Michael McKillop: A modest, articulate young runner with the world at his feet
From the earliest pictures in the family album to his own YouTube video guide to the Irish Paralympics village in London last week, there’s the same impish look on Michael McKillop’s face and a similar turned-around baseball cap on his head which smacks of self-belief and confidence — portraits of a young man who obviously knows he’s a winner.
In his sister Claire’s pictorial record of Michael growing up, the baby-faced youngster is seen trying out judo and hurling but it’s the old photograph of him wearing an Irish athletics vest and shorts — and that baseball cap — which is a portent of things to come for the 22-year-old golden boy from Glengormley who has carved out a thoroughly-deserved reputation as one of the top runners in the Paralympics.
He holds a unique record that no-one will ever take away from him as the first ever male to set a world record in the Olympic stadium in London long before any of the able-bodied athletes in the mainstream events like Usain Bolt or Mo Farrah set foot in the place.
“My record came in the test event before the Olympics proper,” says Michael, an engaging and affable young Glengormley man.
On Saturday night 80,000 fans roared him on as he followed up his gold medal success in the T37 800m race at Beijing with a similar runaway win in London 2012.
With his victory in the 1500m on Monday night, the only surprise was that anyone was surprised by the magnificent achievements of the Ballymena-born superstar of the track who has a mild form of cerebral palsy and who has been coached by his father Paddy.
Paddy and his wife Catherine are both former athletes and encouraged Michael to follow in their tracks, so to speak, as a way of keeping active and as a means of physio for his disability.
Initially Michael participated in sport as an able-bodied athlete but at the age of 15 he was told he could compete at Paralympic level because of his cerebral palsy.
He quickly took up the middle distance baton and found success at championships for other athletes with his disability.
At the age of just 16, he announced his arrival as a serious contender by winning gold and silver medals at the International Paralympic Committee’s World Championships in Holland and setting a new world time in the 800m — and two years later he shaved nearly three seconds of that record in Beijing.
“There’s always been a very definite competitive streak in me,” he says.
“I want to win as many Paralympics, European and World titles as I can. I want to make my country proud.”
Michael also clearly loves setting new challenges for himself.
He says that the two world records he set as he won gold medals in the 800m and 1500m in the IPC World Championships in Christchurch in New Zealand last year were among the stand-out moments of his career so far.
His father, a PE teacher marvels at his son’s determination to succeed which is mirrored by his friend and fellow northern athlete Jason Smyth, another London 2012 gold medal winner on the track.
Paddy said: “Neither of them sees their disabilities, just their abilities. They both compete in able bodied athletics to push themselves even further and they’re both fighters.”
Michael’s cerebral palsy was diagnosed by doctors 20 years ago as a two-year-old after he was brought to hospital following a fall down the stairs.
He had to have his right leg in plaster for a year from the age of six and was taught not to walk on his toes.
Michael said: “The cerebral palsy affects the right side of my body and my skills with my right hand and foot are not as good as my left side.”
The world record holder, who’s also been a cross-country champion, gets more tired more quickly than able-bodied athletes would.
Michael exudes faith in his prowess as an athlete. And his recently uploaded YouTube clips speak volumes of his self-assured personality, as does his regular internet blog where he comes across as an articulate and committed young man.
Certainly, there’s no sense of cockiness of brashness from the down-to-earth youngster who regularly takes part in seminars with parents and children to talk up the importance of athletics for disabled and able-bodied youngsters.
Friends say he’s too modest to boast about it but Michael McKillop is regularly told by families that he’s been an inspiration to countless children around Ireland and Britain.
“He’s not a big head by any means,” says a friend, “But he revels in what he does and he loves being a winner. He trains extremely hard and he deserves every honour that comes his way. He also makes sure that he pays credit where it’s due.”