Kelly leads way for Irish in Rio
For the 4,000 athletes ready for action at the Paralympics in Rio, the waiting is finally over.
The build-up, as long and scandal-laden as it's been, was like no other, the event plagued in recent months as budget cutbacks threatened to keep certain nations away. But last night in Rio, as the flame was lit in the Maracana Stadium, all that negativity felt like a distant memory, the smiles of athletes from 160 countries lightening the mood as they prepared for their few fleeting moments in the spotlight.
On day one, eight Irish individual athletes across five sports will get their campaigns under way, while the seven-a-side football team prepares to face Ukraine in their first outing at Olympic level since 2008.
Ailbhe Kelly is first into action, the 17-year-old swimmer from Castleknock going in the heats of the S8 400m freestyle at 2.01pm Irish time. From there, a vast swathe of the Irish team will be spread across the city's venues today.
Partially-sighted runner Greta Streimiktye will be the first into action in the athletics stadium, the 20-year-old from Swords - who moved to Ireland from Lithuania five years ago - making her Paralympic debut in the heats of the T13 1,500m at 3.30pm.
Of course, the big star for the Irish team in that sport - and as it happens, in that same classification - is Jason Smyth, who begins his bid to retain his 100m title later tonight, his qualifying heat taking place at 11.19pm, where he should advance with ease to tomorrow's final.
Seán Baldwin, a member of the Irish Defence Forces, is Ireland's sole shooting competitor on day one, his qualifier of the R1 10m Rifle Standing taking place at 4.0pm. The 48-year-old has one of many particularly poignant stories the public will hear about over the next 11 days, having lost a leg in a car accident while on service in Liberia back in 2003.
Dave Malone, performance director for Paralympics Ireland, hopes the team will go home with eight medals, four gold, which could be enough to place them in the top-30 on the medal table.
"We have three sports where we've had sustained success at world level since London - athletics, swimming and cycling - so they're our three podium sports at the moment," he said. "On any given day, across some of the other we might get a surprise or two.
"We've a team of physiologists, strength and conditioning experts, physicals therapists, and have also brought in a sports psychologist," adds Malone. "The success on the world stage opened the door for athletes, but it brings new challenges in terms of being in the public eye and performances being scrutinised at a level we weren't used to."