AS MONA McSharry stood on the diving board at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre on Tuesday morning, she could have been anywhere.
McSharry took a deep breath as she readied for the jump into lane eight.
The eyes of the world were on the 100m breaststroke final at the Olympic Games. McSharry has taught herself to almost remove herself from the arena.
Instead, she stays in that place the elite refer to as ‘the zone’.
Sculpted at the Marlin’s Swimming Club in Ballyshannon, McSharry exceeded her own expectations in reaching the final.
There, she finished eighth in 1:06.94. USA’s Lydia Jacoby won gold (1:04.95) with Tatjana Schoenmaker from South Africa claiming silver in 1:05.22.
“It is unbelievable but at the end of the day, it is just another 50m pool and it’s just another race,” McSharry, who goes in the 200m heats on Wednesday morning, said.
“You’re just competing against some fast swimmers and that’s why we do it.”
“It’s kind of weird because when I’m in my competition zone, it’s kind of like any other race. I have a set routine, I’m a creature of habit and I do the same routine, whether I’m racing at a small meet back home in Ireland or the world stage or the Olympics.
“So, when you get into the mindset of racing, it really just feels like any other competition. It’s only afterwards when I talk to my family and friends and hear all the supportive messages back home that I realise that I’m actually at the Olympics and I’m racing in an Olympic final.”
McSharry came through her heat in 1:06.39 and a magnificent performance in the semi-final saw her edge into the final, her 1:06.59 enough to get the eighth spot by 0.1 of a second.
McSharry wasn’t born when Michelle Smith won three golds (400m freestyle, 200m individual medley and 400m individual medley) and a bronze (200m butterfly) at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Those medals, although still attached to Smith, are tainted by a tampered urine sample in the following years.
McSharry’s journey remains in its infancy with the 20-year-old setting down a real foundation for the next Olympic cycle to take her into Paris 2024. She was only Ireland’s second ever Olympic swimming finalist after Smith.
“It was an amazing race,” she said of her final.
“I wish I could have brought a little bit more, but at the end of the day, I put in a good fight and I’m happy with how I did.
“I’m happy to come away from my first Olympics with an eighth place, it’s really not that bad. I’ll take it!
“In the race it was kind of hard to tell. I was kind of just trying to go for it. It definitely felt like a good race and anything sub 1:07 is a good race in my mind so I’m happy with the race. Of course it wasn’t a PB and it was the slowest of the three rounds but that comes as well from there being a sense of relief making it to the final.
“Making a final was my target for 2024, so we’re going to have to sit down and make some new targets! It’s amazing.
McSharry’s possibilities were nurtured and her dreams carved while swimming in the 25m pool at Ballyshannon Leisure Centre.
The early morning alarm calls became a part of who – and what – she was: A swimmer.
Some are defined by their chosen career. From an early age, Mona McSharry was the swimmer.
Her training regime would’ve watered the eyes of most classmates at Colaiste Cholmcille in Ballyshannon, but on she swam – and on she won.
The last few days have felt like vindication for the 4.30am alarm bells.
“All the early mornings, early nights, maybe not going out as much as my friends did in school, it was all worth it.
“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.”
At the 2017 European Junior Championships, McSharry won 50m breaststroke and 100m breaststroke gold medals.
The same year, at the World Junior Championships, McSharry’s star rose again.
McSharry won bronze in the 50m breaststroke, but a then national record of 1:07.10 saw her collect gold in the 100m breaststroke.
That afternoon at Indiana University Natatorium, the world took a note.
So, too, did a raft of colleges in America, keen to snap up a prodigious talent.
McSharry opted for the University of Tennessee and last autumn she joined the Lady Vols.
Her first 12 months in America proved a real success.
Earlier this year, she broke her own school record in the 200m breaststroke and bested the school’s 100m breaststroke record at the Women’s NCAA Swimming and Division Championships.
McSharry won silver in the 100m breast, turning in a school record of 57.80 seconds – just a month after she took the time off Olympian Molly Hannis, 58.22 set in 2013.
McSharry was fourth in the nation in the 100m breaststroke with her 57.80 effort, while in the 200m, she was third in the nation, taking her own record again in 2:05.01.
On the impact of her switch across the Atlantic, she said: “It’s taken me away from times and just getting your hands on the wall first and competing and that is why we do this: to compete and race against people with that adrenalin rush you get.
“I had been so long training and long coursing by myself that it all got about times and it just got in my head a little bit and now I’m just back to racing.”
In April, McSharry lowered her Irish 100m breaststroke record twice at the Irish Olympic Trials, going 1:06.97 to book her place in Tokyo before a super 1:06.29 put a dent in her own time.
The 20-year old bridged a 25-year gap on Monday morning in reaching the final of the 100m breaststroke in Tokyo. The Sligo native’s time of 1:06.59 saw her qualify eighth-fastest in the semi-finals.
“That was the target – make it round-by-round.’
“When I got the semi-finals, it was just the plan to compete and race and try and make it into a final.”Tags: