Monday 14 October 2019

Everyone's a winner as Ireland enjoys special place in a global success story

Gymnast John Keenan, who has collected seven medals, including two golds. Picture: Sportsfile
Gymnast John Keenan, who has collected seven medals, including two golds. Picture: Sportsfile

Ryan Nugent in Abu Dhabi

As the Abu Dhabi World Games heads into its third day of competition and Team Ireland rack up medals across gymnastics, swimming and bocce, Special Olympics CEO Mary Davis sets her mind back to 2003 in Ireland and how the Games was a glass-ceiling moment in the competition becoming truly global.

Until then, the Games had not been hosted outside of the United States, and Ms Davis - founder of the Irish movement - was not part of Special Olympics International.

Now the Mayo woman is at the wheel as the Games makes its first foray into the Middle East, following successful stop-offs in Athens and Shanghai along the way.

"After that [Ireland], the Games were in China, they were in Athens before going back to LA and now we're here again outside of the US, so they were a real first in that sense.

"The whole population of Ireland got involved and behind those Games. The greatest thing was the way that the majority of those people stayed involved," Ms Davis told the Sunday Independent.

"If you can create the same legacies and opportunities that Ireland got, in other parts of the world then that's good."

Even in the late 1980s - a decade after Mary Davis and Frances Kavanagh founded Special Olympics Ireland - they were knocking on doors for coverage of their athletes but forever being shunned.

And the sheer growth since 2003 has even been a surprise, particularly with the organisation now having a base out at the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown.

"Did I ever think I'd see the day where Special Olympics Ireland would have its own offices and big facility whereby they can have training, they can have board meetings? It's just so fantastic to see that development," she said.

"That's all a legacy from the World Games and continued support from the Government and partners."

Among those legacies are the ever-growing support nationally for the movement, with Ireland being the only country other than the United Arab Emirates to have volunteers over working at the Games.

Ireland has 130 athletes and coaches involved over the course of the seven-day event, along with 74 other volunteers and tend to punch above their weight when it comes to the medal haul.

And while participation is key over here, don't be fooled - these athletes are competitors and are hell-bent on making it on to the podium.

None more so than Aisling Beacon (39) from Wicklow, who after powering through with a hip injury in the 1600m open-water swim, waited two hours in the sweltering Dubai heat to hear if after the divisioning was done, she would get a medal.

But such were the complexities, the results now won't be finalised until tomorrow, leaving an anxious wait.

Meanwhile, gymnast John Keenan from Westmeath will have to look for an extra check-in bag on his flight back home after he collected an astounding seven medals, including two gold, a silver and a bronze.

In total, Ireland have clinched a whopping 10 gold, two silver and three bronze after two days of competition.

Sunday Independent

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