Saturday 17 March 2018

Antoinette takes to the pool at Special Olympics in memory of her beloved dad

Munster team swimmer Antoinette O'Leary, 13, from Gneeveguilla, Co. Kerry. Picture: Alan Place/Fusionshooters.
Munster team swimmer Antoinette O'Leary, 13, from Gneeveguilla, Co. Kerry. Picture: Alan Place/Fusionshooters.
Munster swimmer Antoinette O'Leary, 13, from Gneeveguilla, Co. Kerry competes in the 25 metre backstroke


SHE can still remember the day her dad taught her how to swim – throwing her up and then catching her in his arms in the pool.

She was only six years old but Antoinette O'Leary trusted her dad Paud completely and swam into his arms.

Antoinette can still remember that day clearly, and now, eight years later, she's competing at national level in the Special Olympics national games 2014.

She has never had a proper swimming lesson except for her dad's impromptu lessons in the Killarney pool but she took to the water like a fish.

She swam another little bit, coming back safely into his arms and then swam another bit and did this until she was able to swim side-by-side with him.

Sadly, Paud was not in Limerick to watch his daughter compete in the games. Two years ago, the 42-year-old was killed by a hit-and-run driver while out training for a charity cycle near his home in Gneeveguilla in Co Kerry.

He was going to complete the Ring of Kerry Charity Cycle to raise money for the Kerry Stars, the Special Olympics club his daughter attends and where he was a volunteer.

"It's still very raw with her. She was very close to her dad. He was her Number One," mum Margaret told the Sunday Independent.

"She was everywhere with him. They were never apart. As soon as the car started, she'd be off with him."

Just then Antoinette climbs into her mother's arms and, as if to reassure her, says: "You're my Number Two, Mammy."

"There's not a day goes by that we don't mention him," Margaret continues.

"It helps to talk about what happened. Sometimes you go back a step talking about it but he's mentioned every day."

The Special Olympics is the first time the whole family has been away alone since Paud's death: Margaret, Antoinette who turns 14 in July, Shannon, 16, Paudie, 11, and Ross, 9.

Having her family close by also means that Antoinette is able to compete.

"Separation is not something she would be able to deal with now. I hand her over to the volunteer in the morning and then collect her when her competition is over," she said.

Despite her anxiety, Antoinette was a different girl getting out of the pool after she had taken second place in the 25m backstroke in the preliminary competition. She's also competing in the 25m front crawl.

"She was so happy. Even at the poolside she wasn't over the moon about us being so far away on the balcony but she was really happy coming out."

Margaret says Special Olympics has helped her daughter to cope with the loss of her dad.

"Without a doubt it helps her get on with her life, it's something she looks forward to and it's a great healer," Margaret says.

"She swims twice a week with the Killarney Swimming Club and once a week with the Kerry Stars.

"But it's a big thing and she's representing her club so it's a thrill. For herself it's great because she enjoys it and it's a great opportunity for her to show off her talents and be proud of something huge," she said.

Antoinette has overcome huge hurdles and is looking forward to going into First Year at Scoil Phobail in Rathmore in September.

But there are about 1,500 other inspiring people in Limerick this weekend taking part in the Special Olympic Games and having the time of their lives.

They are competing in 14 different sports, including athletics, aquatics, bocce, basketball, badminton, table tennis, football and equestrian competitions, representing their clubs and their regions and vying for about 100 coveted places on Team Ireland for the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles next year.

And though the 1,500 athletes, their 500 coaches, 3,000 volunteers, their families and supporters will be exhausted by the time tonight's closing ceremony comes round, they will still be smiling from ear to ear in Limerick.

Sunday Independent

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