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Paralympics hero Darragh McDonald goes back to school

HE has slept with his Olympic gold medal under his pillow each night -- but yesterday it was time to display it in all its glittering glory.

A tumultuous welcome greeted Paralympic star Darragh McDonald yesterday as the Leaving Cert student arrived back among his fellow pupils and teachers.

To the appropriately rousing blasts of 'Chariots of Fire', all 1,600 pupils at Gorey Community School in Co Wexford lined out to roar on the swimming champ as he waved from an open-top car, his medal around his neck.

With characteristic modesty, Darragh admitted that he was more nervous of this homecoming than he had been before his 400-metre race in London.

"I said it before, after Beijing -- this is far more nerve-wracking than standing in front of a crowd of thousands of people in a pair of Speedos," he said.

Posing for photographs with her arm shyly around his waist was his long-term girlfriend, Clara Peters (17). The couple have been dating for the past three years.

Also a Leaving Cert pupil, she was in London to cheer him on and said she never had any doubts that he would do well.

"I'm so proud of him but I always knew he could do it," she said. "He took silver in Bejing and so there was always a chance of gold this time. I always believed in him."

In a simple but moving speech from the school balcony, Darragh thanked his teachers and peers for their support over the past few months.

"Within two hours of my race, I had 700 Facebook notifications and 400 new followers within 20 minutes on Twitter. No medal is only won by one person and this school is part of my support team," he said to roars of approval.

Just as excited as the pupils themselves, teachers also lined up to have their photographs taken with the swimming star and to marvel at the gold medal.

Principal Michael Finn said they were "so proud" of Darragh, who was "such a wonderful role model".

"Everyone in the school loves him. He is such a lovely chap," said special assistant Jacqueline Breen.

Niamh Walsh (17) described him as a great friend. "We knew he could do it -- he's just fantastic," she said.

Watching the celebrations with beams of pride on their faces were Darragh's parents, Caroline and Derek McDonald.

When their son was born with no legs below the knees and and with a lower arm missing from below the elbow, they never dreamed that he would end up a sports star.

"He started swimming at the age of six and started to show promise," said Derek, who credits his son's swimming coach, deaf swimming star John Kealy -- along with his new coach, Paul Connolly -- for helping Darragh reach this level.

Caroline revealed that her son slept with his medal "under his pillow" all week in London.

Darragh is now setting his sights on academic heights and hopes to get enough points in his Leaving Cert next June to to study medicine at Trinity College Dublin.

Meanwhile, sprinterJason Smyth (25) returned to his hometown with a haul of gold, as preparations turn to his wedding in three months.

The athlete was accompanied by his American fiancee Elise Jordan (25) in Eglinton in Co Derry yesterday. They fly back to the US next week to prepare for their wedding on December 29 in Utah.

Irish Independent