Memorable moments for athletes on first day of Special Olympics

Competitors aged 8 to 77 take part in opening events of 2014 games


There are almost 70 years between them but the excitement felt by the oldest and youngest athletes competing at Special Olympics Ireland is perfectly matched.

Eight-year-old Johnny Grehan and 77-year-old John Hegarty’s enthusiasm for the games is also written across the faces of the thousands of volunteers and athletes who are taking part in the three-day sporting spectacle.

Over the course of the games, 1,500 athletes will compete in 13 different sports in venues across Limerick, Clare and Tipperary.

As well as being the main residential centre, the University of Limerick is hosting the athletics, aquatics, basketball, football, gymnastics, and kayaking competitions.

The youngest person taking part in the games, eight-year-old Johnny Grehan from Monkstown in Co Dublin, was among those enjoying the atmosphere in UL today where he took part in the gymnastics competition.

“I took part in the floor, bean and jumping (vault) and I loved it,” said Johnny, who enjoys playing a range of sports, especially rugby.

Laura Rumball (17) from Dun Laoghaire, who is also a member of Team Leinster and competing in gymnastics, was equally enthusiastic.

“I just love doing cartwheels and the splits,” said the teenager who won three gold medals in Athens.

Laura’s grandmother Gillian Mollard was among the proud army of supporters enjoying the atmosphere of Special Olympics this weekend.

“It’s a fantastic occasion and everywhere you go there seems to be a welcome smile,” she said.

It wasn’t just the spectators who were smiling.

John Hegarty (77), the oldest athlete taking part in the games, was enjoying his “most senior” status and the attention it was attracting.

“He’s loving the fame it brings, and enjoying the attention. He is such a character and he has the most incredible smile,” said Team Ulster bowling coach Eoin McDonald.

A well-known gardener in his home place of Lifford, Co Donegal, John is competing in the bowling competition, having taking part in the equestrian competition four years ago.

“I just love the craic and meeting people,” said the 77-year-old.

Wicklow woman Liz Bradly has been volunteering with Special Olympics for the past 30 years.

Her 36-year-old daughter Shauna, who has competed at three World Games in bowling, has also followed in her mother’s footsteps and become a volunteer this year.

“Shauna was born with Down Syndrome and there was not much out there then, but Special Olympics has been our flame of hope and without Special Olympics she would not be as good as sport and would not have achieved so many of her goals,” explained her mum.

Shauna, who works as a creche assistant four days a week, said she loves being a volunteer.

“I love being involved with the bowling and meeting all my friends,” she said.

The non-competitive motor activities training programme - also taking place in UL - saw many memorable moments today when some of the most profoundly disabled participants achieved major goals.

Fourteen-year-old Paulina Ostapcsuk from Roscommon was among those being congratulated after she took part in the bean bag and ball lift events.

“Two years ago Paulina was here and she couldn’t’ do this and today she did it. We have been training every day for the past year so this is really massive,” explained her coach Ita Mannion.

Among those congratulating Paulina was former Irish rugby international Alan Quinlan, who presented the medals.

“I feel very privileged to be here. I was so lucky to play sport for so long but to see all the athletes here it really is what sport is all about. There is nothing cynical about it and all the athletes here are determined to have fun.

“It’s a fantastic event especially for the families and the parents. To have a severely disabled child and to be able to watch them participate in something that gives them so much hope and happiness is incredible.”

President of Down Syndrome Ireland Mary Doherty said the non-competitive motor training programme was “in many ways the core what of Special Olympics is about”.

“The whole thing about Special Olympics is inclusion,” she said. “Everybody has ability and it’s about displaying that and celebrating that.”

The 2014 games, which run until Sunday, are supported by 3,000 volunteers and 600 coaches, with thousands of spectators expected to turn out to cheer on the athletes over the weekend.

Sports ambassadors including rugby legends, Keith Wood, David Wallace as well as Dublin Hurling manger, Anthony Daly and former football player, Jason Sherlock are among the famous faces that have already turned out to cheer on the athletes.

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