Saturday 10 December 2016

Paralympics can be a hard sell but well worth the investment

Ireland’s talented group of athletes ready to light up Rio

Cathal Dennehy

Published 05/09/2016 | 02:30

Michael McKillop, who won two golds in London, will have one focus in Rio. Photo by Paul Mohan/Sportsfile
Michael McKillop, who won two golds in London, will have one focus in Rio. Photo by Paul Mohan/Sportsfile

The Paralympics, at times, can be a hard sell. Occurring at a time when most sports fans are still knee-deep in the hangover from an Olympic bender, many are too busy nursing themselves back to normality with Premier League and GAA to pay it all that much attention.

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As a result, the Irish team's achievements - and we are heavy hitters in this realm - can exist in a vacuum. World-beating performances are often met with a clap, a shrug, before a flick of the remote whisks us back to something more familiar.

Which is a shame - for us as much as the athletes - because those who give it the time of day will seldom regret it.

On Thursday afternoon, Dublin swimmer Ailbhe Kelly gets the Irish campaign under way in Rio when she competes in the S8 400m freestyle heats at 2pm Irish time. At 17, she is one of the youngest members of the Irish team.

Not the youngest, however. That's Nicole Turner, the Laois swimmer who will make her Olympic debut in the heats of the S6 50m butterfly on Friday. Remember Saipan, Keane versus McCarthy, in 2002? Turner is so young, at 14, that she wasn't even alive when that happened.

But here she is, a Paralympian, one whose talent has caught the eye on several occasions in recent years and who should, in four or eight years' time, return from one of these gigs with a medal around her neck.

"For the young athletes, it's all about experience," says Dave Malone, performance director for Paralympics Ireland. "If they perform, brilliant, but this is about soaking up everything and coming back in Tokyo (2020) and looking to perform. We want them, at their age, to focus on enjoying the experience."

Storm

Four years ago, a short journey across the water for the Irish team saw them surf a perfect storm of high performance. They returned with 16 medals, eight of them gold, but this time the goal is more modest.

"Everything fell together for us in London," says Liam Harbison, CEO of Paralympics Ireland. "Out here, our ability to match London is not realistic."

That's down to a variety of factors. Handcyclist Mark Rohan, a double gold medallist at the London Games, has since retired, while the star duo of the athletics team, Jason Smyth and Michael McKillop, who both won two gold medals in London, will only have the option of competing in one event apiece in Rio.

For Smyth, the fastest Paralympian in the world, his re-classification into T13 last winter - a grade determined by the level of visual impairment an athlete faces - means he can only chase gold in the 100m, as the 200m is no longer contested.

All the same, that looks a formality, at least if Smyth shows up in the kind of form which saw him clock 10.39 for 100m back in May, his quickest time since 2013.

McKillop, meanwhile, will focus his attention solely on the 1500m in the T37 category, as the 800m is no longer contested, and with a personal best of 3:51.74, he should have too much class for his competitors in Sunday afternoon's final.

The flame will be lit in Rio during the opening ceremony on Wednesday night, and by the time it is extinguished next Sunday, the goal for Team Ireland is simple: eight medals and a top-30 overall finish.

To do that, they will more than likely have to bag four golds, which is no easy task, but in Smyth, McKillop, discus thrower Orla Barry, cyclist Eoghan Clifford and swimmer Ellen Keane, they have a cluster of athletes capable of delivering.

For four years, they've been toiling in shadows for this 10-day sliver of light.

"This is the pinnacle," says Malone. "There's a very relaxed energy around the team and they're arriving here in the best possible shape."

That's a sentiment echoed by Harbison.

"They're as prepared as they can be and no effort has been spared, but this is the Paralympic Games," he says. "Anything can happen."

For proof of that, give it some of your time over the next fortnight.

A hard sell, maybe, but one that's worth the investment.

Irish Independent

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