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Royal honour for running sensation Tony

Believe in yourself and magic will happen. That’s the motto that Tony Barclay lives and breathes every day. He even has it tattooed on his arm. But Tony (64), who lives in Carrickfergus, wasn’t always so positive.

Tony is pictured standing in the decadent ‘Throne Room’ at Hillsborough Castle. He’s smiling at the camera with the MBE pinned to the lapel of his navy suit. Guide dog Wallace, a gorgeous yellow German Shepherd/Retriever, is sitting beside him.

Tony has acromegaly, a rare condition where the body produces excess growth hormone in the pituitary gland. As a tumour on this gland at the base of Tony’s brain began to grow, it pressed on his optic nerves and he started to experience sight loss in his teens.

As he grew older, Tony tried many medications and treatments to try and manage his condition. Fearful of surgery, he made the difficult decision not to go under the knife, even though his remaining sight was at risk.

By the age of 36, he was working as a police officer in England. He says he loved the camaraderie of the force and aspired to become a police dog handler. But everything changed when he went for a field of vision test at his local hospital.

“I drove to the hospital for the test and they fired 82 ‘targets’ at each of my eyes. In my right eye, I scored zero. In my left I scored just seven, and they were all clustered around the centre of my vision.

“I was told in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t to drive home and that I would be have to be registered as blind. I kept saying to them, ‘but I’m not blind, I can still see something’. At that stage, like most people, I didn’t realise that sight loss is a spectrum.”

Tony sank into a deep depression. “I’d lost my sight and my job,” he recalls. “For years I had this ‘red devil’ on my shoulder. It controlled me, telling me I couldn’t do this and couldn’t do that. I lost my passion, my drive. I lost myself.”

January 2014 was to mark a total shift in Tony’s life. After much encouragement from a friend, he decided to give ‘Couch to 5K’ a go – and the rest, as they say, is history.

He admits the first run wasn’t easy and he was fearful of bumping into obstacles or falling, even with the aid of a sighted guide runner holding one end of a tether. But as he clocked up the miles his confidence increased too and, just 16 months after first lacing up his trainers, Tony completed all 26.2 miles of the Derry~Londonderry marathon in May 2015.

In the years since, Tony has continued to break down barriers, including becoming the first qualified running coach in Ireland with a visual impairment. He was also instrumental in making Parkrun accessible to people with sight loss.

“If you had told me a few years ago that I would become an ambassador for RNIB’s ‘See Sport Differently’ campaign, I would have laughed and said ‘what?! I’m not sporty at all!’

“People can’t believe I’m now a running coach. I might not be able to see but I can hear people’s breathing, their footsteps. I only have about four degrees of central vision remaining in my left eye. I’m not looking at the horizon, or 100 yards ahead of me when I’m running. I’m just in my bubble and I love it.”

It perhaps comes as no surprise that Tony’s latest accolade is another medal, of sorts. A solid silver MBE for Services to the Visually Impaired Community.

Tony was nominated by Elaine Manson, RNIB Community Connection Manager NI, and it all had to be kept top secret. Tony was more than a little surprised to find out about the nomination. “When I arrived home to see a letter addressed to me from the Cabinet Office I thought ‘What have I done? I’m in so much trouble!’” he joked.

However, he’s very modest about his achievements and contribution. “It’s not about me,” he added. “It’s about what I’m trying to do make a difference to the visually impaired community, to inspire other people.”

Tony, dressed in his best, went to Hillsborough Castle to accept his honour alongside his partner Emma and good friends Karen Magill and Kathryn Hegarty.

“It was something else,” he said. “There was an actual throne room with gold gilded chairs! King Charles wasn’t there in person but I’ve received a Royal Warrant with his signature on it and that will be getting framed and put up in the house.”

When asked how he remains so upbeat, Tony added: “People have described me as ‘annoyingly positive’. Which I guess I am! But a little bit of positivity and good humour can go a long way. Wallace, my guide dog, is my seventh guide dog. I always tell people I wanted to be a dog handler and now it’s the dog handling me!

“I’ve come to know a lot of people over the past years of running and some the challenges that other people face put my own into perspective.

“Don’t look at a point you’re never going to reach. Just try to enjoy where you are in that moment. I guess that’s a metaphor for life. Life is a marathon!”

With that advice in mind, Tony is already planning his next challenge – a 36 hour, 107 mile ultra marathon from Belfast to Dublin. He would be the first person with a visual impairment to complete this epic undertaking.

“I just have to sort out my dodgy knee first,” he jokes. “Then I’ll be back training and breaking down barriers for people with sight loss.”