Paralympic hero Michael McKillop: I would love to meet that bully now and shake his hand...
Exclusive: As he prepares to battle for his fourth Paralympics gold medal tomorrow, champion runner Michael McKillop tells Steven Beacom about the childhood torment that drove him towards sporting glory
Northern Ireland Paralympic hero Michael McKillop has spoken about his mental health problems and how he found himself in dark places, paying tribute to his loving family and fiancee for helping him through the recovery process.
In an open and moving interview, the 26-year-old, from Belfast, who in Rio tomorrow will aim to win his FOURTH Paralympic gold medal, also spoke about being bullied as a schoolboy and why he would like to meet his tormentor again.
McKillop, who has a form of cerebral palsy, is the hot favourite to win Sunday's 1,500m final in the T37 category in Brazil.
He won his first Paralympic gold in the 800m at the Beijing Games before retaining the title at London 2012 and adding 1,500m glory for good measure.
McKillop is also a multiple world champion and has enjoyed many wonderful triumphs in a stunning career.
He admitted, however, that in recent years he had endured some difficult times, especially when he feared his running days were over due to injury.
"I've struggled with mental health," said McKillop.
"It was tough when I was injured back in 2014/2015, and I found myself in dark places. It wasn't a very enjoyable time of my life.
"You're expected to win gold medals when you train every day as an elite athlete, and that was what my job was.
"When you are injured and in boots and casts and things like that, you think to yourself, 'Is my career over?'
"At that time, I was told my foot might never recover, and for me that was quite a scary thing because I trained as an athlete full-time from the age of 18.
"I didn't go to university and I didn't have a degree, so I didn't really have anything to fall back on. That's what I was panicking about, whereas I should have been focusing on getting back to recovery and back to winning ways.
"Thankfully, I've found a better light now and I'm happy and chirpy and I'm in a more mentally focused and determined spot.
"That is exciting and pleasing for me, because you never know what could have happened. I could have been six feet under. For me, it shows that with a little bit of hard work, determination and courage in your own beliefs, you can get out of dark places.
"Now I'm relishing Rio and believe it is going to be an incredible experience, regardless of results. It's the most excited and happy I've been for a long time."
McKillop paid tribute to fiancee Nicole Martin, his mum Catherine and dad Paddy, who is also his coach, for helping him to overcome his mental pain.
"My family and my fiancee were amazing," said the runner who advised others in the same situation to seek support from family or elsewhere.
"It's just realising that these people are the most important people in your life and they're there to help you, regardless of the situation you find yourself in. I was lucky to have an excellent support network behind me."
While Michael, an inspiring person and uplifting public speaker, is focusing on winning his event in Brazil, in the future he is looking forward to marrying sweetheart Nicole.
"We're having a house built at the moment and the key element is making sure life is set up for us," he said. "We'll think about weddings, probably in 2018.
"Being involved in a loving relationship is great. She's been a major factor in why I'm positive about life going forward. She's my rock and my best friend and hopefully that'll continue."
McKillop also paid the warmest of tributes to his parents, who after their son was diagnosed with cerebral palsy aged two years and 10 months encouraged him never to let the disability get in the way of his dreams.
"My parents are my inspiration," he said. "They were told their son would have a disability and were given a situation where they could either grab it by the scruff of the neck and make it better, or they could have done nothing about it."
"They allowed me to be the person I wanted to be, and that was a successful person," added the former St Malachy's College pupil.
The golf lover - with a handicap of 20 - is proud of his achievements to date and is determined to add another triumph on Sunday. But he revealed that being bullied during first year at school was one of the reasons behind a desire that is much admired in his sport.
"I guess when I was bullied it gave me a little bit more determination and passion for something," said the Arsenal fan. "Just because I was different didn't mean that I couldn't take part in sport.
"That's what drives me on to be better within my sport and pushes my limits to new levels. Being bullied showcased that, even though I have a disability. I'm better than that bully and I went on to be a successful person.
"I would love to meet the guy now and shake his hand and say, 'Thank you for what you did', because those memories from when you were younger sometimes tell you that you can overcome adversity and you can overcome things that you think you can't do. Having a positive mental attitude allows you to do that."
McKillop is one of Northern Ireland's most decorated sports stars, but he is as down-to-earth as when I first met him as a kid with raw talent. In recent times, he has enjoyed working in the Pure Running shop in Belfast, where some members of the public were surprised to find such a well-known face advising them about their footwear.
"I grafted and worked for a normal wage just like everybody else and I got to give my advice on something that I enjoyed - and that's running," the sportsman said.
"I never mentioned once what I did or what I'd achieved, though there were a few people who came in and recognised me and would go 'Why are you working in a running shop?'
"I see myself as a down-to-earth, genuine person. I don't want to get big-headed and think I'm better than everyone else, because I'm not."
Unlike the last Paralympics in London, where McKillop was presented with the prestigious Whang Youn Dai Achievement Award for being the athlete who best exemplified the spirit of the Games, he has just one rather than two events in Rio.
Unbeaten for almost a decade, it is all about the 1,500m this time, though coach and dad Paddy, who was in Beijing and London, will be watching from afar this time.
"I've only got one race, one effort, and to be honest the most important thing is being able to execute that perfect effort to the best of my ability and making sure I put myself in the perfect position, whether that be with 100 metres to go or 200 metres or 600 metres, just making sure I'm in the right position to get that medal," said McKillop, who was delighted to see his close friend and compatriot Jason Smyth win the T13 100m in Rio yesterday.
"To be perfectly honest, if I go to Rio and the results don't go my way, I know I've made myself proud and my family proud, as well as my country and city.
"I'm currently top of the world rankings by nine seconds, so I know I have the quality and the pedigree to go on and win. It's just making sure I perform.
"It's nine years and whatever months since I lost and I guess winning a major title this year, I could say my career would be complete.
"Beyond that it'll be a bonus for whatever I get. I know that I have the World Championships next year and my family have already bought tickets, so 100% I will be there.
"I'll be taking things on a year-by-year basis to see if my body can stay injury-free and if I can stay healthy.
"But as long as I get the decade, then I know that's the target of my career.
"The great AP McCoy was Champion Jockey for 20 years. For me, I think 10 years isn't bad for an unbeaten streak!
"I also have an able-bodied challenge that I've set for myself - I want to break 3 minutes 50 seconds for the 1,500m.
"I think with a great winter behind me and the confidence of a good result in Rio, I can set myself up for a great summer next year and try and break that, but also to go to the World Championships in August.
"I want to encourage and inspire not just disabled children, but able-bodied children. I want kids to think they can be the best they can be."
Michael McKillop has been supported by the National Lottery on his road to Rio through Sport NI. National Lottery funding allows athletes access to some of the best coaching, training and medical facilities in the world. National Lottery players also raise £36m for good causes each week. For more information on where the money goes to, pay a visit to www.lotterygood causes.org.uk