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'An itch is still there' - Four-time Paralympic gold medalist McKillop not ready to retire yet

Four-time gold Paralympic medalist Michael McKillop hasn’t made any definite decision on his future.

REGARDLESS OF WHAT’S coming down the line, Michael McKillop knows that his T38 1,500m final performance in Tokyo is not a satisfactory sign-off for his career.

2080700 (1) Irish 1,500m runner Michael McKillop.

Whether he can reach the podium once more or has to settle for a fourth-place finish, he knows there’s a better final effort in him. The word retirement has been following him around recently, effectively since his emotional interview with RTÉ a few minutes after crossing the finish line in eighth place in the Paralympics.

He mentioned at the time that it was his last Paralympics and remarked that he “left his spikes out on the track and walked away.” McKillop feels any inference of retirement in that interview there was misinterpreted.

The Antrim man is back at home now, decompressing from his fourth appearance at a Paralympic Games. The disappointment of last week is still evident in his voice, but it’s not long before he starts talking about the rebuild, and the 2022 World Parlaympic Championships in Kobe, Japan.

“It’s funny because a lot of people have talked about retirement and in the interview I gave, I didn’t confirm anything there,” he begins.

“Coming home, I’ve spoken to my parents and my wife and obviously I’m slightly on a break at the moment and haven’t fully thought about it but a lot of people talk about the itch and unfortunately I didn’t get to scratch the itch fully in Tokyo, due to the poor performance and whatever happened, so I don’t believe that I will be completely stepping away from athletics at this stage.

“I believe there’s an itch that’s still there and I need to give a better representation of myself before departing the sport.

“I think if I had have been competitive and missed out on a medal that would have been a little bit more satisfactory, but because of what went on in the race and completely not having a performance that lived up to my expectations, my coach’s expectations or just in general in terms of time, I think there’s a greater chance of me continuing on to compete in Kobe next year, definitely.”

Due to the rescheduling of the Covid-delayed Tokyo Games, the Paralympics in Paris is now just three years away. Having that brief respite from the typical four-year cycle adds another layer of hope for McKillop going forward.

“I think a lot of what other people think of me and don’t want people to think that I’ve gone back on my word. I still stand on Paris 99% not happening but I always hope that something could go really seriously right and I could pick up a medal in the world championships, but we just don’t know until the world championships next.

“My plan in my head is to give it one last shot and get on that podium, and I believe that is possible, but I guess I’ve got to get my head down, shut up and get the work done because I can’t go on my history anymore, I haven’t medalled at two championships so if I really want to be taken seriously, I’ve got to put myself in a better position to be able to deal with the pressure and perform on the night.

michael-mckillop-is-consoled-after-the-race-by-louis-radius A disappointed Michael McKillop after the T38 1,500m final in Tokyo. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“It is 100% based on a medal next year, no doubt about it, and if I don’t win a medal regardless of performance, regardless of if I finish fourth and am really, really close, I just believe that if I don’t win a medal then that is an acceptable way of going out whereas last Saturday was not an acceptable way of departing the sport that I’ve been involved in for 20-odd years and 16 in Para sports.

“It’s definitely I’ve considered from that day but not something I’ve fully decided because there’s a lot of stakeholders that I depend on for funding help, for physiotherapy and things like that, and everyone has to be in agreement for that to continue.

“I have to be able to support my family and obviously financial support is vital if I am to continue, so that’s my ambition personally, but there’s a lot more to it than me and that will be decided probably in the next two to three weeks.”

McKillop can’t identify any one reason to explain why he under-performed in Tokyo. Clinching a silver medal at the Para-Athletics European Championships back in June, McKillop felt he was travelling to Japan in great shape.

His father Paddy is his coach and the pair were sill unable to diagnose what happened when they spoke over the phone this week.

“My dad,” says McKillop, “as a coach questions himself and questions his plans, and did we do something wrong in the lead-up to the Games, but for me, I felt I was in the best shape I was in for a very long time, a session that I did a week out from the competition was probably one of my best sessions all year.”

The reclassification of McKillop’s event is certainly a factor too. For the bulk of his running career, McKillop has competed in the T37 category for athletes with cerebral palsy, excelling over the 800m and 1,500m distances.

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However, the International Paralympic Committee [IPC] rejigged the classification has been for the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships, meaning McKillop is now competing in the T38 class. The shake-up left McKillop believing that a gold medal was no longer a realistic goal for him as more athletes were added to his group.

It’s a challenging switch for McKillop but one which he must make peace with as he continues his search for a more fitting end to his Para career.

“With the mix of classifications, it’s not just cerebral palsy, my disability class, that it used to be. It’s acquired brain injuries and it’s the severity of the brain injury now that is being brought into question and the IPC have opened it up to quite mild brain injuries or a small amount of impairment. But that’s the way IPC want to go. They chose to go to mixed classification and you have to accept it.

“But it is frustration in a way because when we look at the bigger picture in regards to other events that happened in my category, the T37 has had a 100m, a 200m, and a 400m, but they didn’t have a place to put in an 800m or a 1,500m for an individual class. And whenever you go to the T38 class as well, it was 100m, 200m, and a 400m for them guys but there was only one mixed classification race.

“It just shows you that most people are obviously just interested in sprints and that’s frustrating because in other classifications they even have a 5km but they don’t even have that race available for us either.

“So we only have one chance to perform, one chance to live up to people’s expectations whereas people who are doing multiple events have a run out before their main event which we don’t get to do. So yeah, it’s frustrating for me.”

Allianz Paralympic brand ambassador Michael McKillop was speaking after competing at the Tokyo Games. Allianz Ireland has been a proud partner of Paralympics Ireland since 2010 and has partnered with Michael for five years. 

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