'All I want to do is run': Injured McKillop remains an inspiration for Irish sport to draw on

Injury will keep McKillop out of European Championship action next week, but his influence will be a lasting one.

MICHAEL MCKILLOP IS not where he needs to be.

That’s a rarity.

Picture the track star and the image that automatically springs to mind is of his long frame striding clear, dominant, towards the finish line on the track. Or perhaps biting into one of those four Paralympic gold medals.

Michael McKillop celebrates winning gold

Since pushing himself through the pain barrier to win his ninth world championship gold last year, however, he has presented a new portrait for those who work closest with him. And it’s not always a pretty one.

Despite visits to specialists and MRI scans, diagnosing a hip flexor injury was initially elusive last year. There’s no escaping it now.

McKillop hasn’t been able to lay a spike on a track all year. The superb facility of the Sports Institute of Northern Ireland (Sini) is his office, the long, slow task of resting, repairing and strengthening the mesh of muscles in and around his hip is his job now.

“I haven’t been allowed to run, even on the Alter-G (anti-gravity treadmill), so it’s very unfortunate and just one of those things,” the 28-year-old tells The42 in his role as ambassador for the Allianz Para Swimming European Championships.

We’re trying everything we can to get back up and running. Whenever your body lets you down, it’s no fault of your own, it just won’t heal as quickly as you want it to… it’s the only thing I want and it’s all that’s in my head: get back fit, get back running.”

Hitting that target, that light at the end of a tunnel, pits McKillop against a difficult training regime complete with all the grueling off-feet conditioning and without the release valve that a free run out in the elements can often be.

“It’s all off-feet really. I’ve been on the bike a lot, been in the altitude chamber twice a week for the last four weeks. Whenever you’re coming back from a major injury, you start on the bike, maybe with a sweat-suit on, to try to keep the weight down.”

Indeed, ‘the weight’ is a sore subject for McKillop.

When up and running, he can easily afford the odd wee treat. There’s no upside to being injured for this length of time.

“That’s probably my hardest thing, because when you’re running, you’re running through so many calories in a day and you get away with an extra cheat meal or stuff like that, which I was used to.

“I would eat a serious amount of food when I’m in full-time training, so I’ve to adapt that as well. The nutritionist at the Sports Institute has helped me with that as well, helping me to stay on track. Once I get back running, I’ll be in the best shape of my life.”

The positive for this serial winner comes with how he is handling this lay-off. Persistent foot injuries in the years ahead of the Rio Paralympics sent him to “dark places” and he admitted a struggle with his mental health while trying to balance the intense pressure of delivering gold in Rio with the need to settle into a rehab programme for his foot.

Since that experience, he has placed his faith in the science, trusting the processes set in front of him as well as beginning to install a safety net in case his athletic career is ground to a halt sooner than anyone expects.

“You know what, although I’m injured, I’m probably in the happiest place in recent times of my life.

“The only thing that currently gets me down is my injury — one day I’m pain-free and progressing doing certain exercises. Then two days later it might be sore. Then I have to backtrack a bit and be sore. That’s probably the only frustrating thing for me, because all I want to do is run.

“It’s frustrating for my team not being able to get me back running. But it’s just one of those things that comes along to some of the top athletes out there and I’m sure there are athletes who have experienced worse than I have, a leg break or something like that. I know that if I keep trying and focused I’ll come back – maybe not faster, but I’ll come back stronger and smarter.”

A spot of wedding planning ahead of a big day in November is no harm either.

“Trying to focus on organising suits and shoes and cars, stuff like that. It’s fun in a way. Something I’ve never done before and hopefully I’ll never have to do again!

“For me it’s good to have another thing to keep me focused on and occupied… by then I’ll hopefully be back running and that will take me off on my honeymoon to refocus and be prepared.

“So if I am running by then, I’ll be coming back by the end of December and start my focus on the world championships in November 2019.”

This wasn’t the plan, this isn’t where we’re used to seeing McKillop. The long-term forecast would have put him firmly in race-mode today ready for the starter’s gun at next week’s Para Athletics European Championships in Berlin. There, he could target fresh gold to complement his wedding attire in November.

He bit the bullet, pulled out early this summer and the T38 1500m will go under the gun without him on Thursday. His absence ought to cause a sudden scramble for middle distance medals in the classification, not least for his fellow Sini runner David Leavy.

Michael McKillop Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

McKillop is speaking with The42 as an ambassador for the Allianz Para Swimming European Championships which will reach a climax today with 19 medal races in the National Aquatic Centre in Dublin.

At first glance, that connection may not immediately make sense; a track star promoting matters of the pool. Yet through every step of his career, McKillop has become an inspirational character, one that people across all disciplines ought to draw upon.

From discussing his experience of bullying or his refusal to be defined by a cerebral palsy diagnosis before his third birthday to speaking up for Paralympians when they’ve been subjected to unfair and unwarranted criticism, McKillop has proven to be an excellent communicator with sense and weight in abundance behind his words.

He’s proud to see a European Championship on these shores, and he’s eager to see many more follow the path.

“Do you know what? I never thought, growing up with a disability… I was never bothered by my disability. I only realised I should be proud to have my disability when I was about 19 or 20. Growing up, I felt that if I saw myself as disabled then I’d be ‘different’.

“My parents didn’t show the ‘disabled card’ for me. I didn’t get out of things because I was disabled. Now, I want people to realise: I train seven days a week when I’m in full-time training. I’m in the gym twice a week, I’m doing hill sessions and track sessions. I’m training like Mo Farah does when he’s training. I’m training like Usain Bolt used to.

“These (Para athletes) are not just there to train twice a week and then go out to win crappy medals. We’re there to run in the same cities as elite able-bodied athletes. I think people need to realise that.

“And, when you see a competition of the stature of this European Championship coming to Dublin, Ireland has the facilities and opportunities to attract major competitions. I think it benefits not only sport in Ireland, but surrounding communities.

“At the swimming championships, I see how incredible it is. It’s a spectacle, something Ireland hasn’t had the opportunity to do and it’s great to see Paralympic sport is breaking new ground.

“It’s nice to see you’ve got 37 countries, about 400 athletes, and they’re bringing their parents and their friends and the economy will gain from that.

“The community is going to benefit from that. The hotels are going to be used, the rooms are going to be booked out in Blanchardstown, and Wagamama and everything around is going to be busy.

“It’s benefiting the economic climate around Dublin, but it’s also showcasing our sport at a really high level and TG4 on board, that’s a positive for the Irish community.

Because if you bring sport it inspires people to gain fitness. Then that can reduce health problems. It goes down the chain and that’s the way I look at it. On a Paralympic stage it might change somebody’s life, someone who has got a disability and wants to get into sport.”

The cycle of training or rehab and building towards a major championship will reach an ultimate conclusion for McKillop in Tokyo – “100%,” he insists – but he is intent on leaving a legacy.

The more he speaks, about sport in general as well as Para events, the more his passion shines through and it’s clear the Belfast man will remain a fine ambassador for sport and the island. By the time he hangs up his spikes in 2020 he could be taking a 10th World and fifth Paralympic gold off the track with him, but he will leave behind a legacy that will hold strong for a long time to come.

“When a new guy comes on the scene,” the 28-year-old veteran says in a chat about David Leavy that is applicable to any rookie anywhere, “they automatically look at their times, then look at the quality (of rivals) on paper. But they haven’t seen competitors race, they haven’t been at a championship, and they’ve no clue how they’re going to react when they step on that starting line.

Michael Mckillop celebrates winning gold Kieran Galvin / INPHO Kieran Galvin / INPHO / INPHO

“I guess I’ve been there and done that so many times, it’s not a problem to me. But if I can help them be stress-free before going on that track then that’s what I’ll do because I’m coming closer to the end of my career than David and some of the other athletes.

“It’s important for them to realise that when you go to major championships, yes you’re going to be nervous and you have to worry about competitors, but you have to go and enjoy yourself… if you don’t enjoy yourself what is the point of going to a major championships.

“I learned from my mistakes. When I was younger I was stressed out – and of course I’ll stress out slightly still because I don’t want to lose my unbeaten  run – but you have to enjoy the championship. Without that you’ll ruin your experience.”

McKillop will put himself where he needs to be.

Michael McKillop is an Allianz ambassador. Allianz is an Official Supporter of Paralympics Ireland and title sponsor of this year’s World Para Swimming: Allianz European Championships, which are being held at the National Aquatic Centre in Abbotstown from August 13th – 19th. Tickets are available here.

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