Dr. Michael McKillop says, ‘My story is slightly different to everyone else’s; I might be a successful sportsman now, but my journey to get here was different.’ He explains that his early years were tough, as he was diagnosed
with cerebral palsy before his third birthday, a condition which came from having a stroke while he was still in his mother's womb, and affects the right side of his body. He talks openly about the challenges that have stemmed
from this and from elsewhere, but if his honesty about what he's overcome is admirable, it's nothing compared to what he's achieved in the face of this adversity.
Michael visited South West College Omagh Campus on behalf of the Sky Sports Living for Sport Programme. Addressing an attentive crowd of students, he described the programme as ‘an initiative for eleven to eighteen year-old's which is trying to help kids build confidence, work on goals and life challenges, and improve their behaviour settings and ambitions.’ Amongst its many mentors are Olympic and Paralympic athletes, and figures from football, boxing and GAA, and Michael began his talk to the South West College students by acknowledging that it has already helped many young people 'come out of a challenging past and have an amazing future.’
'Disability is only a difference. Yes I’m different, but everyone in this room is different from one another.’
This is an ethos Michael has lived with his whole life. Born into a relatively sporty family, to parents who were both athletes, it was made a priority that he would have equal opportunities to his sisters and everyone else. His parents sacrificed a lot to ensure this happened, but challenges were faced early on.
Michael didn’t speak until age three, and although speech therapy eventually helped with this, education proved difficult. He acknowledges the challenges he faced, but sees them as more of a difference than a disability. He says, ‘there is never an excuse for a disability, it’s only a difference. Yes I’m different, but everyone in this room is different from one another.’
As he grew up, he had to stay loyal to this mantra. When those around him threatened the idea of equal opportunity, or opted to treat him differently - teachers said he shouldn't do the eleven plus exam, because he wasn't fit for it - he resisted the assumption. Sport was always central to this. He says, 'going through
my primary school years, the one thing I loved and called my safe haven, was sport. My parents used sport as my physiotherapy. When I was racing at the age of ten, I went and competed at the Ulster Primary School Cross Country Championships, with the best primary school athletes in the whole of Ulster. I made no excuses going into it, or allowances for any disability, and I won that race; I was the best in Ulster at my age.'
Having grown up with the mindset of not letting circumstances dictate him, 2004 brought another major hurdle for Michael. On the final night of a caravan holiday in Wales, his parents were relaxing, sharing a drink and celebrating a successful week away with the family, when they heard a loud bang come from his bedroom. They ran into him; he had fallen from the bed and they found him lying on the floor. Michael explains, 'they noticed that my body was starting to move, but that my head was in a locked position between the bed and the bedside table. They panicked.'
In the resulting ambulance ride, Michael had another fit, and following a brain scan at the hospital they found a cyst growing in his brain. Michael explains he will have that cyst for the rest of his life, but more importantly, that was the night he was diagnosed with epilepsy, which remains the greatest challenge he faces. He says, ‘Epilepsy is the most horrific thing you will experience…I have night epilepsy, so it only happens when I sleep. I cannot affect when it happens. I have the knowledge and understanding for the rest of my life that I could go to bed and never wake up. But do I let it stop me? No. Everyone has hurdles, and there’s someone in life worse off than me.’
I’m lucky to say I represented Ireland as part of the able-bodied squad, and that meant more to me than the Paralympic golds. I may have finished fifty-fourth at the European cross country championships, but it broke down the perception that disabled people can’t compete against able-bodied people.
It's one of the greatest examples of Michael’s dedication, determination and fighting spirit that a year on from this he was representing Ireland at men’s level, aged just fifteen, at the European Championships. A year later he was a Paralympic World Champion and a world record holder. Better still, he explains, ‘I’m lucky to say I represented Ireland as part of the able-bodied squad, and that meant more to me than the Paralympic golds. I may have finished fifty-fourth at the European cross country championships, but it broke down the perception that disabled people can’t compete against able-bodied people.’
That this meant more to him sums up much of what Michael said throughout his talk. Sport has always provided him with a way to push himself to his limits, challenging him against himself as much as those he’s competing with. This dedication and determination is one which stems from his family, and as such his achievements have never been solely his, but those of the team around him. ‘Team McKillop’ as he calls it, would have plenty of major achievements to come.