As one of Ireland’s great Olympic hopefuls next year in Paris, Sligo’s Mona McSharry knows that the stakes are high as she looks ahead to what could be her last Olympic Games. But coming back to Sligo and immersing herself in the countryside is just what our star swimmer needs before the final chase for Olympic glory begins.
Mona is already at the meeting point, the car park at Benbulben Forest Walk at Gortarowey. No surprise there, 15 minutes ahead of time and with Luna, her rescue dog in tow. As someone who grew up with the discipline of a two hour swim before school, her schedule has always been front and centre. Times, strokes, statistics all scrutinised in detail, looking to gain the hundredths of a second here and there, always looking for an upward curve. So, brimming with energy and with a willing smile, off she sets to describe her love of the outdoors in Sligo.
As we take the first long stretch slightly uphill towards Benbulben, Mona gives a broad outline of where things stand at present. She has just returned from Fukuoka, Japan, where her time in the final of the World Aquatic Championships has qualified her for next year’s Olympics. Now home for a few weeks, she will shortly head back to the University of Tennessee, where she has been based for the past three years, for her final College season and the long build up to Paris.
“I would say that the programme (to reach another Olympic Final) has been the last three years,” she says. “Really this year is about consistently trying to fine tune and practice and make sure that on race day I know exactly what I want to do and be able to perform that on the day. So I try and look at it that way and not put too much pressure on myself. It probably will be my last Olympics, so I’m hoping to go out with a bang.”
Having reached the 100m breaststroke final in her first Olympics in Tokyo as a 20 year old, Mona confounded all expectations, describing the experience as “I’m going to go out and have fun here, and that’s exactly what I did.” But now the stakes are higher, her opponents much more wary of her and her own goals and expectations are also rising.
“You just keep kind of building, and of course there’s always going to be pressure to do better than I’ve done before. I think that’s where I set myself – look, you were eighth, try and be better than eighth, and then just build it up, because I’ve never medalled before, so if that happens, that’s amazing.”
Today as we stroll around Gortarowey, Mona can tune out from her hectic swim schedule. As the path levels out, revealing those amazing views of the flanks of Benbulben to our right, we take a short break to sit at the Yeats Trail installation and to take in those views, as Mona begins to describe her lifetime of enjoying the Sligo countryside.
Having grown up within a stone’s throw of the lagoon on the back strand at Streedagh, she was always drawn to the water, but the walks of Sligo have always been important family activities as they developed a love for keeping fit and enjoying nature.
“We would have headed up around the (Gleniff) Horseshoe, it was pretty popular for us. We walked a lot of beaches, walked around Mullaghmore Head and even just headed up Benbulben. Those were all our favourites, anywhere we could just get outside and be active, really.”
Attending primary school in Carns NS, she first began to swim at Mullaghmore, and having joined the Marlins Swimming Club in Ballyshannon, it was a natural draw for her to have her secondary education nearby at Coláiste Cholmchille, where the teachers supported her interest in swimming from the start.
“Typical day when I was in secondary school would have been waking up early, down to Ballyshannon swimming pool, get a session in there in the morning, walk up, do some school. I only did six subjects for my Leaving Cert, so I had some free class periods, where I could either get a catch up on homework or head down to the pool again and do another swim session. And then after school, I’d either go to the pool or the gym and then head home.”
It’s that level of dedication throughout her school years that got her College offers from the United States, places that look to develop young athletes through their scholarship programmes. Together with her family, Mona whittled the offers down to around ten. This level of interest shows just how impressive her teenage form was, emphasised by winning gold at the World Junior Championships in 2017.
“I kind of knew from pretty early on that America was where I wanted to go if I could on a scholarship because the opportunities there are just better, there’s more competition, the infrastructure around being a College athlete and getting to train and compete is a lot easier than what you would get in Ireland.”
But not everything is results focussed, and the coaches at the University of Tennessee have also given her an opportunity to rekindle her love for racing non-competitively, swimming for the sheer fun of it. And to Mona, this balance is crucial for anyone involved in sport, no matter what their level is. And as for the mental health benefits of sports, she is an advocate for participation above anything else.
“The most important thing is finding something you enjoy. If you find a sport that you are really passionate about, you don’t have to be an Olympian in it to enjoy it, and it doesn’t always have to be hard work. Or even if it’s a sport that you do because your friends are doing it, because you love spending time with them, that’s great as well. So looking for something that you enjoy, that’s the most important thing about sport.”
From the very beginning, her family have been the cornerstone of her development as an athlete. Together with her parents Viola and Aidan and brother Mouric, they won the reality fitness show Ireland’s Fittest Family, and their support and that of her sister Luca has been fundamental in her progression as a swimmer.
“They are a great support system for me, because we are so close and they do believe in my dreams and that was really important when I was younger. My Mum is probably the one that has been there through my whole journey with me more so than any coach has. I’m on the phone to her if I have a hard day or there’s something I need to talk to her about, because she just gets it and that’s really great to have.”
Walking away from Benbulben and towards the sea, we look out over the Atlantic, where we can see as far as Mullaghmore, where Mona’s learned to swim, and Streedagh, where she mixed it up with paddle boarding and surfing. And as we head for home, Mona talks about her ambitions for next year.
Once before she has stood on the podium with a gold medal draped around her neck and Amhrán na bhFiannplaying, having taken on and beaten the best swimmers. That was at the World Junior Championships six years ago.
“It’s not often that we see the Ireland flag going up for medal ceremonies,” she says of that win. “To be able to be standing on the podium while that’s happening, it’s a really nice experience. You’ve got your team in the stands waving Ireland flags. It’s an awesome experience really. I wish I could bottle it up and have it for later. But it’s funny because as I’m standing up there and thinking ‘What’s next, what’s next’?”
As she enters the peak of her swim career, the stakes are immeasurably higher. She knows that to medal in Paris at next year’s Olympics, she will have to beat some of the best swimmers out there. And based on her career path so far, she is confident that she can deliver her best ever performances to reach the pinnacle of her sport on the greatest stage of all.
Interviewed by Micheál Ó Domhnaill of Omedia.ie.