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Paul Kimmage: I admire Gary O'Toole (Swimmer)


Gary O'Toole

Gary O'Toole

Gary O'Toole

There's a story told in Carrick-on-Suir about an exchange one day between a visiting journalist and an old man in a pub when Seán Kelly was in his prime.

"What a bike rider!" the writer enthused. "How did he get so good?"

"Sure what else does he do?" the old man replied.

And so it goes for our favourite sports stars. They strike goals and score points and make match-saving tackles and match-winning tries; they ride horses and race bikes and drive cars and win fights and run faster than any of us will dream; they jump high and row quick and can control a golf ball like it was on a piece of string. But why wouldn't they?

What else do they do?

Twenty five years have passed since February 1990 when I first met Gary O'Toole. He had just won his second Texaco award and a silver medal at the European championships and the Barcelona Olympics were on the horizon. He was training at ungodly hours and studying to become a doctor; I'd never met anyone more disciplined.

A year later, his world turned upside down.

It happened during a flight to Perth when a friend informed him that George Gibney, the man who had coached him since boyhood, had been abusing young swimmers for years. O'Toole severed the relationship immediately but spent the next 12 months, and the build-up to the Olympics, wrestling with a constant thought: 'How am I going to deal with this?'

Most would have done nothing but O'Toole doesn't do most. He sent a letter-within-a-letter to scores of former team-mates who might have been victims: "How are you? Hope you're keeping well. If anything untoward ever happened to you when you were swimming, open the letter enclosed. If nothing happened and you're happy, burn it."

The second letter contained the information about Gibney and a contact for the police.

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Word spread about what he was trying to do. The swimming authorities refused to engage with him. Gibney threatened to sue.

One night, he called randomly to a house in the suburbs to meet a woman he suspected was a victim and her husband answered the door: "Gary O'Toole! I've been expecting you for months. She's in the kitchen." He was greeted and offered tea.

"I presume you've decided to do something about George Gibney," she announced. "What do I have to do?"

A few months ago, I watched him swimming at a beach in Portugal and was reminded again of his elegance and what a brilliant athlete he was. But that's not why I admire him. I've watched many graceful swimmers and interviewed hundreds of brilliant athletes but none like Gary. His sport is better because of him. He did more.