particular strong point of his but another chance to feature in an unprecedented spectacle for Irish sport.

Irish Independent

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