Mona McSharry's journey from Sligo to Olympic final stardom

McSharry's journey into swimming happened by accident — literally. She was just five years old when she fell into a lake while on holiday in Austria
Mona McSharry's journey from Sligo to Olympic final stardom

Mona McSharry powers through the water in the Women’s 100 metre breaststroke semi-final at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre. ‘People expect success but they don’t realise how big the jump is. But I’m ready and excited to do it,’ says McSharry. Picture: Ian MacNicol

Picture her in her mid-teens, the young, prodigious swimmer with an undeniable gift but with so many rivers to cross before it could be turned into something tangible, something seismic, some achievement that would justify the 4am alarm clock and the 12 hours a week she spent going back and forth, back and forth, across that pool in Ballyshannon, Co Donegal.

Mona McSharry had a talent but the kid had a lot more than that. She had belief, commitment, and — just as important as either of those — she had parents who were willing to go above and beyond in assisting her dream and a coach, Grace Meade, with the expertise to take her there.

You’ll have a good idea of how McSharry must feel this week. Maybe you caught her interviews on RTÉ or saw that bright, beaming smile as she emerged from the pool, but the same satisfaction is flowing rapidly around her hometown of Grange, Co Sligo.

It’s one thing to possess the talent to make an Olympic final. It’s a whole different thing actually making it happen.

Her journey into swimming happened by accident — literally. McSharry was just five years old when she fell into a lake while on holiday in Austria, her father having to jump to her rescue, after which her parents decided to enrol her in swim lessons.

Two years later she began competing in the Community Games and a few years after that she won her first national title with Marlins Swim Club in Ballyshannon. That was how it began and here, in Tokyo, is not so much where it finishes as where McSharry — so long touted as the next big thing in Irish swimming — fully arrives.

There’s a reason it’s been 25 years since Ireland had an Olympic finalist in swimming. It’s a very, very hard thing to achieve.

The sport has a foothold in most of the world and whenever that’s the case, the chances of a nation like Ireland having one in the top eight is minuscule.

Swimmers of that calibre are both born and made, needing to win the genetic lottery at birth and then needing so much more thereafter: the willingness to sacrifice so much of the average teenage life. 

Back in 2017, I sat down with McSharry shortly after she won the World Junior title in the 100m backstroke, the 17-year-old taking me through the routine that brought her to that point. At the time she was preparing for her Leaving Cert at Coláiste Cholmcille, the time demands of swimming forcing her to jettison a seventh subject, aware that every hour was too precious to spend any of on something that might not produce a result.

She would be out the door by 5am on every school morning, lie-ins not something McSharry could entertain if she wanted to get where she was going.

“You have to have that determination and drive,” she said. Her parents would taxi her on the half-hour drive to the pool, where she’d warm up for a half hour then spend the next two hours going back and forth across her 25-metre lane.

“It’s a lonely sport,” she said. “But you have to deal with it and grow stronger.”

She’d be back there every evening, and nights were spent catching up on homework before bedtime at no later than 10pm.

Her training week would finish by 10am on a Saturday and weekends were her own, but even then there were concessions to be made compared to the average 17-year-old.

“I wouldn’t be big into going out,” she said. “Maybe once or twice a year. If I do it’ll just tire me for the rest of the week.”

To get to the top of her chosen sport necessitated tough decisions, and one came in 2019 when McSharry committed to enrol at the University of Tennessee, where coach Matt Kredich has since guided her career.

McSharry moved there in 2020 and she made a swift impact, winning a bronze medal at the NCAA Championships. She also carved up the Irish record books and she’s now the fastest female Ireland has ever produced at 50m, 100m and 200m breaststroke, along with in the 50m butterfly.

In her 100m breaststroke heat in Tokyo on Sunday she breezed into the semis with 1:06.39, then came back out on Monday morning to finish fourth in her semi-final, her 1:06.59 seeing her through.

It capped a remarkable rise into to the elite echelon of her sport, and seeing her achieve it and speak about what it meant — a hint of American twang now in her accent — brought back memories of that conversation in 2017.

We talked then about the last great hope in Irish swimming, Gráinne Murphy, who won three gold medals at the 2009 European Juniors but who couldn’t make the same impact at senior level through no fault of her own. McSharry didn’t know Murphy but knew of her story and she was under no illusions about the breadth of the divide she had to cross.

“People expect success but they don’t realise how big the jump is,” she said. “But I’m ready and excited to do it.”

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