Persevering parents enjoy fruits of sacrifice

Mon, Sep 3, 2012, 01:00

THE TRAINING schedule of Bethany Firth gives an idea of the commitment of athletes who make it to the Paralympic Games.

The 16-year-old from Seaforde, Co Down, won gold in the 100m backstroke for swimmers with an intellectual disability on Friday evening – the first of a weekend gold rush for Ireland.

Her proud parents, Peter and Lyndsey, nearly missed the race as they had seats at the very top of the vertiginous stand overlooking the Olympic pool. For them, the sight of their daughter on the winners’ podium made all the sacrifices worthwhile.

Each morning, the family gets up at 4am to travel the 40km to the nearest pool in Newtownards. Everything is prepared the night before and they leave the house at 4.30am.

Bethany trains for two hours in the pool and a half-hour on land every morning. She trains in the evening too, and gets home at 8pm. “We’ve had a little bit of time to think,” said her father. “Your mind does go back to winter mornings where the rain’s pouring down and there is ice on the road. It affects the whole of life.”

No successful sportsperson, able-bodied or disabled, can succeed without the support of their parent or parents, cheering them, wiping away tears, driving them to events, washing gear.

But the parents of Paralympic athletes have to combine that commitment with the extra commitment, stress and worry of having a disabled child.

Derek and Caroline McDonald, parents of gold medal swimmer Darragh, had had a profound sense of shock when their only child was born with just one functioning limb. “We had no warning. Everything was supposed to be in order, then we discovered he was missing bits and bobs,” Derek McDonald said.

Among those watching his swim on Saturday was Donna Fisher, the prosthetics expert who has been fitting Darragh with limbs all his life. “I never thought we’d be here (in the Paralympic final) when we started out 18 years ago,” Mr McDonald said.

On Saturday night, Mike McKillop, who won gold in the T37-classification 800m in a canter, embraced his father and coach Paddy at the end of his victory lap. “There weren’t too many words exchanged. There wasn’t any need for any words,” said Paddy.

Paddy combines a full-time teaching job in St Malachy’s College in Belfast with training his son and other athletes. “He’s just one of the boys,” he said. Mike struggled to walk and talk as a baby and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at age three. “We decided that it was the hand we were dealt with and we had to get on with it,” he said, adding his son has surpassed all expectations and could do even better.

Gold medal-winning sprinter Jason Smyth’s parents Lloyd and Diane were also in the stadium on Saturday night. They have often worried his visual impairment would confound his talent as an athlete, but their fears were groundless.

He blitzed the field.