Life

Thursday 17 October 2019

'Time is a great healer' - Special Olympics Ireland's CEO remembers late brother as he flies out to support Irish team

7 March 2019; Matt English, CEO, Special Olympics Ireland, with Emma Johnston, from Dublin, a member of the Ireland Basketball team on the team's departure from Dublin Airport in advance of the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
7 March 2019; Matt English, CEO, Special Olympics Ireland, with Emma Johnston, from Dublin, a member of the Ireland Basketball team on the team's departure from Dublin Airport in advance of the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Matt English, CEO Special Olympics Ireland, Eoin Donohoe, and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar

When Matt English, Special Olympics Ireland CEO, flies to the UAE this Tuesday to cheer on the Irish special olympics team, the day will be marked with anticipation but also tinged with poignancy.

Tuesday is the 21st anniversary of Matt's brother John who had special needs. He died of cancer when he was just 21.

"The day that I fly out to Abu Dhabi to the Special Olympics, my brother who had an intellectual disability died of cancer when he was aged 21,” he tells Independent.ie.

“I have nothing but happy memories of him now and time is a great healer.”

But he added: “I really identify with the impact of sport in John's short life, when he competed in swimming and athletics in the local area."

Though the Special Olympics community was a much smaller programme when John was alive, the family saw the benefits that sport had on him. And when Matt flies out on his brother's anniversary, he'll once again witness that familiar energy.

“We have so many clubs now and there are so many more competitive opportunities for athletes.”

"We all can learn so much from someone who has an intellectual disability - while they have different challenges in life, they live in the present and in the moment. The joy and excitement at the airport when the athletes were heading off this week was very symbolic. Of course there were athletes who were anxious about the long flight and others were anxious about leaving their loved ones. But they're together as a team with their coaches for a two week period that will life changing for them.

Last week, 130 people – 91 athletes, and 39 coaches and chaperones – departed for the UAE, and some 350 registered family members will soon travel out to cheer on the athletes.

“Every person with an intellectual disability in Ireland has an opportunity to join a Special Olympics club, and there are now 8,000 of them. Not all want to compete and those who do have the opportunity to register. But they have had the opportunity to qualify over a three-year process.”

"They’re inspirational. Some will be very competitive, more are going there to finish the experience, but for everyone it’s all about performing to the best of their ability. The motto is “if I cannot win let me be brave in the attempt”. It’s all about giving them the best experience that we can give.”

“They've all had some cultural training as well, we’ve prepared them for the warm temperatures in UAE, these athletes would have started their qualification process three years ago, and they participated in the regional games, and last June the Ireland games. 1,600 athletes competed in the Ireland games and from that 91 were selected.”

Some are competing at the more extreme end of the scale. Two athletes are competing in a 1600-metre open water swim, others are competing in alpine skiing, kayaking and golf events. 

“In Seapoint (in Dublin), we had the Ireland games open water swim last year and it’s a fairly tough sport. 15 athletes competed last June and two were selected... The average person is not able to do a 1,600 open water swim.”

English adds: “Ireland, with the exception of the US, will be the best supported team. There are over 10,000 Irish people living in the UAE and it’s over St Patrick’s weekend so I expect a festival atmosphere supporting the team.”

English was one of the judges at the Nutramino Health and Fitness Awards at the Mansion House last Friday.

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