Aged 14, he won silver for Ireland in the Beijing Olympics in the 400m freestyle S6 classification event just four years after taking up the sport.
Aged 18, he joined the select Irish club of Olympic heroes by going one better and taking gold.
This year, aged 19, he has become the first person with a disability to be selected for UCD’s Ad Astra elite athlete programme — whose members include rugby star Sean O’Brien, sailor Annalise Murphy, and other “huge potentials” for Rio 2016.
The Dublin-born, Wexford-raised star’s CV speaks for itself.
So when the first-year commerce student turns his thoughts to recent events at the Central Remedial Clinic — “the people who literally made me walk” — standards, both those at the frontline and those clearly lacking among management, are to the forefront of his mind.
Like thousands of others whose lives have been changed forever by the dedication of CRC frontline staff, McDonald is appalled by what the facility’s recently axed board has done.
However, he is insistent the scandal must be dealt with separately to the CRC’s ongoing, vital work.
It must not, he said, be allowed to further damage the superb services provided by innocent frontline employees — and the necessity of this support for Ireland’s disability community.
“These people [frontline staff], they’ve helped me big time, they are the people who literally made me walk,” said McDonald, who was born with no legs below the knee, missing part of one arm below the elbow and fingers on his other hand.
He told the Irish Examiner: “Beyond the sporting achievements, they essentially helped me achieve independence in life.
“They were like a light in the dark for my parents, simple stuff like going to school independently and just walking and not being bound in a wheelchair, so to see what is happening [the financial scandal]... it’s an absolute disgrace.”
Fresh from his latest training routine, McDonald last night went against private advice to only talk about sporting matters and instead spoke at length about the crisis engulfing the CRC.
He said: “I was originally there from age one to three. I started swimming because I was gaining weight rapidly at nine or 10 and there was a danger the prosthetic legs couldn’t hold me, so that was one of the options.
“I don’t think they [CRC frontline staff] realise how much they helped me. No one does if you’re not in that situation. So when something like this comes up and I have a bit of a profile, I want people to know there is good there as well as bad.
“Many people advise you not to talk to the press on this or that, but I have no problem standing by the frontline staff.
“There are two sides to it, and the other side does disgust me to the bone. To think of who lost out because of cutbacks or who didn’t get a service, and now that money’s in someone’s back pocket, people who were clearly at the top of the pay scale already; it’s a disgrace.
“I’m a firm believer in the law. If this was in America or Canada... what we need to know is did they have the authority to take it, and if they didn’t then was this fraud? They should be forced to hand back the money.
“That is one issue, but it is about them [management]. The service the CRC still provides must be kept in a positive light.”
McDonald said that among the positive steps that could come out of the debacle is greater involvement of service users in the CRC’s management decisions.
He said a reformed Friends and Supporters of the CRC, the charity arm of the group, should look at the possibility of getting people like him involved — people who are literally walking examples of what the service can do — and who have a strong connection with its goals.
His comments were echoed by a current service user, 17-year-old Ruairi Meyler, who said the CRC’s financial scandal is infuriating but not what the service is about.
Speaking from his home in Donabate, Co Dublin, the fifth-year pupil at Donabate community college explained that he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy after being born three months premature.
The physio work and supports provided by the CRC, he said, have changed his life. “We as disabled people are angry about the financial problems, very angry, but it is easy for able-bodied people to take the moral high ground; we still need to use the service. I need my wheelchair, so where else am I going to go,” he asked.
“What has happened can’t be allowed to destroy services and jobs of hard-working physios. People are working to clear this up and that is good because we’re very angry about it. But we want to get on with our work too and that is to ensure the services themselves are defended.
“What the CRC needs now is real root-and-branch reform, from the ground up. I know politicians talk about reform, but I mean real reform as in clarifying what the goals are, sitting down with clients, seeing what they need, planning it out.
“I don’t want to segregate, but there’s a danger whenever people are dealing with stuff like this, where people on these boards are able-bodied and may have a different perspective that allows these sort of things to happen.
“Having more clients involved in decisions would change that, and it would help defend the brilliant work the CRC does,” Meyler said.
For every Paul Kiely, Brian Conlan, and Jim Nugent plastered all over the CRC debacle, there is a Paralympic champion, a dynamic teenager with brains to burn, and countless frontline staff heroically spending their lives to help others.
The potential damage they are suffering due to the shocking actions of a handful of executives is just as big a scandal as the financial crisis itself.
The Central Remedial Clinic was set up in April 1951 to cater for people with polio, and provides vital supports to 4,000 children and 500 adults suffering from a range of debilitating conditions.
These include cerebral palsy, spina bifida, the muscle weakening condition muscular dystrophy, and joint-curving illness arthrogryposis.
The care involved — which patients have been at pains to state is not in question — includes physiotherapy, hydrotherapy, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, social work supports, nursing, orthotics services and orthopaedics.
In addition, specialist support groups are set up for family members who may be struggling to cope with the situation their loved ones face.
The main campus in Clontarf, is further supported by three other units in Dublin — including those at Coolock, Firhouse and Hartstown — to provide extra social, physical and educational supports to those who need it.
The facility also runs the Scoil Mochua school for children in West Dublin, Kildare and West Wicklow who have serious physical disabilities; a regional assessment unit in Waterford; and a clinical gait analysis centre.