It’s November 2009 and the great and the good of Ireland’s cross-country scene have descended on Kilbeggan Racecourse for the Inter-Counties Cross-Country Championships.
An Irish title is at stake. That in itself is a unique prize, but an added incentive is that selection for the European Cross-Country Championships is also up for grabs.
What makes that even more important is that the Euros will be hosted in Dublin for the very first time.
Everyone wants a spot on that team, to race around Santry wearing the green, white and gold in front of a vociferous home crowd.
Michael McKillop wants a piece of the action. However, the Glengormley athlete is up against it. The howling winds and driving rain, which batter the Westmeath venue, make it a day for the strong man.
The glutinous, underfoot terrain is the domain of the mud larks, not a miler.
Yet it’s McKillop, an 800m/1500m specialist, who opens up a gap over the 6000m circuit in the junior men’s trial. Victory is there for the taking and with a mile left to run the then 19-year-old knows it.
He digs into his reserves and the gap stretches further. By the finish line McKillop has 11 seconds to spare on his nearest rival Liam Tremble of Dublin.
The St Malachy’s man is crowned the Irish Junior Cross-Country champion.
That was a special day in the career of Michael McKillop but then the North Belfast man is a special kind of athlete - in more ways than one.
To casual observers of local athletics, he flows around the track, road and country like his rivals and contemporaries.
But that fluid style disguises the fact that Michael was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a toddler. He also suffers from epilepsy.
“I think people look at me and just see me as another runner, they don’t see the other side of it. I think because I was part of the London Calling programme (a fly-on-the-wall documentary series on RTÉ, which followed Irish athletes in the build up to the London Olympics and Paralympics) it has changed people’s views on things,” admitted the former St Malachy’s College pupil.
“It made people realise that there is something different about me.”
Nevertheless, the St Malachy’s AC star has refused to allow the disability to eliminate him from the fast lane.
Like he proved in Kilbeggan almost three years ago, he can compete with the finest able bodied athletes in the country.
In early June, McKillop negotiated a tough heat at the Northern Ireland Senior Track and Field Championships to cement his place in the 800m decider.
A month later the middle distance ace qualified for the Irish Senior Championship 1500m final with a 3:55.36 clocking where he lined up against the likes of John Coghlan, the son of former world 5000m champion Eamonn, Colin Costello and Darren McBrearty.
“Making the final of the Irish seniors was a goal I wanted to achieve. I was never going to be in the mix so just making the final was an accomplishment,” said a modest McKillop.
While, on the surface, Michael gives as good as he gets in able-bodied competition he is at a distinct disadvantage.
Cerebral Palsy means his muscle movement and strength are severely weakened on his right side.
Even simple things in life can be challenging ordeals.
“Basically CP (Cerebral Palsy) affects me in terms of my motor skills with my right hand and my right leg,” added Michael.
“Doing buttons on a shirt I’m not able to do that. Things like stirring tea with my right hand I wouldn’t be able to do that, opening a bottle with my right hand or putting my car key in the ignition. I put the key in with my left hand then step into the car rather than trying to fiddle around with my right hand.
“I’ve adapted to it and got used to it over the years. It’s what I do now. I don’t have to think about it.”
Due to his disability, Michael competes in the T37 class at the Paralympic Games.
If he is up there amongst the best able-bodied athletes in Ireland, then it is fair to say that he is in a different class at world level amongst T37 competition.
He is the T37 800m and 1500 world record holder. He is also the defending 800m Paralympic champion from Beijing where he showcased his talent as an 18-year-old.
That victory, in the Bird’s Nest Stadium, is still fresh in McKillop’s mind.
“Every time I remember Beijing, see photos from it or people talk about it I’m brought back to one of the most special days of my life,” said the golf enthusiast.
“It was a dream. Winning a Paralympic medal is the pinnacle of anyone’s career.
“Coming across the line I can still remember exactly what happened, what I did. It’s one of those things that is imprinted in my head.”
The down to earth 22-year-old is eager to create new memories, and London will be the place to do it.
The 1500m was added to the Paralympic Games after the IPC World Championships in 2011, meaning McKillop has a very realistic opportunity to land double gold.
The longer middle distance race is his favourite. It’s where he feels most comfortable.
But at the Paralympics the 800m comes first. The two-lap final takes place on Saturday 1 September while the 1500m final is on September 3.
It’s a challenging time-table made even more difficult by the mountain of pressure heaped on McKillop’s slender shoulders.
“I see myself as a 1500m runner. Then there is also the pressure of trying to retain my 800m title from Beijing. Now I just have to concentrate on the 800m and if I win it then I can go into the 1500m and enjoy myself,” he added.
“A lot of CP athletes wouldn’t be physically that strong so a three-day turn around will be difficult. People will struggle doing a final and then another one days after. It will be of benefit to me because I’ve done championship racing which is back-to-back races. I was able to run 1.58 twice at the NI seniors within three hours of each other.
“I was able to run 3.55 at the Irish seniors in the heats and then compete in a tactical final the next day.
“I know I can do it so I’ve even more confidence going into it.”
That confidence comes from high mileage, brutal track sessions and endless hours of gym work.
In order to make the right side of his body stronger and more efficient, McKillop, with the help of SINI (Sports Institute of Northern Ireland), has implemented a strict strength and conditioning programme to his regime.
The rewards have been seismic.
“When I competed in Beijing I was a boy and wasn’t really doing any of the strength work compared to what I do now,” was Michael’s honest assessment.
“In the past year and a half I have developed so much in the gym.
“I started at SINI at the age of 16 and I couldn’t do a pull up, I couldn’t do any of the weight-based exercises. I wasn’t strong enough and I wasn’t technically strong enough to do the gym work.
“Now I’m 22 and I’m completely different. I can see that development on the track.
“I have improved over two seconds over 1500m in the past year and a half.”
Over three and three quarter laps that seemingly small margin is substantial.
While the gym sessions certainly account for McKillop’s progress, the coaching of his father Paddy, and the support of the rest of his family, must not be underestimated.
The McKillops are immersed in athletics. Paddy, who is a former International Cross-Country participant, continues to inspire the next generation of athletes to progress through the ranks at St Malachy’s College.
Mum Catherine is also a former Irish 1500m U17 champion as well as finishing fourth in the first ever Belfast City Marathon.
It’s fair to say Michael’s prowess is in the genes.
In Beijing only Paddy was able to make the trip. For London the whole McKillop clan have tickets. Over 30 kids and teachers from St Malachy’s will also be there to roar on the College’s famous alumus.
With Michael’s younger sister Ciara turning 16 on the day of the 1500m final, big brother is hoping to make it a birthday to remember.
“London will be a real family affair compared to Beijing. My dad was the only one there. London is going to be a different dream. Winning in front of my mum would be a big thing for me,” said Michael.
“It will be more of a party atmosphere and it’s going to be enjoyable to see so many faces. It will be brilliant and an experience I’ll never forget.
“I have a younger sister who will be 16 on September 3. So it will be a special night for the family and it would be a nice birthday present for her if I win.”
Michael already knows what it is like to win at the London Olympic stadium.
In May, during the London Disability Athletics challenge meeting, he romped to victory in the 1500m in a new T37 world record of 3:59.54.
The difference with the forthcoming Paralympic Games is that the eyes of 80,000 spectators will be watching this time around.
But McKillop knows if he ‘executes’ the right race he will prevail.
He has the arsenal to win whatever way the race pans out. If it is hard from the gun he has the endurance. If it is slow and tactical he has the kick for the last lap to leave his rivals trailing in his wake.
“In Beijing I was 18 years of age and I was young and cocky, believing I was the best,” said the 22-year-old.
“I think going into it now I give my competitors a little bit more respect. They are very talented. Yes I can run quicker than their personal bests but I give them so much respect.
“I’ll be pushed to win it and people don’t realise that. Going into championship races it is not about fast times. It’s about winning medals and the races could be slow and tactical or it could be quick.
“As defending champion there is a lot more extra pressure and I realise that.
“In a way I have to calm myself down. I know myself that I can do it.
“The nerves and the pressure that I will be put under could change that. I just have to make myself as comfortable as possible and make myself as relaxed as possible.”
McKillop and the rest of the Irish Paralympic team fine-tuned their preparations at a holding camp in Portugal from August 16.
They then arrived at the athletes’ village on August 25.
It is this down time, as the tension builds, that McKillop admits can be quite difficult.
“Going into the village there is so much free food, and drink, you’re beside the stadium and there are things to do but it is ridiculously boring,” he added.
“It’s hard to kill time and you end up thinking a lot about the race coming up. Some people like to be alone before a race but I like to be around people. I like to have a laugh and have a joke.”
McKillop may be a joker off the track but once the spikes are on and laced up he is ready for business – the business of winning gold medals.