Mona McSharry: ‘I just didn’t believe it. It felt like a dream’
All those early mornings in the pool are paying off for Sligo’s world junior champion
Mona McSharry in training at Ballyshannon Leisure Centre, Co Donegal. Photograph: James Connolly
On fine afternoons, the swimming pool in Ballyshannon might be deserted and they’ll have it all to themselves. But right now it’s bitter out, with showers of freezing rain and the rectangular windows are well lit and look inviting from the outside. The pool is the middle of town, beside the river. You can’t miss the lights as you cross the bridge. So the water is busy.
By 3pm, there’s a group of teenage boys throwing a ball about and a lone senior citizen using a lane for water-walking. A youngster is swimming splashy lengths with long breaks. In the next lane, Mona McSharry (17), the world junior 100 metres breast stroke champion, is going through her sets. Her brother Mauric is training alongside her. One lane over from them, a para-swimmer is using an inflatable tyre to help with his laps.
Casual swimmers come and go in the two hours the McSharrys are in the water. Grace Meade is watching the swimmers in lane two, stop-watches in hand. Today’s training programme is 12 sets of 100 metres breast stroke with an emphasis on stroke count and speed. She mixes up the schedule as much as possible; her swimmers won’t know what’s on until they see the chart at poolside.
“There’s days when Grace will put an easier session,” Mona says. “And coming down from school it is what I am hoping for. But when she puts it up, I’m almost disappointed because when you are finished a hard set, the reward, the feeling, is better when you get out.”
This is her second session of the day. On week mornings she is up at 4.30am to stretch and loosen up for half an hour. She knows she’d get away with a 5am alarm “comfortably” but she’s fixed into routine: repetition and method are important to her.
She and Mauric grab a bowl of cereal before they leave for the drive across from Grange in Co Sligo to Ballyshannon, Co Donegal. Their dad drives on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, and their mum does the other three week-day runs. In winter it can be bleak, when the car isn’t fully warmed up, the arcade lights in Bundoran are off and it feels like they are the only people out of doors in the world. But then they arrive and the pool lights are always on.
The staff get in extra early so the place is heated and ready. The coaches at Marlins, the local swim club, run 6.30am sessions six days per week, all year around. They have around 25 swimmers there each session, all driven by parents. Some of these kids – Cora Rooney, Gero Gilmartin from Kinlough – are following in Mona McSharry’s path in their dedication. A few years ago, when the best GAA teams in the country organised a few dawn training sessions, everyone was turning cartwheels of consternation. Now, it turns out that a small swimming club in the northwest has been doing the same thing for its young members for years with no fuss.
Mona McSharry’s swimming life began alarmingly: a fall as a young child into an Austrian pool on an early summer holiday was frightening enough for her parents to vow there and then to teach her to swim straight away. Viola, her mum, is German and a keen volleyball player and, once back home, they began swimming in the sea at home in Mullaghmore before Mona joined Marlins with a bunch of other starters when she was eight years old.
Some left after a semester. Some stayed. Mona stayed. In Marlins, they noticed her application was unusually focused but, for the first few years, she didn’t stand out. They can’t even say if there was a turning point. Mona, though, remembers a day in the Lisburn leisure centre.
Nobody in the field knew much about her: she was kind of an after-thought. “I think I was the only one from Marlins at this gala. And I scraped into the final. And then... When I look back the time was really slow, but in the final, I swam an amazing race. Four of us touched the wall together. I actually won. Just winning that was the first big medal I won and I just loved that racing atmosphere. It all became real. That is when I was introduced [to the swimming world].”
In the summer of 2012 she watched the London Olympics in the family living room in Grange. The swimming and the pageantry and scale riveted her. Already, she was developing a specific interest in breast stroke. She watched Ruta Meilutyte, a 16-year-old Romanian, storm to gold in the 100m final. It made her head spin. “But it all seemed like a different planet at that stage.”
Last July, she sat in the warm-up room in Budapest alongside Meilutyte, Lily King and Yulia Efimova in the 100m heats of the world championships. “The big guns, as I call them,” laughs Grace. That is how far Mona McSharry had travelled in three years. Until that moment, these swimmers had been almost fictions; racers she watched on television. Now here they were, in warm up-suits, glassy faced behind goggles, so close she could reach across and touch them. There was no talking, no communication, no hi-yas. It was solemn and if she’d wanted, it could have been intimidating.
“I was thinking about it before hand: ‘Oh my God, all these big swimmers are gonna walk in and I’m gonna be concentrated on them.’ But actually, when I was there it didn’t faze me as much as I thought it would. You think ‘yes I’m not as good as them now and they are Olympic swimmers and whatnot. But I’m not that far away’. And I kind of took it in my stride. It was amazing to see them walk in and to have them sitting beside me. But at the same time they are just people.”
She wasn’t there to do anything but experience it. A month earlier, she had taken gold in the European junior 50m and 100m breast stroke finals and silver in the 200m. This was just a taste of the senior world. In the heats, she swam 1.08.52 but the scale and the noise and the aura around King and the other ultra-elites was fabulous to be around. A Hungarian swimmer was in her heat so the arena was bedlam for that one minute. “Noise like we had never heard.”
They were there for a week. King broke the world record when they were on the flight home with a time that became a touch stone: 1.04.13. In August, Mona went to Indianapolis to the world junior championships with a target of reaching the 100m final. On the morning of the final, she watched a few movies with her friend Roisin Maguire who came over to support her. They didn’t talk about the race. She treated the race just like any other final – until it was over and she posted a time of 1.07.1, a new Irish record, to win gold.
“I just didn’t believe it. It felt like a dream. Even going out and collecting my stuff out the back, I couldn’t believe it had happened. It was so fast. I was so happy because, yeah, I knew I’d put in so much effort.”
That month felt like a validation of the previous two years. For a while, McSharry had been kind of a secret within Marlins. The truest way to describe her evolution is as spectacularly steady. In the space of a few years, she moved from Ulster into national contention in the 100m breast stroke and then, all of a sudden, was out on her own.
But there was a while, on those pre-breakfast mornings in the pool in Ballyshannon, that Grace Meade would stand on the tiles with her stop watch and get that goose pimpled feeling that anything might be possible with this girl. “You’d watch her in the water and think ‘God, how far can she really go?’ And we still think: ‘Wow.’ I remember in 2016 for the Rio Olympics she was .9 of a second off the qualifying time. We weren’t targeting it – I think Mona was in her head. But she didn’t make it and was gutted. In the first year of her next season, she just shaved a second off that time in a few weeks.”
You have to understand that all this is voluntary. There was a tradition of swimming in Ballyshannon: the Saimer club was set up shortly after the pool was built in the early 1970s. And it produced plenty of good swimmers but the possibilities were provincial in the truest sense. The venue fell into disrepair and closed for a time in the early 1990s and when it was renovated and reopened, a group got together to form Marlins.
And what a thing: to see this youngster go from completing her first full 25m length to exploding on to the world scene. Grace Meade gives her time voluntarily. Two other coaches, Sinead Donagher and Conall McGourty, give untold hours as well. When Grace was growing up in the town, she swam for the club but she also went on to play Gaelic football for Donegal. Her father, Seán, was fullback on the Galway team that won three senior All-Irelands in a row in the 1960s.
As it happens, her own children don’t swim: they play Gaelic football. “When I am missing their games or their evenings because I am away at galas, that is hard. But they are so understanding at home.”
The leisure centre gives Mona sponsorship and extra training hours for free. Every so often they go to the Abbotstown to train with other members of the Irish team. But she isn’t crazy about the place. One of the reasons training from home works so well is because it is home. Two of Mona’s best friends couldn’t give a hoot about swimming – they just don’t get why she spends half her life in the water. As it is, Grace keeps her weekly training schedule a couple of hours lighter than the normal 20.
“Sometimes people are surprised at that. They’ll ask ‘is that all she’s doing?’. But I say that’s all she needs to do. It is getting that balance between letting her be a kid and be an athlete. She has to be able to do things with her mates. That’s really important to me. She goes off and goes to the cinema or whatever. She has to have a life too. She needs to be happy if she is going to do this. The thing about Mona is that she is always ready. You don’t have to bring her up before a race. If anything it’s the opposite. Its calm people she needs about her.”
They all know that while it is a good pool, it simply was not designed with Olympic swimmers in mind. But now, it is a second home to a potential Olympic swimmer: Tokyo is sharpening into view for McSharry and Meade. They want to get race starts on the diving blocks and wave breaks to lessen the surface disturbance. Sometimes Mona gets irritated when the water is crowded with leisure swimmers. “But then that can make me swim faster too ‘cos I’m pissed off. In the long run it is better because you learn to work through it.”
Those minor inconveniences are balanced by the combination of coaching and friendships that have made her ascent to this point seem painless. She’s surrounded by people who want to help her keep on pushing this thing to see what happens. The pool is a two-minute drive from Colaiste Cholmcille, where she will sit the Leaving Cert next summer before taking a year out to concentrate on swimming in 2019.
And it’s a 30-second walk from Slevin’s cafe, where the staff know the McSharrys’ bagel-fillings off by heart. Its 5.30pm now, black dark outside. In the cafe, Mauric takes the slagging when the conversation turns to day-dreaming in the water. He confesses he does. His sister says she counts the stroke-rate of her team mates. “I like to make sure they are doing it right.” Talk turns to that world final in Indiana last August. Mauric insists he knew she would win it from early on. Grace says she knew on the turn at the 50.
“Really?” Mona asks her. “On the turn? Because I got into the wall and I thought I’d lost it.”
“No. I just knew by the way you were swimming you weren’t going to lose this one.”
“Well, it’s lovely for you when you think I’ve won it . . . me still out there sweating.”
“I’ve been at races where we are: ‘Go Mona, go’, you know, you’re not sure how it’s going to go. But this race was like ‘we have got this’.”
“Well, I honestly did not feel like that,” Mona laughs.
Discovering her potential
It has been like that for the past three lightning years: discovering her potential as they go through this hour by dawn hour, week by week. Swimming does not rest. Twenty years ago, McSharry’s personal best would have been of world record standard. It’s a game of chasing others, but ultimately of chasing time. In a fortnight’s time they go to Copenhagen for the European short course championships. Grace doesn’t want Mona to put any great pressure on herself now as she moves into the senior ranks. She wants her to be patient, to simply get used to that new world.
They joke about Christmas: a Christmas Eve to St Stephen’s Day holiday has been agreed. “Only cos the pool’s closed, though.” Most Wednesday nights mean homework after dinner but there’s a school musical on this evening and Mona is going to go along to see her friends take part. Viola McSharry lands into the cafe to collect her children. She’s friendly and energetic and is apologising for being five minutes late: she had just come from having the tyres changed on the car. It seems like a sensible move.
Home is just a 20-minute spin up the road, but Tokyo 2020 is both 6,000 miles away and just around the corner.