Echo Sport Replay: Malone surmounting life’s huge challenges to become one of Ireland’s greatest Paralympians
By Stephen Leonard
DAVID Malone is not one to shy away from adversity. Having undergone two leg amputations as a boy, the young Ballinteer lad never stopped in his drive to keep pace with his friends and stay involved.
That same tenacity helped steer him towards swimming and a career in the sport that would see him become one of the greatest Paralympic athletes this country has ever produced.
Malone won 11 major international medals for Ireland across a 16-year-long career
Indeed the Terenure club man contested no less than four consecutive Paralympic Games between 1996 and 2008, winning silver in Atlanta ’96 and Athens 2004 with his crowning moment coming in between when he captured gold in Sydney.
The former World and European champion, who set global records in the S8 100m and 200m Backstroke, has been helping guide the next generation of Irish Paralympic swimmers to international success and was inducted into both the Paralympic Ireland and Swim Ireland Hall of Fame.
Recalling his early days and his route into swimming, Malone told The Echo “I was born with a condition called arthrogryposis which is a rare bone defect. It would affect your limbs, so in my case it was your ankles and your feet.
“I lost my right leg when I was about seven and the left leg about 18 months after.
“I think, all and all, the decision that was made was correct because you knew no different as you grew up.
“I would have been out doing the normal stuff with the lads, kicking a football, playing tennis, whatever it was. I was just being a pretty active kid, so when these things came it was a nuisance to a point because you had to temporarily stop doing everything.
“But it was also a driver to get back out and about, get active and involved again.
“When I was younger, my mam and dad took me out to the IWA, the Irish Wheelchair Association, and they used to run all different types of events and I would have been involved in athletics field events, things like javelin, discus, shot putt.
“I took part in them, but I didn’t necessarily have a passion for it. I was just kind of trying things out.
“The father of one of my pals was a casual swimmer. His name was Tony Dunne and he encouraged me to come down to the pool, just to learn to swim.
“So I learned to swim, not in a traditional manner, because I never went to swimming lessons. But I learned to swim through just fooling around in the water and getting some instruction off him.
“He then tragically passed away with a brain haemorrhage and his wish was that me and my friend would have gone to join the local swimming club, so we said, ‘right, just let’s join the club’. There was no kind of destiny involved in it.
“Thankfully Dundrum Swimming Club, at the time, took a gamble because they weren’t sure how they could support me, because there were no swimmers with an impairment in the club. But they took me in and they were fantastic.
“When I started I didn’t really enjoy it. For me, it was different, because you were arriving at pool side and you were taking the limbs off at the side of the pool and getting in and you’re quite exposed and I didn’t enjoy that in the initial phase until I became comfortable with it.
“And then that passion for the sport developed quite quickly as I got more involved and went to more sessions and started to train more. I just never looked back.
“I would have been competing mostly against able-bodied swimmers of similar age. You felt you had to work harder than everybody else and that was a driver to stay involved. That’s where the real competitive spirit really developed.
“The IWA used to host a National Championships every year in swimming and I entered those competitions and met a Paralympic swimmer at the time, Gerry Dunne who encouraged me to train more and start working towards the Paralympic Games.
“I went to a Youth Games that were held in Glasgow and the following year in 1994 was the first ever World Para Swimming Championships which were held in Malta and that was the first ever major championships that I attended.
“It was kind of overwhelming in ways because when you arrived [at these championships] and you saw what all the other countries had, the set-up, the tracksuits, big professional outfits, you kind of felt we’re a little fish in a very very big pond.
“But it was either fight or flight and my objective was that I’m going to fight for this, I was going to do my best. I just got in and I swam a phenomenal race and I was a nobody. So even to make a final it was like ‘who’s this guy?’
“I won a bronze at the Worlds in ’94 in the S9 100m Backstroke and in ’95 I won a silver in the European Championships in France in the same division.
“That really elevated my career in that I started to really compete at a global level. I would say that I really got there through good support at the club and I was tenacious about my training.
“I knew from competing against athletes from America, Great Britain, Australia, right across the world, just what was going to be required to take the next step up.
“That coincided with a move that I made to Terenure Swimming team [in 1996] where I stayed for the rest of my career and that was a big step-up in terms of access to training.
“That’s where I came under the tutelage of double Olympian himself, Kevin Williamson who would have coached Gerry Dunne
“I was always surrounded by the best people I could have at that stage in my career and that was one of the blessings I had.”
David Malone competed in no less than four successive Paralympic Games for Ireland and reached the podium in three of those
1996 saw Malone line out in what would be the first of four straight Paralympic Games when he travelled to Atlanta, an experience he absolutely relished.
“For me, this was the Mecca. That was my first time in the US and I loved it, I loved every minute of it.
“We had a holding camp in the University in North Florida for ten days, two weeks and we had a ball training in Florida.
“Then going up to the Georgia Tech University in Atlanta for the Games, it was kind of a strange one because the Atlanta Paralympic Games was a really poorly organised Games, but for me, I loved it.
“The transport was appalling at the [Atlanta] Games and there was a host of issues, but where I was fortunate was, was that the swimming pool was actually on site, so the swimming centre was part of the Georgia Tech University.
“We could walk from our apartment to the swimming pool in five minutes at the other side of the campus so we didn’t experience a lot of the issues around transport and all of that type of stuff that was going on.
“For us, we just had a brilliant Games, the pool was fantastic and I was fitter than ever and I was swimming better than ever.
“I didn’t think I was going to win a gold medal, that wasn’t the objective. It was to go and be the best you can be and I got a silver medal. I was beaten by .7 of a second, literally a touch.
And what set it for me was I had a great conversation by chance with a legendary Paralympic swimmer from Australia, Brendan Burkett, who happens now to be the team manager of the Para Australian team for Tokyo.
“When we were waiting for the bus to go home from the Games, Brendan happened to be walking past and he came over and he was really complimentary of my performance and, of course, we knew Sydney was the next Games.
“He said ‘you just knuckle down now and work as hard as you can. You’re going to come back in four year’s time and win a gold medal.’
“And that just stuck with me. I remember getting on the plane and obviously I was delighted with the medal, but I had a real hunger to say ‘let me at this now!’
“I won gold medals in my events for the next four years. I was never beaten at the major championships in ’97, ’98, ’99 and 2000.
“The year after, in ’97, I won the gold in the European Championships in S9 and then I did get changed in class to S8 for the World Championships in ’98 which was in Christchurch in New Zealand.
“I won a gold medal there, I won a gold medal the following year in the European Championships and then Sydney  I suppose was the crowning moment.
“And along the way, I broke the world record for the 100 and 200 Backstroke and they stood for 10 and 11 years respectively after that.
“And interestingly enough, I’m the Performance Director now for Paralympics Ireland and the World Championships for swimming were on in London last year and my best time would have finished second in last year’s World Championships. It’s interesting.
“In some respects we were ahead of our time. You were around the right people and were committed. You were prepared to do what was required.
“I prepared as best I could and a lot of things we find as common today in High Performance programmes, we were investing in that in our own education back then.
“We utilised a huge amount of that from 1996 to 2000 with the National Coaching and Training Centre. I had a fantastic physiology team, Giles Warrington and Caroline McManus and these guys were really at the cutting edge in sports science and still are.
“Anything they had to offer I engaged with it and took it all. We had all of that science support in Sydney 2000.
“Sydney probably set the modern era of Paralympic sport on the map. It was an incredible Games, opening ceremony and over a 100,000 people in the stadium. It was just spine-tingling stuff.
“You had 17 thousand people in the aquatic centre every day. It was just outstanding. Walking out on deck the day I was competing and there was just that wall of noise.
“But it was a strange one as well because I was supremely confident going into the Games, but then I started to have that nagging doubt, ‘did I do enough in training?’ For the first time I started to get a little bit nervous rather than excited.
“When I got to Sydney the expectation changed ever so slightly, because you had won the World Championships, you held the World record. So it was a different stimulus to Atlanta. In Atlanta you were chasing, in Sydney you were the chased.
“On the actual day, in what was unique to sport in general, we tied for the gold medal, myself and Holger Kimmig from Germany, which I suppose is history in itself.
“Funnily enough it was my slowest time over the four years leading into it, and for me, that was the first time I had to deal with personal expectation.
“I suppose I learned a lot about myself in that time, but it was certainly a nervous experience for me. I was delighted with the result, but it was probably the first time that I didn’t enjoy a swim.
“When I came out on the other side of Sydney, it was a whole different experience and I found it difficult to manage that.
“Coming out of Atlanta it was like ‘ok I’m hungry’, but coming out of Sydney I was relieved.
“Then I blew off a lot of steam after that and I took some time out of training because I had achieved all the goals I had set. I had won the Europeans, I won the World Championships, I won the Paralympic Games, I held World records.
“So when I came back from Sydney I just didn’t have the same drive or hunger. I don’t think I was prepared for the next chapter.
“I still competed and I went on and won silver in the European Championships 2001 and, in 2002, I won bronze at the World Championships and then I came back in Athens in 2004 and won a silver medal which I was thrilled with.
“When I look back, that was probably one of the best medals I ever won, because I had to re-invent myself, re-invent my goals and my process and what was important to me and I struggled with that.
David Malone after winning silver in the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, a medal he regarded as probably the best in his career
“I can now definitely retrospectively look back and say I was experiencing the post-Games blues after Sydney. Things will never be the same again maybe. To be on a high, the absolute euphoria of it, it’s very difficult to come back down off that.
“Going into Athens, it was a bit like Atlanta. I knew I wasn’t the World Number One at that stage, but I knew I had prepared very well.
“I was ranked, I think, fourth in the world and I thought I could challenge for a medal. I certainly didn’t feel the same crushing level of expectation as Sydney so I enjoyed it.
“So when I won the silver medal having come through the post Games blues and was back enjoying the sport, I felt that was one of the best medals I had ever won.
“The Beijing cycle wasn’t an enjoyable cycle at all, because you were kind of defined as the swimmer and you needed to freshen it up. I probably needed more stimulus around me because I was getting older.
“I went to Beijing and I knew I wasn’t going to compete for a medal. I knew that time had passed me by, but I said to myself ‘I’m going to go out on my own terms here.’
“I was going to go to the Games with a nice young team developing underneath myself, in that, their time was coming and I was going to be the spearhead in kickstarting that at the same time as retiring.
“I finished tenth in Beijing and my goal was to finish in the top ten so I achieved that. I got to go out of the Games on my own terms and be very happy with it.
“I had a career in which I won 11 major medals for Ireland over a 16-year long career. I had a hugely successful career and so I looked at the highs and what I had learnt from it to close that chapter and move on.
“It was never my intention to spearhead the next group in a different capacity. I had no idea what I was going to do.
“I got involved with the Institute of Sport and they had an athlete transition programme that had commenced earlier that year.
“I wasn’t interested initially so I didn’t engage with it, but I met another Paralympic athlete who had retired also in Beijing and she said she found the programme very useful so I met the man who headed up the programme Daragh Sheridan and we chatted for two hours.
“That spring-boarded me to the Athlete Transition which I was fast-tracked into because they felt I had already processed a lot of things in my mind and I was ready to engage in a programme to support athletes to take the next step into retirement from sport.
“A job availability came up as the Head of Paralympic Swimming which was the first full-time role supporting a sport in Paralympics and I was the candidate selected to take the job.
“That started my involvement with sport at a professional level and I headed up the Paralympic Swim team from 2009 to 2014 when I switched roles within the organisation to become Paralympic Perfomance Director with a wider remit across multiple sports, supporting the Irish Paralympic team to 11 medals in Rio 2016.
“We created what we have today as the Paralympic Performance Team and we were fortunate to support many athletes to come through who stood on podiums for Ireland.
“The Paralympic Swim Team, since 2009, has won in excess of 30 medals at major championships so I’m fortunate, I suppose, to have been the right candidate at the right time to be able to support many athletes to fulfil the same goals and dreams that I once had as an athlete.”