Brendan O'Brien: Michael McKillop - ‘Sport is just a part of people’s lives, it’s not the be all and end all’

Michael McKillop would dearly love to add a fourth Paralympics appearance to his CV but the four-time gold medallist is all too aware that the Games may not go ahead even after being shunted back to the summer of 2021.

Michael McKillop: 'We’re into our fifth week now and it’s really mentally tough, but I’m just trying to stay as normal as possible and try and do every single thing I would do normally in my training, I’m using the time as a semi-training camp in a way.'
Michael McKillop: "We’re into our fifth week now and it’s really mentally tough, but I’m just trying to stay as normal as possible and try and do every single thing I would do normally in my training, I’m using the time as a semi-training camp in a way."

And that goes for the Olympics, too, obviously.

Kentaro Iwata, a Japanese professor of infectious diseases, has warned that the Games are unlikely to be held, at least in any recognisable form. 

Professor Devi Sridhar, chair of global health at the University of Edinburgh, has said everything depends on a vaccine.

“I am training like I would be ordinarily for 2021,” said McKillop. 

“My ambition is to go there, but when you really think about other viruses that have happened in the past, how long has it taken to create a vaccine that is good enough to hand out or to go across the world?

“When you are trying to hold a sporting event with nations from around the world together, in a way it is kind of scary. I’m not going to say it’s dangerous but it is unknown. We don’t know. That’s a real risk that potentially we could all be... Life is more important.

Sport is just a part of people’s lives. It’s not the be all and end all. Health and wellbeing for everyone in this world is more important than that.

"I really hope it can go ahead in 2021 and we can find solutions to this issue but it is a possibility that it might not go ahead.

“That is kind of scary as well because if that doesn’t go ahead, does the Premier League not start back up?”

The complications involved in holding any form of sporting gathering under current global conditions, especially one on such a grand and international scale, are only just being understood and the Paralympics adds even further layers to the conundrum.

Annabel Breuer, a German wheelchair basketballer, explained recently how, as a quadriplegic, her lungs are more prone to inflammation due to the difficulty in coughing up mucus in the event of picking up a common cold or cough.

McKillop has a mild form of cerebral palsy that affects his right side, including his lungs, and is keenly aware of the need to train sensibly and adhere strictly to all social-distancing guidelines in place in the Republic, Northern Ireland, and the UK.

“If I was to pick up the virus at this time or get sick at this time, there is a higher risk of illness because I would be putting my immune system in deficit, as such, with training full time. 

We have to come up with a sensible plan that allows me to do all the necessary training as well.

For McKillop, this pandemic could actually signal the end of the road for his championship career.

The original plan was to compete in Tokyo, medal and finish up at the World Championships in 2021 to put right the loss of that title late last year, when a long-term groin injury restricted his bid and consigned him to a first loss since 2005.

That’s all up in the air now and if Tokyo doesn’t happen in 2021 then he doesn’t see it happening at all before the Games switch focus to Paris — 2024 is not a distance he is willing to run after 12 years on the circuit and 18 medals in major championships to date.

It would be a far from fitting way to bow out after everything he has achieved, but all McKillop can do for now is train as if he will be on the starting blocks in Japan in the summer of 2021. If that happens then the delay may have actually worked for him.

That groin injury all but wiped out his last two seasons and it left him low on endurance for the World Championships in Belgium last November, where the merging of the T37 and T38 classes left him competing with his own injury legacy and more able-bodied athletes.

He ended up in fourth.

“I was in decent shape to perform but I made mistakes in the race,” he said yesterday by conference call.

 “I have to take that on the chin. That’s my bad. I have to work now towards 2021 and use this time to build on the endurance that I had lost when I was injured.”

Adversity isn’t anything new.

He claimed gold in Rio in 2016 on the back of a sometimes torturous four-year cycle which was hobbled by a foot injury suffered in falling down a stairs, shin splints, and a lengthy period of poor mental health which he has talked about openly many times before.

He knows there will be athletes and millions of others who will be struggling right now with the inability to do something as simple as meet friends for coffee or get away for a holiday. 

His advice is simple enough: Stay positive and stay in touch.

“Whenever you’re taken out of the daily grind of what you’re supposed to be doing or paid to do, it’s very hard to really go, ‘Oh God what do I do now with myself?

“We’re into our fifth week now and it’s really mentally tough, but I’m just trying to stay as normal as possible and try and do every single thing I would do normally in my training, I’m using the time as a semi-training camp in a way.

“It’s about reaching out at this time, even being in contact with competitors in a way because they’re my friends off the track and we all have the same goal and ambition. My best friend, Jason Smyth, to be able to contact him is nice as well. We can stay positive together.”

- Michael McKillop is an Allianz brand ambassador.

Allianz is a proud sponsor of Paralympics Ireland since 2010 and is committed to promoting diversity and inclusion across the sporting community.

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