The Island, the Emirates, and the Kerry Star

Gary O'Sullivan will line out in the shot put and 400-metre walk at the Special Olympics World Games. He spoke to Tadhg Evans before jetting off the Abu Dhabi and this year's largest sporting spectacle.

It's a grey Friday afternoon in Castleisland, the kind of afternoon that'd put even the chirpiest among us off form.

And there's no light to be found in the forecast; it's dry for now, but torrential rain would seem to be whipping this way from Tralee.

Standing under a canopy at Main Street's Country Market, Gary O'Sullivan seems unbothered by that prospect.

This time next week, he'll be 8,000 kilometres from Castleisland, trading his hometown's questionable weather for the palms and sand of Abu Dhabi. His own Kerry Stars Special Olympics club will assemble on Thursday to cheer him from Killarney Railway Station to Dublin Airport, and it's there, north of the nation's capital, that Gary will meet almost 100 Irish athletes who will compete in this month's World Games - just as he will.

Context considered, those looming rainclouds are no cause for worry.

"I've never represented Ireland in anything; I never thought I would," he says after moving indoors to sit facing the front window. "I'll be competing in the four-kilo shot put and the 400-metre walk. I'm nervous, I'm excited - I'm every kind of thing.

"I was in Tralee when I got the news last summer; my girlfriend [April] and my sister [Anne Marie] said, 'Gary, there's a letter from the Ireland team - you're going to Abu Dhabi'. 'Lies', I said, 'stop telling lies'.

"But then they got a photo and sent it on. It hit me: 'Oh my God, I'm going'."

Kerry's only World Games participant will have plenty familial company on what will be his first journey to the United Arab Emirates. He lives with his nan, Mary O'Sullivan, and she too will swap St Stephen's Park for Abu Dhabi to support her 30-year-old grandson. With her will be Gary's brother, Shane; his mom, Margaret; and two aunts, Philomena and Stacey.

Margaret herself works at The Country Market but has taken time out to draw us a pot of tea and take a seat next to Gary. Setting foot on Abu Dhabi next Friday morning is a moment she'll relish as much as her son will - in no small part due to the months of contrasting fortunes she has been through lately.

"I didn't think I'd be alive for this," she says. "Last year I slipped and fell down the stairs; I broke my backbone and my chest bone, and I was told I should be either dead or crippled.

"One day, I cried because I was in so much pain. My dad is dead, and I remember saying, 'Dad, why did you save me when I'm in this much agony?'

"A couple of weeks later, I got a call that Gary was going to Abu Dhabi. A couple of weeks after that, my daughter told me she was pregnant. I said, 'Dad, that's enough excitement until next year.

"When I got the call about Gary, I was just back to work here. My husband rang to say we were going to Abu Dhabi. I just shouted around the restaurant, 'We're going to Abu Dhabi, we're going to Abu Dhabi!' Everyone in the restaurant started clapping for me - even though they didn't understand what was happening!"

This will be Gary's first World Games, though he's no late bloomer; this is only a new episode in a life of sporting achievement.

His involvement with Special Olympics began in his late teens, by which time he had played soccer with St Oliver's National School and Castleisland AFC. A staunch Manchester United fan, soccer remains his first love, and the Red Devils' vastly improved form under Ole Gunnar Solskjær seems as much a source of delight for him as the thought of Abu Dhabi.

Throughout his years involved with Special Olympics - either with the now-defunct Castleisland club or his current group, Kerry Stars - he has competed in athletics and soccer, becoming a familiar face at the Munster Games in the process.

But his decision to specialise in walking and shot put has proven wise. He won gold in both disciplines at 2018's Ireland Games, achievements that gave him a shot at the Irish selection he has since secured.

With the Games - the sporting peak for those with intellectual and physical disabilities - just days away, he sees it as vital to thank those who've helped him become one of the 7,500 athletes worldwide ready to compete.

And aside from years of valued assistance from a wide range of Special Olympics folk - and more than a little help from his lifelong best friend, Stephen McCarthy - to say the people of Castleisland have been supportive would be the understatement to top all understatements.

"I was having my breakfast one morning here when a lady asked me if she could have her photo taken with an Olympian," Gary says. "People come up to me on the street all the time to wish me luck. A lot of people have been very good to me, in Castleisland and everywhere around. Hennebery's Sport in Tralee were very good to me; the Nike Factory story donated sports gear; there was a bingo night for me last Tuesday; Leanne Cronin organised a night at the dogs to help me fundraise. There have been so many other things, and I want to thank everyone.

"But I must thank Tom McCarthy's Bar and Charlie Farrelly for the table quiz [which took place on the night of this interview]. Charlie told me around the time of National Games that the committee would hold something for me if I was selected - and he kept his promise."

"I don't know how we'll ever pay the people of Castleisland back," Margaret says. "It's been unbelievable, from the smallest person to the shop-owners. It's a small town, everyone goes about their own business, but between the help they gave me and their support for Gary - they're friends for life."

The Special Olympics World Summer Games' opening ceremony is on March 14, and 2019's largest sporting event will conclude on March 21.

Kerryman

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