'I Guess I Am Lucky To Have A Disability'

'I Guess I Am Lucky To Have A Disability'
By Conall Cahill

He stepped onto the podium and cast his eyes up at the cheering crowd, raising his arms aloft to the adulation of thousands. He glanced down and saw her...and she seemed almost afraid to look at him, to acknowledge that he really was there, that this really was happening. She put the medal around his neck as he stooped to give her a hug and in that glorious, emotional moment, we almost felt guilty to be watching; we wanted to look away but, really, we couldn't.

Michael McKillop has just won gold for Ireland at the London Paralympics and his mother, Catherine, has just presented him with the medal in a packed Olympic Stadium. It remains one of the most enduring and powerful images in Irish sport.

(Go to 3:15 in the video below)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gnio5qcPfkg

Four long years have passed since that moment. Like all Paralympic cycles there have been peaks and troughs, there has been uncertainty and happiness and everything in between. McKillop enters these Games with a doctorate, a wedding to plan and a profile far elevated from what it was four years ago. And, for once, without any members of what he calls 'Team McKillop' alongside him. Not even his father and coach, Paddy - a hugely respected coach in Irish athletics circles and founder of the highly successful St Malachy's club in Belfast - who his son acknowledges has been with him every step of the way.

If I go into a race, I know that he’s put in so much hard work and effort - he’s left my Mum for two Paralympic Games, he would take me out to Portugal to training camps, he would put time into me. My sisters, he has left them (to travel with Michael)...coming into a Paralympic Games, he’s put a lot of effort in and that’s deep down who I want to impress - and showcase that his hard work pays off as well.

McKillop is chatting to Balls.ie from the Olympic Village in Rio on a rare rest day ahead of his 1500 metres T37 final on Sunday afternoon (3:33pm), and he admits that life in the Village can be the biggest struggle of a Games - a struggle the triple Paralympic gold medallist is used to.

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The Village can be a place of disappointment or a very positive place. I think it can tear athletes’ insides out – and the reason that I say that is because it’s so tough, mentally. Even the new Paralympians in the Ireland team are saying, ‘There’s a lot of down time’.

Simple things, like bringing his own food along in case the fare in the Village canteen doesn't satisfy his needs, keep his mind free of clutter and negativity. He watches the "newbies" and shoots the breeze, chatting about nothing in particular but anything except their event. Helping them bed in, feel comfortable and enjoy the experience like he's determined to do.

McKillop performed in front of packed stadiums in London and, before that, Beijing. Fears that attendances in Rio could be low don't play on his mind, however.

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 The way I look at it, I’ve raced able bodied athletics all my life. If you take the Northern Irish athletics championships, there’s a man and a dog to witness it. For me, it’s trying to get yourself up for the race, you know what you have to do to achieve it – and that, for me, is the most important thing. The amount of people in the stadium is a bonus.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lNw39TC25Vs

Despite having cerebral palsy, McKillop has been an exceptional competitor in able-bodied events, captaining Ireland at a European Cross Country Championships and winning an U20 Irish Cross Country Championship title in 2009. But it's the offer of a scholarship to run collegiate track and field in the US - on able-bodied standards - that fills McKillop with pride.

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I had always dreamed of gaining a scholarship, and after I won those titles I got offered a scholarship to the States, able-bodied, and that for me was a dream come true – even though I didn’t take up the offer because I was already a full time Paralympic athlete.

Just to have that letter, saved and put in a memory box, will always make me proud because I showcased my talent at the highest level in able-bodied underage level. That for me was a nice moment.

To be so competitive at able-bodied athletics with a disability, one could understand if an undercurrent of anger flowed through the Belfast man - contemplation of how good he could have been if he didn't have a disability. McKillop takes a different view.

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I’ve had the opportunity to run in front of 80,000 people and experience worldwide competition that other (able-bodied) athletes would never have got the chance to do.

I guess I’m fortunate, or lucky, to have a disability. I’m sure people would go, ‘Why would you be glad to have a disability?’ And this is one of the reasons. I get to experience things that not many people get to experience in the world.

But there's no illusions with McKillop. He doesn't pretend to believe that Paralympic sport is on a par with able-bodied sport in terms of viewership or sponsorship, even though "you realise we’re coming home with medals that were won in the same stadiums, the same country". But that's where he sees his role - and that of his teammates.

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Inspiration.

Heartfelt words.

If we can increase the numbers of people that have an interest in Paralympic sport, so the young kids come up wanting to be a Paralympian – that’s our aim, that’s our ambition.

Yes, it’s not nice to know that we’re not equal.

But every Paralympian here is to prove everyone wrong...to showcase that we do have talent. Just because we have a disability (doesn't mean) that we can’t compete at the highest level.

And so, thoughts turn to Sunday. There will be expectation that McKillop will come home with gold, based on his previous performances. He admits that he feels the weight of expectation - especially in Northern Ireland - but that is outweighed by the pride he feels in pulling on the green singlet.

It doesn’t matter what community you come from, it doesn’t matter what race you are, what religion.

Whenever I step on that track, I represent the island of Ireland.

Pride. It's what he feels when he runs for Ireland. What he feels as a Paralympic athlete.

It's what his parents will feel when they flick on their television on Sunday afternoon and their son is in Rio, trying once again to be on top of the world.

Like he says himself. An amazing journey.

SEE ALSO: Inspirational Moment As Maracana Rises To Roar On Paralympic Torch Bearer

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