Michael McKillop knows the odds are stacked against him adding a tenth IPC Athletics World Championships gold medal when the 2019 edition is held in Dubai this autumn. It is not the two years of persistent and niggling injuries, that he believes have been brought on by his cerebral palsy which become more evident as the years go by, but recent rule changes that pose the biggest threat to his unbeaten record.
McKillop opened his account for the year last weekend when he chose a low-key meeting to get back in the way of racing with a 1500m at the Meadowbank track in Magherafelt. Although the winning time (4:17.62), the 29-year-old Bedford & County athlete came away with a win with both himself and his coach, and father, Paddy McKillop expressing their pleasure at the way things had gone.
“It was just a question of reacquainting his legs with track racing because he has done very little speed training yet and the world championships are still almost four months away,” said Paddy.
However, it is not the usual challenge of getting to a peak with another major event. Coach and athlete are well used to that with four Paralympic and two European as well as the nine world golds nestling safely back in the trophy cabinet. The more imminent threat to his status as number one has come in two rules changes enacted by the International Paralympic Committee.
The first of these was to merge McKillop’s T37 category with the T38 of those whose cerebral palsy is determined to cause less effect in the extremities of the limbs. McKillop, whose condition comes from his brain being deprived of oxygen for only a few seconds at birth, now will have to go head to head with athletes found in the past to be inherently stronger than him.
The second change is even more profound in that athletes with brain damage are now being classified in the same category as those with cerebral palsy. This has allowed two strong pretenders to McKillop’s crown to enter the competition, one of these is a Canadian who was on an athletics scholarship in the United States when he was hit on the head by a baseball causing brain damage. He recently entered his first Paralympic competition and came away with times of 1:57 for 800m and 3:57 for 1500m – McKillop has not bettered those times for six years.
“There are always challenges in life especially for Paralympic athletes,” said Michael. “I feel I’ve won my first battle in getting back after all the injuries. When I wake up the morning and I’m able to run, it’s a good day. Obviously, I’m not where I want to be at the moment but I’m getting there but there’s plenty of time.
“I know that it’s going to be difficult in Dubai but it will be championship racing and the gold medal does not always go to the fastest competitor. I have years of racing experience built up over many championships and I should be able to pull something out of the bag.
“I intend carrying on until Tokyo next year but that will definitely be my last Paralympics. That is not to say that if someone offered me a good job with a decent salary after the worlds, I would not take it.
“I have to take a broader view now and be more ambitious. My wife has made a lot of sacrifices for me in terms of holidays and in many other ways. I have been in this sport since I was 10 and I won my first world championship at 16 – it’s been a long road. I want to do normal things like weekends instead of Saturdays just sitting around all day recovering from a session in the morning. I have to step up to the plate and look at the bigger picture. Starting a family would be something special,” he reflected.
McKillop returns to competitive action tomorrow when he competes over 1500m at the Drogheda IMC Meeting in the Lourdes Stadium. He will be looking to better the modest 4:45 standard for Dubai but knows sterner hurdles loom just over the horizon. Meantime there is the grind of another arduous preparation and hopefully another gold medal for the cabinet in Randalstown.