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Credit: Swiss National Committee

Meet Leo McCrea: 17-year-old Palace fan representing south London globally

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Leo McCrea is 17-years-old and has the biggest weeks of his life coming up: competing in the Tokyo Paralympics, an event watched by a cumulative audience of over four billion.

He’s in Switzerland, training 12 times a week, and preparing to secure a bronze medal in the world’s largest sporting event for disabled people. At his age, most teenagers have more trivial concerns, but McCrea is completely laid back, punctuating his sentences with a laugh and talking football.

“It has to be [Wilfried] Zaha,” he says without pausing when asked for his standout player. “He’s the main man at Palace. I remember watching Alan Lee, [Mile] Jedinak was probably one of the outstanding ones. I remember the play-off final, saw him there.

“[Yannick] Bolasie, I miss him a lot at Palace and wish he was still there, but you know, that’s how it is. Bolasie and Zaha were some of the craziest players; so good to watch, especially in real life.”

McCrea’s Palace fandom began long before he was born in Croydon Hospital, with his father and grandfather both supporting the club.

“I don’t know how far back but my grandad supported since young and went to all the games. My dad got introduced by his dad and I got introduced. My first game was Palace v Yeovil when we had Alan Lee up front [a 1-0 League Cup win, with Lee netting in the 90th-minute]. My biggest game when I was younger was the Watford play-off final and since then I’ve been going all the time.”

Typically McCrea, who swims for Switzerland, would fly his colours across the globe and take a Palace top in World or European Championship tournaments. But - as well as being hampered by sponsorship commitments - this summer demands the most serious approach.

“I always had it as a dream in my head to reach the Paralympics,” McCrea says. “It got more serious with the Paralympics two years ago when I started getting nearer the times to qualify for the games. I was in the GB Academy four years ago, so I thought I was going to have a few years [to wait].

“I didn’t know I was going to make Tokyo because at the GB Academy I had to be top three in the world to be part of the team, no matter if I had the qualifying times or not. That’s why I made the decision to swim for Switzerland. My mum and grandma are from Switzerland and I had the option to take a Swiss passport.”

McCrea is now fourth in the world for 100m breaststroke in his classification, SB5. As of May 2021, he is 1.5 seconds off third and six years younger than his bronze medal competitor.

It’s a lofty position for someone so young, but McCrea’s entrance into sport was purely coincidental: “I was seven or six... I go to the Dwarf Games every year; it’s disability sport, basically. You do sports there like swimming and football. Swimming was one of the competitions there and I hadn’t had any experience at all – I was six – and hadn’t swam a lot.

“I started to win a few, but didn’t expect I was going to. Ellie Simmonds, one of the GB athletes, very well known, her mum was there and basically told me, my mum and my dad that I should join a club because of how well I was swimming there.

“So I joined my sister’s club and went on from there. Started training at that club, competition after competition, getting higher up the ranks. It was pretty crazy.

“She [Simmonds] is still one of my idols, but back then I wasn’t into the sport as much because I was swimming for fun. I didn’t know it was going to become this serious!”

This summer will see McCrea compete on the world stage, fight for his first Paralympic medal and do both south London and Switzerland proud. He may have the biggest weeks of his life coming up, but there’s still one eye on Palace: “Of course I’ll be down at Selhurst as much as I can. And away days. I’ll go to a few of them and to games as much as I can.”

See you there, Leo, and good luck.