Departure- Thursday, 14 June 2018
After months of training and preparation with their local Club and some tough training sessions with the full Munster Athletics Squad, the day finally arrives for 8 local Special Olympics athletes to set off to compete in the Ireland Games.
The scene is set for an early start from the Tipp FM offices in Pearse Street Nenagh. Nervous interviews with Fran Curry are safely negotiated. First of many photos are taken. Kitbags and luggage are loaded onto the bus. Head count includes the Head Coach and 2 Coach/chaperones. Many of these young athletes have never stayed away from parents before. They have certainly never experienced what they will participate in this weekend.
The blues and twos of the Garda Car resound around Nenagh as it escorts the bus away. Athletes wave Ireland flags out of the bus windows. Family members and supporters cheer and wave back. A proud tear is shed as the team heads away along the Dublin Road. The adventure has begun.
Opening Ceremony- Tallaght Stadium, Dublin, Thursday 14 June 2018
The stadium is filled to capacity. The nervous tension is palpable. Proud and emotional family members and supporters await impatiently. The opening ceremony of the biggest sporting event in Ireland this year is beginning.
Welcome to Special Olympics Ireland Games 2018.
The cavalcade of athlete double decker buses arrives from DCU. They have been escorted all the way by Garda Cars and Motorcycle outriders. Moira Moran from Templetuohy proudly carries The Special Olympics flag into the arena. The stadium erupts as Team Munster enters the stadium to join over 1600 athletes from all over Ireland.
Coaches Brid Mackey and Annagh Roche lead out our Ormond Club athletes. They all wave to the crowd, trying to spot family. The Olympic flame arrives after the Garda Torch Run all around the country. Pauline Nugent, Head Coach, Munster Athletics, accompanies the torch bearer on its final journey around the stadium.
President Michael D. Higgins welcomes all the athletes. The Olympic Flame is lit. The flags are flying. Athletes are dancing to Jake Carter.
Let the Games Begin!
Day 1 - Competition Divisioning – Morton Stadium, Santry, Friday 15 June 2018
Cloudy and cool conditions. The athlete buses have arrived for an early start to a long day of divisioning. After a restless first night at their accommodation in DCU, nervous but focused, determined faces enter the stadium. The bright red of the Munster Team kit immediately brightens conditions.
The stadium looks great. Volunteers and officials are getting ready to organise, direct, adjudicate, time, measure. It will be a day for concentration.
Today’s heats will determine which division the athletes will be in over the next 2 days- and who they will be competing against from other Regions. Already some of the more seasoned competitors are recognising faces from previous encounters. Hands are shaken, high fives exchanged, backs are patted, smiles radiate all around.
Newer athletes are settling in. This is much bigger than they ever imagined. Competition continues through the day. It is fiercely competitive but sporting and fair. Family members are on the edge of seats, cheering, waving flags, encouraging.
Divisioning is finished. Tired after the days exertions, athletes and coaches are going back to buses, back to DCU, to eat, to socialise at the entertainment and disco, for coaches to attend meetings, to check how it is going, but most importantly for everyone to get a good early night and try to sleep before the big days to come.
Day 2 - Competition, Morton Stadium, Santry, Saturday 16 June 2018
Again cloudy and cool conditions. An early start to an intense finals day. Aife Dalton, the youngest competitor from Ormond Club. Her first time in national competition, she has no time to be nervous. Her Javelin final is going already. Three focussed throws. She performs superbly and wins silver.
Rachel Ryan from Templemore is soon away in the 200m. A veteran of National and International competition, Rachel is at her best on the big stage and never fails to deliver. A strong division can not live with her elegant speed. She wins Ormond Club’s first Gold of the Games.
Early afternoon, Aisling Maher from Moyne is up for her Javelin Final. Massive cheers ring out from all of her family and supporters. Aisling tops her division by launching one of the longest throws of the Games. Top of the podium. Gold medal.
Immediately afterwards, Moira Moran is featuring in the Long Jump. One of the best female Special Olympics long jumpers in Ireland, she is competing against some strong males in her division. Undaunted she jumps to a Personal Best but misses out on first place by only centimetres. A well deserved silver medal.
Next up in her division of the long jump is Niamh Slattery from Ballywilliam. Debutante at this level (competing against, amongst others, her best friend from Redhill School, Limerick). Again, fractions short of first place, but finishes with a tremendous leap to win the silver medal.
Later in the afternoon, Rachel Ryan is back on the start line for her 400m final. Again, never disappoints at this level. Gets off to a great start. Leads all the way and wins comfortably. A second Gold medal for Rachel.
Within minutes her younger brother, William Ryan, is stepping up to the mark for his Javelin final. Not to be outdone by his sister, William keeps his focus and concentration. The rest of the field cannot match his distance. William brings home another Gold medal for the delighted Ryan family.
As the day draws on, Kieran Doughan from Cloughjordan and James Brennan from Ballingarry finally get their moment in the spotlight. Drawn against each other in a very powerful division. The wind is now making conditions difficult for the throwers. Kieran’s throw is one of the longest of the day, but he misses out on a technicality. James also hits technical issues but both are happy to be rewarded with well earned participation ribbons.
Evening falls. The weather has been kind. A great day of competition. The athletes make their way back to their accommodation, weary but excited. Refreshments await, some light entertainment, early to bed. Another day of tough competition tomorrow awaits.
Day 3 – Competition, Morton Stadium, Santry, Sunday 17 June 2018
Damp weather this morning. Volunteers are sweeping the track to prepare for today’s competition. A good crowd is already in the stadium eagerly looking forward to the final day’s events. The athletes are impatient, eager to make a start.
Again young Aife Dalton is one of the first at the start line for her 100m. The conditions are not ideal for sprinting. Wet track and a blustery wind. Tough for a relatively inexperienced athlete. At trackside her mother and club coach, Annagh, nervously awaits the starter’s pistol. The rest of her family sit nervously in the stand. The gun echoes around the stadium. They are off. Aife defies the elements. She storms home to win the Gold medal. What a start to the day!
In quick succession Niamh Slattery is at the start line for her 100m division. Conditions are worsening. Officials are conferring. They decide to proceed. The starter’s pistol goes off. Niamh slips slightly at the start line on the wet track. It is a strong division and despite her best efforts to recover she misses out on a medal by less than one tenth of a second, finishing 4th.
The officials are conferring again. Blustery wind with rain continuing to fall. They decide to postpone track events for 30 minutes.
After the short delay the track is being swept again. Conditions are improving. Events will continue.
Aisling Maher and Moira Moran have been drawn against each other in a tough 100m division. Undaunted by the conditions, Aisling gets a great start. She leads all the way, powering towards the finish line to take her second Gold of the Games. Moira is in a tough battle for second place. She is fighting all the way against a powerful fellow Munster athlete. The finish line comes just too soon for her. She wins a hard-fought bronze, her second medal of the Games.
Next up representing Munster and Ormond Club is James Brennan on the 100m line. This is his first National competition. James does not allow the weather delay and conditions to bother him. Cheered on by his parents Helen and Liam in the stand, he battles all the way to the finish line against a strong field. He will take home to Ballingarry a well earned silver medal.
With races coming thick and fast to catch up on the schedule, William Ryan is quickly on the start line. In a field comprising 1 runner from Leinster and 3 from Munster, William pushes hard for a place on the podium. He and his family are delighted to add to William’s Javelin Gold yesterday with a bronze medal in the 100m today.
Kieran Doughan has been drawn in one of the toughest fields of the day with 7 runners. He gets a good start. It is a very fast final with 2 athletes heading the field. Kieran is in a battle for third. It ends up as a photo finish for the bronze medal. Kieran is in the mix with 3 other athletes. The finish line judges check the results. Kieran has missed the medals by a whisker and finishes 6th in the very close photo finish.
Only the relays left to finish the competition.
The first 4 x 100m relay sees Munster Team 1 compete against Munster Team2 and a team from Leinster. Munster Team 1 is strong and comprises experienced Ormond Club athletes, Moira Moran, Rachel Ryan and Aisling Maher, alongside a 16 year old rising track star from Cork, Eureka B Okoro. Munster Team 2 includes Ballywilliam’s own rising athletics star Niamh Slattery.
Munster Team 1 fullfil all expectations by cruising to a brilliant Gold medal in a time for which confirmation is expected as a Special Olympics national record for the event.
Munster Team 2, thanks in no small part to a tremendous finishing leg from Niamh Slattery, come in a close third for bronze.
No time to check the record books yet as the lads are out for their 4 x 100m relays. James Brennan and Kieran Doughan both feature in a fancied Munster Team. It is very close after Kieran’s first leg. As they reach the baton handover zone the athlete in lane 2 crosses into Kieran’s lane. They both stumble before trying to recover. By the time James receives the baton for the 3rd leg his team have it all to do. He runs well and makes up ground. By the finish line all their effort is not enough to break into a medal position. They finish 5th. Head coach, Pauline, puts in an appeal due to accidental impeding. It is upheld. The lads are moved up to 4th place and are delighted to receive their ribbons.
The Games are finishing with a mixed team relay. Aife Dalton is running the 2nd leg. She makes up a lot of ground after receiving the baton. This helps ensure her team win Silver in a very close race to the finish line. A third medal and a hugely successful Games debut for an increasingly competitive young athlete. Another great day for Ormond Club and Team Munster.
Emotions are running high as we say goodbye to Santry Stadium and The Ireland Games 2018. Thank you speeches are being applauded and cheered. The volunteers and officials have been tremendous in their efficiency, their support and their respect for Athletes and coaches. Athletes are in tears as they watch the Olympic Eternal Flame being taken away for next time. Flags are coming down as the evening sun begins to lower in the skyline.
Athletes don’t want the celebrations to ever finish. Eventually they trudge, weary but triumphant, with their kit bags to their transport home to all parts of the country.
Memories are shared as the bus heads away from Dublin towards Nenagh, family reunions and home. Inevitably eyes begin to droop as they reach the M7. By Junction 14 and the planned stop for refreshments, all are fast asleep and the Coaches decide to postpone the stop until the Obama Plaza, Moneygall. On arrival, there are 2 other club teams from Team Munster already there. The Plaza has never seen so many medals and performance ribbons, worn by so many proud and newly wide-awake athletes. Second winds are found and suddenly the spirit of the Games is re-ignited. Now ready for the short hop back to Nenagh.
Homecoming Welcome, Abbey Court Hotel, Nenagh. Sunday 17 June 2018
It is 7.30pm. Hotel reception shows off the Ormond Club Special Olympics banners. The red carpet is unfurled. Balloons float at the front door. The press photographers await. Refreshments are on the table. Families and supporters fill the area, jubilant but speaking in whispered tones. The excitement is building. Word goes round that the returning heroes are close.
Suddenly in a whirl of blue flashing lights and blaring two tone sirens, the Garda escort sweeps into the grounds of the hotel, followed by the team bus. Cameras flash. Cheers resound. The applause is deafening as the bus draws to a halt outside the hotel entrance.
In a blaze of gold, silver, bronze and ribbons, the athletes and their coaches step from the bus. Full of pride and emotion, families rush forward to hug their returning loved ones. The athletes look totally fresh even after all their exertions of the weekend - the coaches look a bit spaced out- it has been a tough few days of responsibility on top of the jubilation. All line up in the hotel grounds for final team photos showing off the well deserved rewards for all their efforts.
Inside hotel reception the volume is noticeably louder now that all have been reunited. Laughter and memories fill the room. Speeches are called for. Liadhan Hassett, Ormond Club Secretary, thanks Pauline, the Head Coach and Annagh and Brid, the Coach/Chaperones for all their dedication and hard work. Flowers are presented with gratitude from the families, together with gifts (looking suspiciously like bottles of gin and wine!!) Club chairperson Annagh tries to respond but has lost her voice as a result of 4 days of cheering and encouragement.
Never lost for words, Pauline responds on behalf of the coaching team. “Thank you to all our Club volunteers for the hard work and dedication they have shown in recent times. They have been instrumental in getting this group of athletes to The Ireland Games. To all the athletes, well done. I really want to compliment you all on your sportsmanship and behaviour, not only during The Games but in all the training sessions in the build up to them, and also during every weekly club session we have. You all are an example to the rest of us.”
“ I also wish on behalf of us all to congratulate Ormond Club Athlete Lucy O’Neill from Nenagh. Lucy was representing Limerick SO Swimming Club on the Munster Team at The National Aquatics Centre.. She was brilliant in winning Gold, Silver and Bronze medals in her 50m freestyle, backstroke and relay swims.”
Reluctantly cars carrying happy parents and sleepy athletes begin to filter away from the hotel towards home and rest. Most have medals, some have less, some have none, but all “have been brave in the attempt.” The Ireland Games 2018 are over. Selections for The Ireland Team to travel to the World Games in Abu Dhabi in March 2019 now enter the heads of all involved. The team is breaking up after a hugely successful weekend. But the Ormond Special Olympics Club will be getting back to training in September after a summer break when all will be starting to train again for the next 4 year cycle.
In the words of the Special Olympics oath “Let me Win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
“May we never have to say goodbye.”
The memories of Ireland Games 2018 will never fade.