Wednesday 23 August 2017

The dream team... preparing for the Special Olympics

Special Olympics volunteer Jennifer Lillis
Special Olympics volunteer Jennifer Lillis
Special Olympian Anne Hoey
Special Olympian Thomas Caulfield
Special Olympics volunteer Tony Cusack
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

As the Special Olympics World Games get underway in Los Angeles, we meet some of the athletes, volunteers and coaches who will represent Ireland at this summer's event

THE VOLUNTEER

Special Olympics volunteer Jennifer Lillis
Special Olympics volunteer Jennifer Lillis

Jennifer Lillis works in Eircom's Technology, Evolution & Development department. She is originally from Galway.

"I was given the opportunity to take four days out of the working week last year to volunteer at the Special Olympics National Games in Limerick. My colleagues had to cover my work while I was out which shows you the goodwill there is around the event in Eircom.

"It was an honour and a privilege to be there with the athletes and the families and to share in their joy. I was volunteering at the kayaking event and I'll never forget it. If they [the athletes] didn't win, they were just as happy. That feel-good factor... it stays with you.

"Lots of people put their name forward to be one of the Los Angeles volunteers so I couldn't believe it when I found out I was one of the lucky six. I was delighted.

"To raise funds I helped out at the HSQ (Eircom head office) Christmas Market along with the five other volunteers. I also took part in the Women's Mini Marathon and ran a nail bar in the office before a group night out. Some of the lads had their nails painted too!

"People are very generous as soon as you mention the Special Olympics - it isn't difficult to raise money for it."

THE ATHLETE

Thomas Caulfield from Ballyfermot, Dublin, will be representing Ireland in 11-a-side football with his club Cheeverstown House.

Special Olympian Thomas Caulfield
Special Olympian Thomas Caulfield

"It's a dream come true to go to Los Angeles. I was in my mate's barbers getting my hair cut when I got the news and there were tears coming out of my eyes.

"I was telling people that I was going to be on that plane. I was determined. I just believed it and it came true.

"The last few years have just been training, training, training. I do two sessions each day, everything from circuits to core work to swimming. I'm trying to drink more water and eat healthy too. Sunday is my rest day.

"I've met Robbie Keane twice now. He came to train with us once on his own and another time with some of the other LA Galaxy players.

"He's sound, a proper idol. He told us to be proud to wear the green jersey.

"My football manager, Dermot McNeil, always tells me to play with a smile. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be playing football. He's like a mate and if you need something - bang!

"I'd like to see the Hollywood sign and meet a few celebrities when I'm in LA. Maybe Arnie or Sylvester Stallone or Jason Statham. Robbie [Keane] told me that he saw Bruce Willis in the shops one day. That's how it happens there. I'd also like to do some shopping in the Nike and Adidas outlets.

"My family can't travel over, which is understandable, but I have my phone and I'll be sending pictures to them every day. At least it knocks off a bit of the nervousness - if they were there I'd be more nervous.

"You have to look at the positives - I'm getting a chance to play for my country and go to Los Angeles. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Seven thousand athletes, 500,000 spectators, 30,000 volunteers and one star-studded opening ceremony. The Special Olympics World Games get underway next Saturday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and, as always, they are pulling out all the stops.

This time around, Team Ireland will be represented by 88 athletes who will be partaking in everything from basketball to bocce, golf to gymnastics. However, they weren't the only ones vying for a spot at next week's games.

The Special Olympics World Games would be nothing without its volunteers - all 30,000 of them. Two hundred of these volunteers will be from Ireland.

Special Olympics volunteer Tony Cusack
Special Olympics volunteer Tony Cusack

Earlier this year, Eircom encouraged its employees to apply for a volunteering role at the Games, but there were only half a dozen of these coveted spots. The telecommunications company has a special affinity with the Special Olympics and 2015 marks the 30th anniversary of their partnership, making it the longest corporate sponsorship of its kind in Ireland.

The Special Olympics partnership goes deep for Eircom employees. As Carolan Lennon, MD Eircom Wholesale, explains: "When you work for a company, you like to think there is more going on than figures and results. People want to work for companies that do good things.

"No matter what has happened to us corporately, we've stuck with this partnership, through thick and thin."

Here we speak to two of the Eircom employees chosen to represent the company in Los Angeles, along with Special Olympics coach Dorothy Kavanagh, and athletes Anne Hoey and Thomas Caulfield.

THE COACH

Gymnastics coach Dorothy Kavanagh is among the 40 Irish managers and coaches travelling to Los Angeles. She is also a clinical nurse, specialising in sports, recreation and leisure at the Daughters of Charity in Lisnagry, Limerick.

"People forget that the Special Olympics is an ongoing programme. This has been a four-year cycle. Nearly 1,500 of these athletes competed in the Irish games. They all had aspirations to get to LA, but only 88 made it.

"I have been a Special Olympics coach for over 30 years and I teach floorball (a new but quickly growing sport), athletics, basketball, football, MATP (Motor Activity Training Program) and, of course, gymnastics.

"I was delighted when Special Olympics Ireland chose me as a member of the Los Angeles team. Your name isn't just pulled out of a hat for this - you have to be selected. It's a privilege to take part, and a great honour to be part of an exceptional squad.

"The training isn't all that different [to traditional sports coaching]. Take basketball. We still work on targets, goals, footwork and positioning for shooting. We might just break it down further and the language might be simpler.

"We also have to prepare the athletes for the heat in Los Angeles and encourage water breaks and remind them to pack their sunscreen.

"I'm most looking forward to seeing them perform at their best. Think of the courage it takes to go out in a strange environment to perform, particularly for the gymnasts who go out alone - I know I wouldn't do it.

Special Olympian Anne Hoey
Special Olympian Anne Hoey

"I think the athletes are most looking forward to the celebrities they might meet! I've heard them mention Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift… there's great excitement."

THE VOLUNTEER

Limerick man Tony Cusack works for the process team in Fixed Operations in Eircom. He was seconded to the Special Olympics for the National Games in Limerick in 2010 and 2014.

"I have been involved in the Special Olympics in various ways for a number of years. I initially got drawn towards it through the company's involvement.

"I got more heavily involved when the National Games came to Limerick in 2010 and I was seconded for seven months. In 2014 I worked on the National Games for 10 weeks. From a personal development point of view, it offered something completely different to me.

"I was on the games organising committee in venue integration as well as the overall integration of things like transport and catering.

"I was using my contacts on the ground for sponsorship and benefit-in-kind. It's like pushing an open door, to be honest. You ring up strangers and say, 'listen, I need a truck tomorrow to bring equipment to a venue' and, in general, people are on for it as soon as they hear Special Olympics.

"As a Limerick man, I was very proud of the way the whole city got behind the games in 2010 and 2014.

"I'm also proud of Eircom. People within the company have a strong affiliation with the event and Eircom very kindly give us the time off when we volunteer - we don't have to take it out of our holidays.

"To raise funds, I held a very successful Stars in Your Eye night in January and we raised €1,400. I was Frank Sinatra!

"We'll be in LA for 10 days and staying in a hotel very close to the convention centre. It's generally a 12-hour day when you're volunteering.

"I'm not sure exactly what my role will entail yet, but as a volunteer you're just trying to make sure that the athletes have a wonderful experience.

"You enjoy the games through them. That's what it's all about. To see the joy on the athletes' faces - and indeed on their families' faces - it really is something to behold."

THE ATHLETE

Anne Hoey from Drogheda in Louth will be competing in bocce at the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles.

"I just couldn't believe it when I got the call from my coach to tell me I was going to LA. I couldn't wait to tell everybody!

"I've been training every Monday night at the Drogheda Special Olympics Club and I've been doing lots of walking and making sure not to eat too late at night. I also swim and play basketball. My coach tells me 'it's not the winning, it's the taking part that counts'.

"I have nine brothers and sisters, and 12 people are travelling to LA to support me, including my mam.

"I'd love to go to Disney while I'm there. Every time I see it on the telly, I think 'I want to go there'.

"I'm also really looking forward to the scenery and the shopping - I want to see as much of it as I can."

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