Mona McSharry: It’s Not All About Rainbows And Sunshine On The Day Irish Olympic Trials Were Due To Start

mona mcsharry
Mona McSharry: Photo Courtesy: Swim Ireland

The McCullagh International concluded in Bangor, Northern Ireland, little more than five weeks ago but in reality a lifetime has elapsed since then with the world thrown into chaos with the march of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The four-day event at the Bangor Aurora Aquatic and Leisure Complex was attended by many of the Great Britain squad including Adam Peaty, Duncan Scott, Luke Greenbank and Siobhan O’Connor, the quartet boasting Olympic and world medals aplenty.

So too was there a strong Swim Ireland presence including 2017 world and European junior 100m breaststroke champion Mona McSharry, Shane Ryan – with 50m backstroke bronze medals over European long and short-course – Darragh Greene, who missed out on the 100m breaststroke semis at last year’s World Championships by 0.07secs, and triple national record holder Brendan Hyland.

One of the appeals of the meet was the schedule whereby finals were held in the morning to mirror the timeline in Tokyo and it gave the athletes a rare opportunity to practise swimming fast early in the day.

Talk there was of the Olympic trials – for some their first, for others their last – but for everyone the knowledge that one race – one twitch, one slip – could make or break any aspirations and dreams for Tokyo.

2 May 2015; Mona McSharry, Marlin, competes in the final of the women's 100m breaststroke event during the 2015 Irish Open Swimming Championships at the National Aquatic Centre, Abbotstown, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Photo Courtesy: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

McSharry had enjoyed a fine meet with six medals and she joined Swimming World poolside to look ahead to the Olympic trials and beyond.

Little did we know what was coming.

Instead of Olympic trials, there is lockdown and rather than Tokyo 2020, there is Tokyo 2021.

The Swim Ireland Olympic trials were due to begin today – Tuesday 1 April – and elements of the interview with McSharry are now poignant and more pertinent than she could ever have imagined.

Take this.

“We do have loads of young talent coming through, it is just amazing. And you really do have to just let them know there are going to be tough times and you need to show them that.

“It’s not all rainbows and sunshine.

“They need to know the tougher bits as well and I think that is our jobs as well as role models – to let them know and to be there on their down days.”

The Transition From Junior Waters And The First Taste Of Senior Success

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Photo Courtesy: Swim Ireland

McSharry may be only 19 but she has been on the Ireland team for five years and enjoyed great success as a junior.

Gold in the 50 and 100m breaststroke at the European Junior Championships in June 2017 was followed by another title in the longer race and bronze in the one-length sprint at the world juniors in August that year.

McSharry’s time of 1:07.10 at worlds in Indianapolis, United States, was an Irish senior record that still stands today.

Then came the introduction to senior competition and the harsh reality of standing up against the world’s top swimmers after you had become accustomed to being at the head of the race.

It was tough for McSharry who told Swimming World:

“It’s crazy. It was quite a bumpy ride for me. I think I was fed the information it would be an easy ride to qualify for the Olympics. You know, you’re on top now but it’s such a different world coming from juniors to seniors, there is so much more talent and so many more athletes in seniors. You are not just going to jump from top of juniors to top of seniors and I did struggle with that for a while.

“And then I got sick this time last year (late February) so I wasn’t even training and I guess that was another bump in the road.

“But I am just slowly building now and it was nice to get the first senior medal then to show that I am going in the right direction. It takes time but you’ve just got to hang in there.”

That first medal came at the European Short-Course Championships in Glasgow in December 2019 where she took bronze in the 50m breaststroke in a national record of 29.87secs, an invaluable signpost on her swimming journey.

She said:

“It’s a huge confirmation (that you are heading in the right direction). Even the fact that you are good enough to be up there with the top athletes in the top three.

“Yes, you do have the ability to qualify for the Olympics: you do have the ability to be up there with the best. So I guess it is that confirmation for me and that is what I am trying to keep telling myself coming into the trials………”

Growing up in Grange, County Sligo, in north-western Ireland, McSharry and brother Mauric – two years her junior – would be in and out of the sea.

She credits her parents Aidan, a keen kickboxer, and mother Viola, who played handball and volleyball, for instilling a keen sense of competition in her.

“I think that fed into it and swimming was my outlet for my competitiveness. I am just so competitive: in all aspects of life to be honest.

“I think that is why enjoy swimming so much – even training and stuff – and me and my brother started swimming when we were quite young and we lived beside the sea and we were always in there. I think it was just something I enjoyed from a very young age.

“I would have been in and out of the sea before I could swim so I guess that is where the love of the water came from and then I learned how to swim.”

Mona McSharry Tennessee

Photo Courtesy: Mona McSharry

McSharry joined the Marlins club in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, when she was 17 where she still trains under coach Grace Meade.

The teenager is leading by example as a younger generation follow in her slipstream, McSharry now the inspiration.

She said:

“I have had a couple of people come up to me and say that which is lovely to hear obviously because that’s great. It’s nice to know that younger kids are aspiring and looking up to me and I am glad that I can be a role model in that sense.

“I think it’s great: we do have loads of young talent coming through, it is just amazing.

“And you really do have to just let them know there are going to be tough times and you need to show them that.

“It’s not all rainbows and sunshine. They need to know the tougher bits as well and I think that is our job as well as role models – to let them know and to be there on their down days.

“It’s kind of weird to say but I am one of the older female athletes on the team now and its strange because I don’t feel that old.

“But travelling at Europeans we had a couple of younger ones and it was nice to be on the relay with them and to get to chat to them and that was kind of nice to get a new relationship with the younger swimmers.”

Now she has to deal with something unprecedented in the modern era and certainly one of “the tougher bits”.

At that point McSharry looked to the Olympic trials where she planned to race the 100 and 200m breaststroke and 100 freestyle.

She talked of the expectation going into her second trials and how crazy it is that “it all comes down to that one race on that one day and you really have to go for it.”

Not that that changes but it is now delayed. Tokyo 2020 becomes Tokyo 2021. Sights are reset and new plans are made.

But the abiding memory of that day was sitting with the teenager on poolside, weeks away from “that one race on that one day” that would define her year. The confidence drawn from her first senior medal and channeling the success of her short-course season into long-course waters.

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