Michael Gunning on life's 'what-ifs' after being caught up in the Manchester terrorist attack
Exclusive: The 23-year-old swimmer talks to The Independent about the Manchester atrocity which claimed 22 lives, and how he struggled to return to normality afterwards
Michael Gunning is a supremely ebullient and intelligent interviewee, full of chat and optimism, but it would be entirely understandable if he wanted to avoid discussing the event that may well shape the rest of his career.
Gunning, 23, is preparing to compete for Jamaica in the 17th FINA World Swimming Championships this weekend and his preparations for Hungary have been disrupted in the most tragic and unusual manner.
On the evening of May 22, Gunning had travelled to Manchester to watch American pop star Ariana Grande perform at the Manchester Arena.
Unfortunately, history has recorded only too well how the evening ended. A terrorist's bomb ensured 22 people perished that night and Michael is one of the many thousands who were in attendance who has since struggled with the what-if moments that inevitably plague the mind after such an event.
“Ariana finished her last song, and the lights went out,” Gunning said. “Everyone stood up to leave and as we were walking we just heard this massive explosion.
“It was about 30 metres away and you knew instantly that something was wrong. Everybody started to run for their lives and we were all pushing and shoving. It was total panic. You just knew it was life or death, right there.”
Gunning attempted to get back to normality straight away but, understandably, the sights he had witnessed that evening were difficult to shift from his mind.
Yet in an impressive show of mental strength – and nobody swims five miles a day without a surfeit of tenacity to call upon – Gunning is now using the tragedy as a spur for his efforts in the pool in Budapest and beyond.
“Going to that concert just made me feel so, so lucky to be alive so the opportunity to swim for Jamaica and just to still be here is unbelievable,” he said.
“I struggled for a few weeks after because I just wasn’t sleeping. One day I turned up to train and my coach sent me home, straight to bed.
“I have now got my head around it far better and seeing all those young children killed has given me more of a drive to succeed.
“Now I think ‘well I’m still here, I’ve got this massive opportunity and I will take it’.
“It’s inspiring me to try harder and to swim in their memory and the opportunity to do it for Jamaica is just so exciting.”
Ah yes, Jamaica.
How has somebody who has competed for Team GB in the past, who trains daily at the London Aquatics Centre in Stratford alongside British divers such as Tom Daley and is also the British Universities and Colleges 200m butterfly champion ended up switching allegiance to Jamaica?
“My dad Shaun was born in Jamaica and moved to England when he was five,” Gunning explained.
“They contacted me recently and asked if I was interested in swimming for them and the minute I heard that, dad was all for it.
“Most people in Jamaica look to running as the main sport but I hope to try and raise swimming's profile and change that. I want to be the Usain Bolt of Jamaican swimming!
“Competing for them is a real honour and I know it will lead to some really exciting and inspirational experiences.
“I’m close to a lot of the British team, especially the divers, and they have all been so supportive and told me to grab the opportunity with both hands and I just cannot wait to start.”
Competing in both the 200m butterfly and freestyle events this weekend, Gunning has listened “a few times” to the Jamaican anthem but does not think he will need to test his vocal range in Hungary, believing it is too early in his career to 'medal' at the event.
He added: “We will have to see how it goes, I'm using Worlds as an opportunity to experience major internationals so I can keep developing. I'm learning and getting better all the time so it is an exciting time.”
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