Four-time Paralympic champion Michael McKillop to retire: 'I left my spikes on the track and walked away'

McKillop has called time on his Paralympic career after enduring bitter disappointment in the T38 1500m final in Tokyo
Four-time Paralympic champion Michael McKillop to retire: 'I left my spikes on the track and walked away'

Michael McKillop has his hand held aloft by Louis Radius of France after competing in the Men's T38 1500m final at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Michael McKillop has called time on his Paralympic career after enduring bitter disappointment in the T38 1500m final in Tokyo today, the 31-year-old Ballymena native well off his best when finishing eighth in 4:27.69. The gold was won by Canada’s Nate Riech in a Paralympic record of 3:58.92.

“I left my spikes out on the track and walked away because I know there’s a time and a place when you have to respect the sport you’re in,” said McKillop. “When you’re not up to the standard then you have to be honest with yourself. It’ll be my last Paralympic Games. I felt like I could win a medal but whenever it doesn’t go your way you just have to congratulate the guys ahead of you.” 

McKillop, a four-time Paralympic champion from the Beijing, London and Rio Games, was always going to be up against it to repeat such feats in Tokyo. He had been a dominant force for many years in the T37 category – for athletes with cerebral palsy – but ahead of the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships the classification was changed with athletes with brain injuries also included, which added huge depth. McKillop had won silver at the Europeans earlier in the summer but injury issues had hampered his preparations for Tokyo.

“You’ve got to put injuries to the side, if you step on the track you’re fully fit and there’s no excuses,” he said. “I was fully fit and in the best shape I’d been in for a long time. When they made the move, my legs just didn’t have it. I had no answers. I apologise to my dad, he’s put so much effort into this year.” 

In today’s final the distress signals were sent out early, McKillop sitting off the pace through the opening half, passing 400m in fifth place before slipping back to seventh at 800m. From there he had a large gap to bridge to contend for the medals and it was apparent a long way from home that it wasn’t on the cards, McKillop fading to eighth over the final lap.

“I just didn’t have anything in my legs and I don’t know why. It’s just devastating. When you come to a Paralympic Games and to falter like I did is upsetting. It was going to be my last Paralympic Games anyway but to go out like that, to lose my unbeaten streak in the T37 category is heartbreaking.” 

McKillop didn’t say for certain that he wouldn’t race again but suggested it was the end not just of his Paralympic career, but of his competitive career.

“It’s my dad’s last year, he’s retiring as a coach so maybe it’s the right way to go,” he said. “My wife has given up so much time and effort for me, sacrificed so much and I think it’s time to give back to my wife and my dogs. They put a smile on my face – my family, my friends – and I’ll never forget my time in Paralympic sport if it is to be the end.

“I just want to hold my head up high knowing I’ve given everything to my sport. I represent the island of Ireland and I’m proud to say that. To run around and represent the flag is a very, very special thing. I’ve had the privilege to do that for 16 years.”

Earlier today Pat O’Leary fell agonisingly short of a medal in the VL3 canoeing final, but the 48-year-old held no regrets about his performance, feeling justifiably proud of his fifth-place finish which saw him clock 50.910 seconds, just 0.15 of a second behind the bronze medallist.

“The important thing for me is to get out of me what I have in me and I really don’t think I had another 10th of a second in me,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a perfect race but on the day it was as good as I had in me.” 

Mary Fitzgerald finished sixth in the F40 shot put in what was her Games debut. She saved her best for last, throwing 7.79m in the sixth round. That left her half a metre shy of a podium finish, with Poland’s Renata Sliwinska taking gold in 8.75m.

Philip Eaglesham brought his Games to a close by competing in the last of his three events at Asaka Shooting Range. Competing in his favoured R9 mixed rifle prone, some errors in the second and third rounds proved costly and he finished 15th with a score of 618.3.

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