'My story is slightly different to everyone else’s’
Michael McKillop visited South West College and shared his remarkable story. Andrew Maguire reports.
Michael McKillop receives his Gold medal in the Mens 1500m - T37 from his mother Catherine at the Olympic Stadium, London, in 2012. Photograph: John Walton/PA Wire
Introducing himself, Dr Michael McKillop says, ‘My story is slightly different to everyone else’s. I might be a successful sportsman now, but my journey to get here was different.’
He explains that his early years were tough, as he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy before his third birthday, a condition which came from having a stroke while he was still in his mother’s womb, and affects the right side of his body. He talks openly about the challenges that have stemmed from this and from elsewhere, but if his honesty about what he’s overcome is admirable, it’s nothing compared to what he’s achieved in the face of this adversity.
Michael visited South West College Omagh Campus on behalf of the Sky Sports Living for Sport Programme. Addressing an attentive crowd of students, he described the programme as ‘an initiative for eleven to eighteen year-olds which is trying to help kids build confidence, work on goals and life challenges, and improve their behaviour settings and ambitions.’ Amongst its many mentors are Olympic and Paralympic athletes, and figures from football, boxing and GAA.
Michael began his talk to the South West College students by acknowledging that it has already helped many young people ‘come out of a challenging past and have an amazing future.’
This is an ethos Michael has lived with his whole life. Born into a relatively sporty family, to parents who were both athletes, it was made a priority that he would have equal opportunities to his sisters and everyone else.
His parents sacrificed a lot to ensure this happened, but challenges were faced early on. Michael didn’t speak until age three, and although speech therapy eventually helped with this, education proved difficult. He acknowledges the challenges he faced, but sees them as more of a difference than a disability.
He says, ‘there is never an excuse for a disability, it’s only a difference. Yes I’m different, but everyone in this room is different from one another.’
As he grew up, he had to stay loyal to this mantra. When those around him threatened the idea of equal opportunity, or opted to treat him differently – teachers said he shouldn’t do the eleven plus exam, because he wasn’t fit for it – he resisted the assumption.
Sport was always central to this. He says, ‘going through my primary school years, the one thing I loved and called my safe haven, was sport. My parents used sport as my physiotherapy.
When I was racing at the age of ten, I went and competed at the Ulster Primary School Cross Country Championships, with the best primary school athletes in the whole of Ulster. I made no excuses going into it, or allowances for any disability, and I won that race; I was the best in Ulster at my age.’
Having grown up with the mindset of not letting circumstances dictate him, 2004 brought another major hurdle for Michael.
On the final night of a caravan holiday in Wales, his parents were relaxing, sharing a drink and celebrating a successful week away with the family, when they heard a loud bang come from his bedroom. They ran into him; he had fallen from the bed and they found him lying on the floor. Michael explains, ‘they noticed that my body was starting to move, but that my head was in a locked position between the bed and the bedside table. They panicked.’
In the resulting ambulance ride, Michael had another fit, and following a brain scan at the hospital they found a cyst growing in his brain. Michael explains he will have that cyst for the rest of his life, but more importantly, that was the night he was diagnosed with epilepsy, which remains the greatest challenge he faces.
‘Epilepsy is the most horrific thing you will experience…I have night epilepsy, so it only happens when I sleep. I cannot affect when it happens. I have the knowledge and understanding for the rest of my life that I could go to bed and never wake up. But do I let it stop me? No. Everyone has hurdles, and there’s someone in life worse off than me,’ he says.
It’s one of the greatest examples of Michael’s dedication, determination and fighting spirit that a year on from this he was representing Ireland at men’s level, aged just fifteen, at the European Championships. A year later he was a Paralympic World Champion and a world record holder. Better still, he explains, ‘I’m lucky to say I represented Ireland as part of the able-bodied squad, and that meant more to me than the Paralympic golds. I may have finished fifty-fourth at the European cross country championships, but it broke down the perception that disabled people can’t compete against able-bodied people.’
That this meant more to him sums up much of what Michael said throughout his talk. Sport has always provided him with a way to push himself to his limits, challenging him against himself as much as those he’s competing with. This dedication and determination is one which stems from his family, and as such his achievements have never been solely his, but those of the team around him.
For ‘Team McKillop’, 2008 would prove to be a major year.
"I was only eighteen, I was going to my first Paralympic games, which is the pinnacle of any amateur persons career," he says.
"I went from running in front of 14,000 people at the world championships, to running in front of 91,000 people in Beijing in the Birds Nest. That was petrifying, but it was an experience I will never forget, because not only did I go on and win that gold medal, I broke the world record. I became the first person to break the two minute barrier for the eight hundred meters.
"With 120 metres to go in that race I heard my Dad’s voice in front of 91,000 people. I don’t know if it was because when I was younger I heard him say do the dishes, put away the laundry, go wash the car, so his voice is just ingrained in my brain. But he’s my coach, and as my coach he usually says, drive your knees, drive your arms, keep your form; but what he said then was nothing like that – he just said run, Michael, run. That goes against everything I’d learned, everything he’d taught me; it was the emotion of a dad, not a coach, because he realised what I was going to achieve. He realised that his son was going to be a Paralympic champion."
It is this ethos of pushing himself to his limits which Michael has inherited from his family that he shares with the South West College students.
It’s a mindset he has had to call upon even in the more glamorous sounding times of his sporting career. In preparation for the 2011 World Championships in New Zealand, Michael realised he would have to adapt by travelling to train in a warmer climate. He went to South Africa and began training with men who spoke no English, staying in a part of the world he didn’t know, where there were no streetlamps and there was a reputation for danger.
He felt isolated and alone and it took a phone call from his then thirteen year old sister to help him get through it.
"Man up," she said down the phone line, and Michael admits that at first it came as a shock, but soon made him realise what he was doing. He had wanted to give up because it was tough, something he and his parents had never done in their shared pursuit for him to be an elite athlete.
"I realised that I’d been thinking 'this is tough, so I want to go home'. So then I thought of when my parents had found it tough when people were telling me I couldn’t do things, or when Mum had to give up work to bring me to occupational therapy and speech therapy, and thought 'what if they’d given up?' It made me realise I was there to be an elite athlete, to try and retain my titles."
Michael did just that. He went to Christchurch in 2011, retained both his titles and broke two world records, winning the 800 metre title on his 21st birthday.
His sister’s words, and the effect they had, are an example of the constant help he has had from his family, who like him have never gave up on his ideals of ‘believe and you will achieve.’ It is this belief that has led Michael to a life where he travels the world doing what he loves, enjoys perks such as free training gear, and even free suits, and above all great sporting achievements and moments of joy. One of the highlights he explains, was perhaps unsurprisingly the London Olympics in 2012.
"The most special thing about my experience in London," he says, "wasn’t crossing the line and winning my two gold medals, wasn’t running around the stadium, it was after my 15,00 metre race. My Dad pulled me aside just before we went into the call room before going onto the track, and he said 'if you win you’ll get a surprise'. I went out there and I won, I crossed the line and I was getting all excited."
When the medal ceremony came up, everything happened quickly. "I was standing behind the podium and I realised there was only one person there to present the medals, and there’s usually two. Then all of a sudden the announcer came on and said “and now to present the medals for the T-37 1,500 metres, I would like to invite Mrs Katherine McKillop."
"My Mum presented me with the medal, and when I hugged her it was probably the best four or five seconds that I will ever spend with her, because it was a realisation that team McKillop had achieved; that all my hard work, that all her hard work, had got us to the point where I won my Paralympic gold medal in front of my Mum. She was actually the first Mum to ever present their child with an Olympic or Paralympic medal."
It’s moments like this that mean Michael, despite all the challenges he’s faced, and differences he’s had to battle with, considers himself a very lucky person.
Michael McKillop was speaking to students at South West College. Words by Andrew Maguire on behalf of Way out West at South West College.