Behind their jokey ‘Chuckle Brothers’ act, this is the reality for Ireland’s Paralympic golden boys.
The first person Michael McKillop went to, after holding off a tough young Canadian pretender to his T37 1500m crown in Rio yesterday and clinching a magnificent fourth Paralympic gold medal, was his buddy Jason Smyth.
The two roomies had a quick hug and a slag in the mixed zone before McKillop was rushed away to his medal ceremony.
He likes to tease the Usain Bolt of Paralympic sprinting that he just hasn’t the stamina for longer events like his own.
Smyth usually retorts that’s just because McKillop has no turbo button.
That’s how they roll, always batting the banter back and forth with their dry Ulster wit yet, under it all, the pressure to stay at the top of the Paralympics game is as hard as in any sport.
So while everyone else was queuing up to gawk at Smyth’s latest gold medal, McKillop deliberately set his gaze elsewhere before he raced himself.
“I avoided (looking at) it at all costs because I had it in my head that I was going to win my own gold medal,” he admitted.
After 800m glory in Beijing and an 800m/1500m double in London 2012, McKillop felt a greater weight of expectation than ever before in Rio.
Like many Paralympic stars, his physical impairment is not visually apparent.
Few people understand the imbalances that athletes with cerebral palsy struggle with, when one side of their body is always weaker and their efforts to compensate can cause repetitive injuries.
McKillop has had a tough 24 months with injury and, just when he thought he was back on track by running 4:04 this summer, he went to the Scottish (able-bodied) Championships five weeks ago and ran worryingly slowly (4:40) for a man who holds the Paralympic world record (3:59) and a 3:51 personal best.
“I came across the line flat out and couldn’t get out of bed for the next couple of days, I tend to struggle with my B12 levels and it was rock bottom,” he explained.
He’s also had a cyst growing in one of the joints on his foot for the past four months which made those first few steps every day very painful.
“I’ve had to get my foot mobilised every morning here but, once again, nothing was going to stop me from getting on that start line,” he revealed.
The 26-year-old Antrim star then choked back tears when explaining where this fourth precious Paralympic gold sat in the pantheon of his success.
“This one is special because I’ve come through a really tough time,” he said.
“I’m just glad that I was able to go out and win because of those tough times. I’ve had to stay focussed and realise what life is about.
“It’s not just about winning gold medals, it’s about living and being proud to live the life that I have and I’m very lucky,” he insisted.
“I’m very fortunate to run in an Olympic stadium, in front of 30,00 to 40,000 people today, I’ll always remember those times,” he added tearfully.
He was pushed harder than ever before yesterday by a relative unknown. When Canada didn’t qualify a football team for these Paralympics, Liam Stanley (19) switched to track and was ranked second beforehand; a dangerous, young pretender to his throne.
Eventual bronze medallist Madjid Djemai flew off from the gun, McKillop reeled him back in by 600m and led at the bell but, when he pressed his after-burners, the Canadian was still in his shadow in the sweltering 30-degree heat.
It was only with 200m to go that he put clear daylight between them, winning in 4:12:11, over four seconds clear.
A passionate Arsenal supporter, he could identify with his young adversary, saying: “I always dreamt of being a footballer or playing for my county in Gaelic (football) or hurling before I went down the athletics route.”
Consistency, longevity and the ability to hold off all-comers; these are the true measure of champions and McKillop proved again yesterday why he’s such a worthy one.
“I wanted to show that I am still the best.”
He is not finished yet, already looking forward to the World Championships in London in 2017 and then a final bid to win more Paralympic gold in Tokyo 2020.
He’s also keen to break the 3:50 mark through competing in able-bodied athletics.
So what keeps him going?
“To prove to people that Paralympic sport is getting bigger in Ireland and that it doesn’t matter that I have a disability. I’ve competed in able-bodied (sport) and represented Ireland in 2009.
“I want to be competing against the best in Ireland, that honestly is my dream,” he admitted.
“But, of course, I’m a proud Paralympic athlete. Competing able-bodied keeps me ahead of my rivals and I’ll continue doing that until my career is over.”
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