KIERAN SHANNON: Swimming against the tide

Picture: Nick Bradshaw

Dave Malone refused to allow disability prevent him from becoming a world class swimmer. And now he is bringing his message to a new generation of Irish youngsters hungry for success.

He doesn’t get all this DIS stuff. As in DIS-ability. Dave Malone will actively diss that syllable DIS. All he sees when he sees the athletes he works with is ABILITY.

Often he doesn’t know whether they were born with some physical limitation, like he was, or if it came along later on literally by accident. What matters to him is how limitless their ability seems.

Last year the Irish Paralympic swimming squad he oversees won two gold medals at the London Paralympics. This year they brought home a stunning eight medals from the world championships in Montreal.

There’s no need to whisper it because it’s already a whisper but the squad Malone oversees is one of the best high-performance units in all of Irish sport and possibly its most unheralded.

Some recognition is beginning to come their way. The London games captured not just the imagination but the respect of the public. This month the Irish Paralympic swimming team are up for team of the year in the RTÉ Sports Awards. Malone himself was inducted into the Swim Ireland Hall of Fame earlier this year, as well as becoming the first inductee into the Irish Paralympic Sports Hall of Fame.

“It’s funny,” he smiles in his office at the Institute of Irish Sport in Abbotstown, “but I’ve got recognised more for my career in the last 12 months than I did over my entire 16-year international career.”

Let’s be honest, you probably didn’t know of him until you turned over to these pages. Even though he was probably the Roy Keane of Irish Paralympic sport, setting and insisting upon standards when Irish sport probably wasn’t quite ready for them. From his debut at the world championships in 1994 up to the Athens Paralympics, Malone didn’t go a single year without winning a major medal; there wasn’t a Paralympics, European or world championships where he didn’t get on the podium. He broke three world records all of which lasted for a decade or more. Yet, as Malone himself puts it, “I’d come home from those championships at Dublin Airport and often the only person who’d be there was the person who’d promised to pick you up.”

At times that anonymity was disheartening but then he’d remind himself he didn’t get into or stay in the sport for recognition. He wanted to cycle like other kids did, kick a ball like them, run around like them, and then swim too.

There was a certain limitation. He was born with a bone defect condition, arthrogryposis. If he was to move around anything like other kids, he’d have to undergo a procedure unlike any of the other kids.

So at seven he had his right leg amputated below the knee. A year later he had his left leg amputated just above the ankle.

“I have memories of it still. I suppose I was used to going in and out of hospital for various different things all my life. But I was always very keen in being active. We came across an old home video recently of my sister’s christening in which I’m two and running all around the place and have to be nearly restrained by my grandparents’. When I was three I had some surgery where my leg was put in plaster but when we went back to my grandparents’ house I broke the cast from playing around the place and it had to get done again.

“I think the amputations were more traumatic on my parents than me. They were the ones who ultimately had to make the decision after consulting all the specialists. Dad (Gerry) worked with ESB and they were on strike the week I had my first amputation. My mother (Margaret) had a job but gave it up to mind me and my sister. I spent most of that summer of ’85 in hospital, trying to get fitted for limbs, but when I got out, my mindset was ‘I want to be able to cycle a bike again, I want to be able to run around the place again.’

“Back then there was no one coming in saying ‘Well, you can still do this, you can still do that’, as fantastic as the staff at Cappagh (Hospital) were. But I can still remember getting back up on a bike and learning to walk on my artificial legs. They were tiny legs. Only the other month my parents were up in the attic and we came across all these old legs of mine. Quite a number of them we brought back to Cappagh as they might find some use for them. But I’ve held on to those first couple of legs.”

With them he’d kick football like all the other kids in his park in Ballinteer, often playing in goal. Then his friend Brian Dunne took up swimming at his father Tony’s suggestion. Dave reluctantly joined them down in the local pool in Dundrum.

“Back then they had all these foot baths and you’d be thinking how would you be able to negotiate them? Then I’d have to take the legs off at the side of the pool. All this was running through my mind.”

He initially hated it because he was no good at it. But Tony and Brian kept encouraging him and he gradually began to realise that once he was in the pool people didn’t care that his legs remained by the side of it. The coaches were terrifically supportive, especially after Tony tragically and prematurely died. And he found he had the discipline for it. Even in his early teens he would keep training logs and be able to monitor how much he’d trained and progressed. He started to compete in mainstream club meets, then the Community Games in Mosney. At 15 he competed for Ireland at junior level in a multi-sports competition outside London. He swam in six events, winning five. At 16 he competed in the inaugural world championships in Malta, in the 100m backstroke. It was his first time in a 50m pool. He won bronze. Two years later in Atlanta at the Paralympics he’d win silver.

He was only 18. He’d found his passion, his obsession.

“I did my Leaving Cert that summer. Back then you had to go into your school to get your results but I couldn’t because that week I was competing in Atlanta. I couldn’t have cared less about the results. The day after that race I was already thinking of what I needed to do to win gold in Sydney. So for the next four years everything else was pushed to the side which led to some problems later on. While I had a healthy balance when it came to training and recovery, I didn’t have one between my sport and studies and social life. For those four years swimming was everything.”

e’d registered for a course in sports management but soon dropped out. Relationships were sidelined. Instead he took up coaching and continued winning medals. He’d win gold at the ’97 European championships, ’98 worlds in Christchurch and again at the ’99 Europeans. All at a time when Ireland still didn’t have a 50m pool.

What it did have was the old National Coaching and Training Centre in Limerick and its 33m tank pool. He’d regularly go there and avail of the services of sports physiologists and scientists like Giles Warrington and Caroline McManus. Lactic testing and the like are common now but back then Malone was a pioneer in his appetite to gain the edge.

And yet in Sydney it almost all came unstuck. Hours before the final reality and panic set in.

“Something just wasn’t right. Even in the warm-up pool I didn’t feel good. Caroline and (his coach) Kevin Williamson took some lactic tests and in a stroke of genius they told me they were good, that everything was fine but they were actually higher than they should have been. Just before we came to that point where the coach can’t go any further, Kevin quipped, ‘I tell you what, Dave, rather you than me!’ We had a belly-laugh which broke some of the tension but when I went into the call room I was still off.”

Outside the curtained glass window, 17,000 spectators were packed into the amphitheatre. World record after world record was being broken. A special night was taking place, mounting to a crescendo.

“I nearly felt afraid. I could feel the energy draining out of me. To this day I can’t remember walking out onto the pool side. I can’t remember us lining up. I just remember jumping into the pool, going down to the bottom and coming back up, grabbing the blocks and the roar around the arena being enormous. Then the place went from that into complete silence. My heart was thumping out of my chest – BOOM, BOOM, BOOM! I remember saying to myself, ‘Shit, I’m in a bit of bother here.’ But then I said to myself, ‘Get it together, you’re the best in the world, this is your opportunity, go take it.’ At the time that conversation seemed to go on forever. It was just a few seconds. Then it was take your marks, go.”

Malone can’t recall anything about that race. Until he hit the wall. He looked up and saw that the old champion Holger Kimmig’s name up first on the board. He hadn’t won. Then it flicked to MALONE IRL and it dawned on him. It was a dead-heat. Both he and his German rival had won gold.

“I don’t care that I shared a gold medal with someone. I just remember the absolute relief. One of the officials joked that we’d messed up the schedule for everyone because they now had to play both national anthems and they did. It was unique. My time was slower than anything I’d raced in a major final since Atlanta but I actually did well to dig out a result.”

Then began the rest of his life. Frightening. “I had never thought about life after touching that wall. For four years everything was about touching that wall and winning a gold medal. I actually never thought about standing on the podium with our national anthem playing.”

He would take a break from swimming, start a new course in sports management in UCD, start seeing people.

He’d come back in enough time for the 2001 European championships to finish second but not enough to beat Kimmig. He was never quite the same after that. He’d come second in Athens, feeling a lot more relaxed than he had in Sydney, and it’s an experience and medal he hugely treasures, but he realises why it wasn’t gold.

“I knew I had taken too much time out to be the best in the world in 2004. I knew I had it in me to be still extremely competitive but looking back the hunger just wasn’t the same.

“So I began to look at myself and say ‘Look, you’ve won 11 medals at major championships but you’ve still got no job.’ Some of my friends were getting married and buying houses while I was still living at home at 28 years of age. I had no money in the bank account. I had to ask myself: what do I want to do? Do I care anymore? Does anyone else care anymore? What do I want to do with my life?”

He would take up his first full time job as a development manager in the National Aquatic Centre where he continues to coach today. He would still swim; he wanted to go off at the top, in the Water Cube in Beijing. But all the while there was the fear of what would happen after that and also the depressing realisation he wasn’t the athlete he was.

Paralympics chief Liam Harbison and Malone had several run-ins during those years, Malone railing there wasn’t enough support for him and fellow athletes, and Harbison pointing out Malone could have been doing more to torment himself less.

“I was very clear at that stage I was going to retire in Beijing. I wasn’t going there to win medals, I might not even make a final, but I wasn’t taking the piss either. I was still good enough to qualify and good enough to finish in the top 10 in the world. It was just where I was in my life. I was struggling with my sport and life in general. I was a bit depressed, struggling to find any consistency or momentum. They were dark days.”

Beijing brought him back into the light. He hit his goal of finishing in the top 10. He’d set a season best. He’d bowed out on the biggest stage of all, “not on a Monday morning and no one knowing a thing.”

When he came home from those games, he almost felt a weight off his shoulders. “A chapter had finally closed and while I hadn’t a clue what I was going to do, I was looking forward to the next chapter.”

It would present itself soon after. He bumped into the Paralympic wheelchair athlete Patrice Dockery in the NAC.

She mentioned that the athlete lifestyle coach Darragh Sheridan with the Institute of Sport was overseeing a pilot programme helping athletes like her deal with the retirement. So Malone and Sheridan met up, chatted for an hour about football which Sheridan had played professionally. Then the conversation turned to Malone.

A big part of his life was ending, so it needed to be marked, celebrated. In April 2009 he hosted what they termed a Career Showcase. Old coaches and team-mates as well as friends and family were invited to the Stillorglin Park Hotel.

A 10-minute video of old footage and photos was put together to show on a big screen. It was a bit nerve- wracking, like a 21st birthday, wondering if many people would show up, but in the end over 200 people did.

That was just one bit of advice of Sheridan’s that helped. He needed to put his sporting skills and achievements at the top and not near the end of his CV, start going for interviews, broaden his network, his horizons.

One evening he attended a function in the Burlington Hotel featuring 50 top companies that had linked up with the Institute of Sport. Director Gary Keegan spoke about the similarities between sport and business and that convinced Malone his career had to be in sport. A few months later he was the successful candidate out of 21 interviewees for the position of head of Irish Paralympic Swimming.

The results clearly show it was an inspired choice. Before Malone’s appointment Ireland had won 13 medals at major competition, 11 of them by Malone himself. Since his appointment in 2009 Ireland have won 14 medals.

In London they won two gold medals and reached nine finals. At the world championships this past August they won eight medals. Five of the squad’s six members medalled. Bethany Firth won three silvers. Darragh McDonald won gold for the 400m freestyle. Ellen Keane, Laurence McGivern and James Scully all had their first championship podium finishes.

And yet, as Malone puts it, Montreal is now “chips paper”. It’s about next year’s Euros in Eindhoven, then the worlds in Glasgow, then Rio and beyond.

Putting systems and pathways in place to facilitate that. By removing obstacles.

“London has definitely opened up a brand new world to young kids who happen to have disability. We’re getting a lot more calls from parents. In the past there were roadblocks in their way. Now we can tell them where their nearest club or facility is. That club and facility is able to cater for those kids.

“When I was inducted into the Hall of Fame earlier this year Kevin gave the speech and he talked about when I knocked on the door for the first time and he was unsure if this kid would be able to mix with the other swimmers. But he said after there the first session he realised there wasn’t going to be a problem. He’d focus on my ability.

“That’s the most important thing. When I competed I’d cycle on my bike into training. I didn’t want anyone treating me any different just because I had some disability. I always feel people put unnecessary obstacles in our way. But I’m the kind of person that will look to get around it tunnel under it, get around it, find a way, if it means enough to me.

“And it’s the same with our athletes now. We can all achieve unbelievable feats. We could all say ‘Well, I’ve lost my legs, I can’t do anything now’, but you can chose not to let it define you, you can define what you can do and go out and do it.”

Limitations are obviously something the rest of us have.

For Malone and now Irish Paralympic swimming, there are none.


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