Irish athletes feeling above par in run-up to Special Olympics

Golfers Mark Claffey and Andrew Simington are excited to represent Ireland in Abu Dhabi

Professional golfer Pádraig Harrington with Special Olympians Mark Claffey and Andrew Simington and  Phyl Kelleher, who will play with Andrew in the Alternate Shot event

Professional golfer Pádraig Harrington with Special Olympians Mark Claffey and Andrew Simington and Phyl Kelleher, who will play with Andrew in the Alternate Shot event

 

Commitment, teamwork, courage and skilfulness will be what are required by Ireland’s Special Olympians when they walk out on a global stage at the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi this month.

The sporting and humanitarian event will take place over the course of a week (March 14th-21st), with Team Ireland providing 91 of the 7,000 athletes hoping to return to home with a medal.

With her passion for sport and a personal affinity for those with special needs, Eunice Kennedy Shriver – who founded the Special Olympics in 1968 – believed that if those with special needs were given the same opportunities and experiences as everyone else, they could accomplish more than anyone thought possible.

Passion

Indeed two people who have achieved more than anyone thought possible are golfing athletes Mark Claffey (30) and Andrew Simington (30). For Mark, this will be his second time participating in the Special Olympics Games after taking home silver in basketball at the games in Dublin in 2003. Andrew is hoping to recreate that success, but this time in golf’s 9 Hole Event. His passion for “basketball, tennis and golf” came at an early age, but it was in 2006 when he first started playing golf that he found himself “naturally very good at it”, he says.

Putting the hard work in: Mark Claffey practising his swing ahead of the Special Olympics
Putting in the hard work: Mark Claffey practising his swing ahead of the Special Olympics

For many, the chance to represent their country among 170 nations has been a life-long ambition, with a commitment to the sport that has evolved over years. Like the athletes, many families have made sacrifices in order to support the competitors get to the point of qualifying for a place on Team Ireland.

“There has been nothing but positives from the experience,” says Mark’s father, John Claffey. “The athletes and their families are wonderful people. The Special Olympics really has been a fantastic family to be in involved in. The athletes are incredibly grateful, but really it’s us who are grateful for them.”

For Mark, golf is a family affair, but it his brother Aidan (plays off one) who is never far from his side giving advice on the driving range. “He tells me to swing properly and not too fast, but more importantly I must concentrate, try my best and hopefully then I’ll get the gold,” laughs Mark.

Not only does Aidan give him advice, but so too does Pádraig Harrington who Mark and Andrew count among their idols. “Pádraig told us that when you’re putting, you must watch the grass directly behind the ball, otherwise you’ll lose control,” recalls Mark.

Like Mark, Andrew first started playing golf in the Blackrock Flyers Special Olympics Club and then in Elm Park Golf & Sports Club in 2006 when the two clubs joined forces. The union between these clubs came as a result of an initiative programme between Golfing Union of Ireland, Irish Ladies’ Golf Union and Special Olympics golf. By creating a linkage programme between the different unions it was seen that all groups could benefit from being involved with Special Olympics.

As a result, every weekend these two Olympians are on the golf course practising their shots with the help of 40 Elm Park volunteers who are, according to Andrew’s father, Sam Simington, “amazing and just brilliant with how they treat the athletes, as without the volunteers and their resources there would be nothing”.

Proud

Socially quiet but happy in his own company, Andrew will compete in the Alternate Shot with volunteer Phyl Kelleher. He admits he is “most looking forward to golfing in Abu Dhabi because he will be playing for his country”.

Indeed, his father concurs. As this will be Andrew’s first time to qualify for the Special Olympics, “as a family we couldn’t be more proud of him. It’s an honour for the family that Andrew has been selected to represent Ireland. We just hope he enjoys and remembers the event as much as we will”.

Special Olympian in the making: Mark Claffey, aged 5, taking part in his school’s sports day
Special Olympian in the making: Mark Claffey, aged 5, taking part in his school’s sports day

Special Olympics is indeed a very special event. It has the ability to show people the power of commitment, the power to educate others by opening up the eyes of some to another world; one that is incredibly welcoming and raw with honesty. In contrast to 50 years ago, “people with disabilities were hidden away, whereas now there is a lot more visibility as those with special needs are included in general society through education, sport and drama”, says Sam.

Mark’s father concurs: “People are far more accepting now and respect towards those with special needs is continuously improving. The Special Olympics in Dublin in 2003 made people more aware, as up until then it had been so easy to ignore the fact that there were so many people in Ireland with special needs.”

The feelings of these two fathers of men with special needs are indicative of the fact that the Irish contingent travelling to Abu Dhabi is the largest family group of all 170 nations.

Regardless of whether Team Ireland return with medals, as they board their flight to the United Arab Emirates, let the words of Eunice Kennedy Shriver be remembered: “Let me win, but if I cannot win let me be brave in the attempt.”

Down’s syndrome in Ireland
– 7,000 people with Down’s syndrome.
– 1 in 546 born with the condition.
– 1 in 50 children with Down’s syndrome have arthritis
– Over 50 per cent will require glasses.
– Greater frequency of thyroid dysfunction among those with the condition.
– Approximately 60 per cent of children with Down’s syndrome are presenting abnormal polysomnograms (sleep studies) by 3½ years to 4 years of age.
(Sources: Down Syndrome Ireland & NDSS 2016)

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