Special Olympics athletes jet off to LA

World Games kick off on Saturday with 7,000 athletes competing from 177 countries

Liam Foley plans to celebrate his 18th birthday on Thursday by "meeting lots of famous people" in Los Angeles at the Special Olympics World Summer Games.

The badminton player from Meath is one of 88 athletes, along with 40 coaches and managers who set off from Dublin Airport on Tuesday.

Team Ireland will compete in 12 sports among 7,000 athletes from 177 countries in Los Angeles, beginning on Saturday and continuing until August 2nd.

Gymnast Laura Ahern from Cork, who will take part in the Games for the first time this weekend, said she has made many friends in the three years she has been with the Special Olympics, but can’t wait to “meet all the athletes from different countries at the opening ceremony”.

The opening ceremony will take place on Saturday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where the 1932 and 1984 Olympic Games took place.

The event will feature performances by Stevie Wonder and Avril Lavigne with guests including Michelle Obama, actress Eva Longoria and Olympic star Michael Phelps.

It is the first time in 16 years the Special Olympics Summer Games have been held in the US, where they began in Chicago in 1968.

Chief executive of the Special Olympics in Ireland, Matt English, said at the airport that he has "no doubt" that the Irish team of 128 will return home in two weeks "laden down with extra cargo in the form of medals, and a plane full of experience as well and memories that won't be forgotten".

Annita O’Connor, a bowling athlete from Carlow, was looking forward to the competition.

“It’s really good fun, with everyone cheering behind you and cheering each other on,” she said. “It’s just brilliant”.

Dean Gallagher from Bray in Co Wicklow will compete in the Games this year with his 5-a-side soccer skills, and says he has been training since last year for the sporting event.

“I love playing with all the young lads; I’m the oldest on my team, and I help them as best as I can,” Mr Gallagher said.

The soccer player has previously competed in two World Games as part of the basketball squad; in Indiana in the US, where he won both a gold and silver medal, and in Scotland in 1990.

“The Special Olympics is very important to me because years ago we wouldn’t have got recognition as much as now,” he said, before boarding the flight to the US.

There are 369 Special Olympics clubs around Ireland, with over 9,000 athletes participating on a weekly basis.

Head of delegation Teresa McCabe who has been involved in the Special Olympics for over 25 years says she can see the organisation growing.

“We’ve such a big programme now,” Ms McCabe said. “I can guarantee you that every single one of the athletes will come back with friends that they will keep in contact with”.

Special Olympics chief executive Matt English said that the legacy of the World Games in Ireland 12 years ago has helped the organisation to grow, and that the number of clubs around the country has doubled since then.

“Every year is bigger and better,” Mr English said. “Team Ireland are well prepared, we would probably have the strongest programme in the world I would say”.

CEO of Aer Lingus Stephen Kavanagh said the airline is "delighted" to have sponsored the team since 2003.

“The team just lifts the place, and their enthusiasm is so infectious,” he said. “We look forward to welcoming them back on a triumphant return”.

Manager Noreen O’ Connell highlighted the bond between athletes and trainers in the Special Olympics before takeoff for the ten hour trip to LA.

“They’re a great buzz and they’re true to what sport is,” she said.

“There really is a special connection with a Special Olympics athlete, they just capture you and once you’re in you’re in for life”.