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swim queen Mona McSharry reacts after finishing 8th in 100m breaststroke final

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Mona McSharry of Ireland before the women's 100 metre breaststroke final at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre during the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. Photo by Ian MacNicol/Sportsfile

Mona McSharry of Ireland before the women's 100 metre breaststroke final at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre during the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. Photo by Ian MacNicol/Sportsfile

Mona McSharry of Ireland before the women's 100 metre breaststroke final at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre during the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. Photo by Ian MacNicol/Sportsfile

Never had eighth place felt like such a victory, the 1:06.94 Mona McSharry clocked in this morning’s Olympic 100m breaststroke final almost immaterial when pitched against the achievement of being there, mixing it with the world’s best, at the age of 20.

This wasn’t the Sligo swimmer’s fastest time, nor her best performance, but having made such a splash at her first Games there is simply no way to reflect on her past few days as anything but a huge success. This was McSharry’s arrival on sport’s grandest stage and, given her trajectory, it will likely be some time before she departs it.

“It definitely felt like a good race,” she said afterwards, beaming a wide smile. “Anything sub 1:07 is good in my mind. The worst that could happen was that I could finish eighth at the Olympics and honestly, that’s not a bad result.”

McSharry’s journey to an Olympic final had been 15 years in the making. Her parents first enrolled her in swim lessons when she was five, following a fall into a lake while on holidays in Austria, where she was rescued by her father. Today’s milestone was just reward not just for her own graft in the years since, but for that of her parents, her family, and long-time coach Grace Meade, who spent so many early mornings guiding her career at Marlins Swim Club in Ballyshannon, Co Donegal.

It was reward, too, for those in her hometown of Grange, Co Sligo, where an Olympic flag has flown alongside a tricolour at the local church over the past week – its proudest daughter putting the place firmly on the map. Even cloistered away in the Olympic village here in Tokyo, handing control of her social media accounts over to others to avoid distraction, McSharry couldn’t block out the tidal wave of goodwill that was building back home.

“You have people who I kind of forgot I ever had a relationship with or met them and they’re texting me and wishing me good luck,” she said. “To see all the people staying awake at three o’clock to watch me race shows there is that support behind me. I just want to say thank you to all of them. It really does mean the world to me.”

At a little past 11am local time, McSharry was the first of eight swimmers introduced for the final, breaking into a delighted smile as she walked into the arena, hearing the screams of support from her teammates in the stands.

After shedding her tracksuit, she hopped around behind her blocks, then knelt over the pool, violently splashing her body with water – a trick she has long used to get the adrenaline flowing. Then she stood again, slapping her thighs, her shoulders, before standing calm, placid, ahead of the biggest moment of her career.

“Here it is,” the announcer said. “The Olympic final.”

She swam a strong first 50, touching the wall in eighth but still firmly in touch after a 31.68-second split. Her momentum faded over the last 25, McSharry unable to hold pace with the best in the world, with the remarkable 17-year-old American Lydia Jacoby taking gold in 1:04.95.

McSharry was almost two seconds behind, but the relatively modest time – by her standards – could not take the shine off a momentous occasion.

Because the net result of what she achieved this week is that McSharry has made the world sit up and take notice, even if those in swimming – both at home and abroad – had long singled her out as a future star. She was the World Junior champion in 2017, and in her freshman season at the University of Tennessee – where she’s coached by Matt Kredich and Ashley Jahn – she won a bronze medal at this year’s NCAA Championships.

Achievements of that stature don’t go unnoticed, but all the same swimming as a spectator sport often only breaks through to the mainstream on a quadrennial basis. As such, McSharry will be a new face to many this week, who have now all been given a reason to watch, a reason to care.

The work it took to get here may be a prerequisite for all who lined up alongside her, but it’s worth noting just how much of the typical teenage life had to be sacrificed on the altar of peak performance. Through her years at Coláiste Cholmcille, McSharry’s alarm would sound before 5am every morning, her parents driving her on the half-hour trip to Ballyshannon, where she’d train for a few hours before rocking up to class. In the late afternoons the routine was the same – McSharry heading to the pool while most of her classmates went socialising around town.

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“All the early mornings, early nights, maybe not going out as much as my friends did in school, it was all worth it,” she said. “I get to train in America, go to college, I made friends all over the world, I get to compete at the Olympics, something only a handful of people in the world get to experience. It definitely is worth it.”

The price of swimming at the level she has reached is considerable, the financial rewards minimal, but fame or fortune was never what fuelled her desire – only a love for the fundamental act of splicing through the water at great speed and doing justice to those considerable gifts.

It had been 25 years since an Irish swimmer lined up in an Olympic final. Only one had ever done so, Michelle Smith, and we all know what happened next in that story.

Whatever happens next for McSharry, even if she were to burn out or fade away, both she and all those who played a part in this journey should look back with everlasting pride. The girl from Sligo was right up there, holding her own in a lane alongside the best of the best – champion athletes churned out by the superpowers of the sport.

A star is born for Irish swimming, the future looking every bit as bright as McSharry was brilliant.

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