Two years ago Michael McKillop watched the medal presentation at the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai, the first time he hadn't been on the podium at a major event since he began his competitive running career as a teenager.
The 31-year-old wanted a visual mnemonic to propel his quest for success in Tokyo. Losing hurt for an athlete accustomed to winning; tactically he got it wrong. There were other factors too, notably racing against athletes who had less of a physical impairment.
Utterly dominant in T37 middle-distance running which caters for athletes with cerebral palsy in his 16 years to date, a reclassification in 2019 ahead of the World Championships meant being bumped up into the T38 class.
The Cushendall native, a multiple World and European champion but also a four-time Paralympian gold medallist in the 800 metres in Beijing (2008), the 800 and 1,500 metres double in London (2012) and the 1,500 in Rio (2016), faces his greatest test in athletic terms in Tokyo on Saturday (11.12am Irish time).
McKillop explained: “It is going to be a step up. The categorisation of the T38 class has changed, the guidelines now allow [athletes with] brain injuries into the category, not just athletes with cerebral palsy.
“That’s one of those things, the sport is evolving; they are trying to find the right areas for people to find the right categories. It is unfortunate for me to go to Tokyo and not have my race.
“Every Paralympics I have raced in the T37 and won. It’s going to be interesting. The likelihood of me winning a gold medal is quite slim, which is sad to say but I am a realist. For me to win gold is going to be a big stretch. That doesn’t mean that I can’t be on the podium.
“I missed out in 2019 for the first time in my career and that has given me the hunger I needed to step it up come Tokyo this year. I am in good shape. I am ready to hopefully get the opportunity to be back on that podium where I believe I belong.”
While there have been physical setbacks over the years in terms of injury, the biggest hurdle has been mental health issues. He was by his own terminology “a mess” prior to Rio five years ago. It wasn’t the first time. He recalled the dark times, the depression and a belief that his self sense of worth was defined by success on a track.
Emotionally brittle at times, he relied heavily on people like team-mate and Paralympic icon Jason Smyth to soothe McKillop's anxiety in the build-up to races. Room-mates and best friends since their teens while competing globally for Ireland, Smyth has a calming influence on his buddy.
He explained: “My mental health [issues] started off the back of pressure in sport. I turned full-time when I was 18 years of age. I thought I knew better than my parents [his father Paddy coaches him] and I said I wasn’t going to university, I wanted to go full-time, to give it my best shot. Being on the top funding in the sports council I didn’t want to let anyone down, I didn’t want to make any excuses because I had to work.
“It worked in my younger life, I have been very successful and very lucky but at the age I am now, 31, I think there is a greater meaning to life than just running. I see that through racing guys my age or slightly older that do athletics for a hobby, for fun and they are as good as me. Even though I compete able-bodied, that gives me the realisation that you can train as hard as you want but you can enjoy yourself at the same time.”
It was a slow realisation process and he credits his wife Nicole in transforming his attitude. “My life has changed dramatically [since Rio]. I got married, got two dogs, a new house, so there is more to me than just my running career. It gives me that little bit of extra pressure that I need to perform. It’s my livelihood.
"If you don't perform, you don't get paid. I have to live up to that to get my funding each year. Thankfully through the [Irish] Sports Council, they backed me to Tokyo and supported me. In the same way gathering private sponsorship as well, the likes of Allianz [he is one of several athletes that front their mental Health campaign], who have helped me; even when Tokyo didn't go ahead last year they still supported me.
“I have found my happy place [now]. I am enjoying everything that I do, as much as it is [difficult and demanding at times]; that’s sport, you have to be mentally tough whenever you step on that starting line; when things get hard, just like in life, you have to push through it.”
When asked what he’s left to prove his reply was instant, “to stand on that podium in Tokyo”. He continued: “I stood and watched that medal ceremony in 2019 because I wanted to really accept it, walk away, park that and know that I am a better athlete than I was on that day. I believe that I can prove that I am still good enough to compete.”