McDonald savours special moment in London
PARALYMPIC GAMES: DARRAGH McDONALD comes through every door curls first. You see the hair, then you see the boy. At least you do most of the time. When he landed down to us in the mixed zone on Saturday evening, it was the smile that led the way.
Eighteen years old and a second Paralympic medal to his name, this time gold instead of the silver he won in Beijing. It left him standing peacock-proud in front of us, a smiley, curly, golden glow.
His S6 400m freestyle win was the first domino to tip over on to the greatest day Irish Paralympics has ever seen. If it seemed as easy and straightforward as those of Jason Smyth and Michael McKillop on the track later that night, it’s only because he swam well above himself to make it so. He touched the wall eight seconds clear of the field, lowering his personal best by 10 seconds. If you’re going to produce the swim of your life, best do it when it matters.
“From this morning I knew I had more left in the tank but I didn’t think there was that much,” he said afterwards. “It’s great, it shows how far Paralympics swimming has come in four years. I said to myself before I started that I was not going to think about times and that’s what I did. But a 10-second PB since this morning, I cannot believe it, it’s just great.”
This was no formality, not remotely so. To win gold, McDonald had to reverse placings with the man who beat him to the top of the podium four years ago, the 46-year-old Swede Anders Olsson. For as long as McDonald has been swimming competitively for Ireland, Olsson has been the glass ceiling. Before Saturday they had met five times in competition and McDonald had never got the better of him. Not a bad time to start.
“I’ve never been able to beat him before, he’s always been too strong. But I knew that if I could get out ahead of him and make a good start that I would be able to keep it going. I was never afraid that I had gone off too quick. I had a plan and I stuck to it. He’ll probably retire now that I’ve caught up to him!”
For the swimming team manager Dave Malone – himself a former Paralympian – the race was easy enough to sum up. “It was a classic case of age and experience versus youth and hunger,” he said. “Youth and hunger won.”
Not by accident either. McDonald’s slightly goofy way hides a devotion to his training and to improvement that few can match and none can better. The 18-year-old from Gorey, Co Wexford, was born missing part of his right arm below the elbow and both legs below the knee. Despite a grinding cycle of tests and checks by doctors, no explanation was found as to why he was born that way. It was just a cold fact, unknowable and unchangeable.
His parents got him swimming early on because they figured he would feel less exposed in the water, less vulnerable. By the age of 13 he was swimming internationally and at 14 he took silver home from China.
Training is the same early-morning strain on the soul that it is for every other serious teenage swimmer in the world, a 35-mile-a-week slog that tests his mind as much as his body.
He thinks he might try something new when he gets back to Wexford. The triathlon has been giving him the eye for a while now and if he can sort out a bit of gear he might just give in to its charms.
“I’ll need to get a bike built and some running legs as well. All the usual crap that goes along with disabled sport. But yeah, I think I’d like to have a go at it. I think I’d like it.”
That’s for later though. London is only partly conquered as yet. He’s back in the pool tomorrow morning in the 50m freestyle. Since his best work in the 400m was done later in the race, you’d imagine the 50m free might be a little sharp for him.
Ten swimmers in the 20-strong field have qualifying times faster than his, so a place in the final will need quite the step up. You wouldn’t bet against him though, not this week.