Fifteen years before she became what she is — an Olympic finalist — Mona McSharry was just a young girl, five years old, who couldn’t swim to save her life. Literally.
Her parents’ decision to enrol her in swim lessons emerged from a terrifying experience, McSharry falling into a lake while on holiday in Austria, her father having to jump to her rescue. Two years later, she began swimming in a competitive manner in the Community Games. A few years after that, she was winning national titles 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 — finally arrives: one of the eight best athletes in the world in her specialist event, the 100m breaststroke.
Back in 2017, I sat down with McSharry shortly after she won the World Junior title in the 100m breaststroke, the 17-year-old taking me through the routine that got her to that point.
“You have to have that determination and drive,” she said. “If you don’t get out straight away, you’re done.”
They’d be out the door by 5am, one of her parents driving her the half hour it took to get to the pool in Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, where she’d warm up for 30 minutes then spend the next two hours going back and forth along that 25-metre lane.
“It’s a lonely sport,” she said. “But you have to deal with it and grow stronger.”
To get here has required tough decisions, and one of those came in 2019 when McSharry decided to accept a scholarship at the University of Tennessee, where coach Matt Kredich has carried on the years of good work done at home by Grace Meade.
McSharry enrolled in Tennessee in August last year and made a swift impact. She carved up the Irish record books over the last 12 months and is now the fastest female swimmer Ireland has ever had at 50m, 100m and 200m breaststroke, along with the 50m butterfly.
In her 100m breaststroke heat in Tokyo on Sunday night, she breezed into the semis with a time of 1:06.39, then came back out the following morning to finish fourth in her semi-final, her 1:06.59 seeing her through.
The last great young hope in Irish swimming had been Gráinne Murphy, who won three gold medals at the 2009 European Juniors but who couldn’t make the same impact at senior level, something that occurred through no lack of desire but plenty of bad luck.
McSharry said: “People expect success but they don’t realise how big the jump is,” she said. “But I’m ready and excited to do it.”