#WOW Meets Michael McKillop (Part 2)
With 120 metres to go in that race I heard my Dad’s voice in front of 91,000 people...he’s my coach, and as my coach he usually says, drive your knees, drive your arms, keep your form; but what he said then was nothing like that – he just said 'run, Michael, run.'
2008 was a major year for Michael McKillop. He says, ‘I was only eighteen, I was going to my first Paralympic games, which is the pinnacle of any amateur persons career. I went from running in front of 14,000 people at the world championships, to running in front of 91,000 people in Beijing in the Birds Nest. That was petrifying, but it was an experience I will never forget, because not only did I go on and win that gold medal, I broke the world record. I became the first person to break the two minute barrier for the eight hundred meters.’
‘With 120 metres to go in that race I heard my Dad’s voice in front of 91,000 people. I don’t know if it was because when I was younger I heard him say do the dishes, put away the laundry, go wash the car, so his voice is just ingrained in my brain. But he’s my coach, and as my coach he usually says, drive your knees, drive your arms, keep your form; but what he said then was nothing like that – he just said run, Michael, run. That goes against everything I’d learned, everything he’d taught me; it was the emotion of a dad, not a coach, because he realised what I was going to achieve. He realised that his son was going to be a Paralympic champion.’
It’s this ethos of pushing yourself to your limits which Michael has inherited from his family that he shares with the South West College students. It’s a mindset he has had to call upon even in the more glamorous sounding times of his sporting career. In preparation for the 2011 World Championships in New Zealand, Michael realised he would have to adapt by travelling to train in a warmer climate. He went to South Africa and began training with men who spoke no English, staying in a part of the world he didn’t know, where there were no streetlamps and there was a reputation for danger. He felt isolated and alone and it took a phone call from his then thirteen year old sister to help him get through it.
He went to Christchurch in 2011, retained both his titles and broke two world records, winning the 800 metre title on his 21st birthday.
‘Man up,’ she said down the phone line, and Michael admits that at first it came as a shock, but soon made him realise what he was doing. He had wanted to give up because it was tough, something he and his parents had never done in their shared pursuit for him to be an elite athlete. ‘I realised that I’d been thinking “this is tough, so I want to go home.” So then I thought of when my parents had found it tough when people were telling me I couldn’t do things, or when Mum had to give up work to bring me to occupational therapy and speech therapy, and thought “what if they’d given up?” It made me realise I was there to be an elite athlete, to try and retain my titles.’ Michael did just that. He went to Christchurch in 2011, retained both his titles and broke two world records, winning the 800 metre title on his 21st birthday.
His sister’s words, and the effect they had, are an example of the constant help he has had from his family, who like him have never gave up on his ideals of ‘believe and you will achieve.’ It is this belief that has led Michael to a life where he travels the world doing what he loves, enjoys perks such as free training gear, and even free suits, and above all great sporting achievements and moments of joy. One of the highlights he explains, was perhaps unsurprisingly the London Olympics in 2012.
‘The most special thing about my experience in London,’ he says, ‘wasn’t crossing the line and winning my two gold medals, wasn’t running around the stadium, it was after my 15,00 metre race. My Dad pulled me aside just before we went into the call room before going onto the track, and he said “if you win you’ll get a surprise”. I went out there and I won, I crossed the line and I was getting all excited.’
When the medal ceremony came up, everything happened strangely quick. ‘I was standing behind the podium and I realised there was only one person there to present the medals, and there’s usually two. Then all of a sudden the announcer came on and said “and now to present the medals for the T-37 1,500 metres, I would like to invite Mrs Katherine McKillop.”
‘My Mum presented me with the medal, and when I hugged her it was probably the best four or five seconds that I will ever spend with her, because it was a realisation that team McKillop had achieved; that all my hard work, that all her hard work, had got us to the point where I won my Paralympic gold medal in front of my mum. She was actually the first Mum to ever present their child with an Olympic or Paralympic medal.’
It’s moments like this that mean Michael, despite all the challenges he’s faced, and differences he’s had to battle with, considers himself a very lucky person.