Special Olympics kicks off with 'fabulous' opening ceremony as 91 Irish athletes prepare to compete in Abu Dhabi
BOUNCING into Zayed Sports City Stadium and with smiles beaming brighter the Olympic torch, Team Ireland finally arrived back on the world stage in Abu Dhabi.
It only took the guts of an hour before the Irish name was called out and the team in green made their way out of the tunnel where they would join 7,000 other Special Olympic athletes also witnessing their dreams come true.
From nations such as Kiribati and Guyana with only five and six athletes to the hundreds representing the juggernauts of the USA, India and Germany, the cultural mix of the event was there for all to see, almost 200 nations in total.
And yet it still felt that with 91 athletes – much less than some – and Paddy's Day coming up on the Emirati horizon, this tournament was more Irish than it's been since Croke Park in 2003.
One of the catalysts of Ireland hosting the Games that year was Mary Davis – and the Mayo woman is now CEO of Special Olympics worldwide.
And contributing front and centre for Ireland at the ceremony was athlete official, Philomena O'Hare (46) from Navan, Co. Meath – who after more than 20 years involved in the Special Olympics was chosen to read out the athlete officials oath.
Though describing the Opening Ceremony as “fabulous” the whole movement means so much more.
It's about “making new friends, and helping out other people, I'm a volunteer now, I'm not an athlete anymore”.
Special Olympics Chairman, Tim Shriver – a nephew of John F Kennedy – told athletes to think of those who weren't there with them.
Speaking at the Opening Ceremony – 10 years since his mother Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of the Special Olympics, passed away – Shriver said “I think they're all here, I think the founders of this great nation are here, I think my mother is here”.
Shriver also thanked Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed for “sending a message to the entire world that now is the time for tolerance”.
Parents and friends have already commended the conditions and facilities available to the athletes in the UAE, with Pam Beacon, mother of open-water swimmer, Aisling (39) saying they're all treated like royalty.
Aisling got involved initially in 2003 and was responsible for setting up a Special Olympics club in Wicklow, was on the board of Eastern region and even spoke in the UN.
“She's great, she's getting a bit older now but she thinks she's the champion and that's the important thing, and she's having a ball,” Pam explained.
“She's swimming on Saturday, 10am in the sea.
“She was at our own Games in Ireland, she wasn't selected for Shanghai and she went as a volunteer, and then she was selected for Athens, the very first open-water swim that Special Olympics did and she represented Ireland in that and got a silver medal and then she wasn't selected for LA but we went to LA and worked in LA and now she's selected again.
“And if she wasn't selected this year I still would've brought her because she loves it, it's her life.”
Meanwhile, helping out and raising support for the Irish athletes months before they set foot on the tarmac were two recent UAE representatives in the Rose of Tralee.
Clare woman, Niamh Kelly, the 2017 Abu Dhabi Rose and current Dubai Rose, Rebecca Egan from Offaly clubbed together along with the rest of the strong Irish diaspora, to host some lip sync battle nights to drum up the support.
The pair have been involved in Special Olympics at a local level since volunteering at the Limerick Games in 2010 and felt obliged through patriotism to get in touch with the Ireland Team last year.
“It's been really great to be able to tie those old experiences over here to help support the Irish team,” Rebecca explained.
With the number of volunteers and family members, Niamh reckons Ireland has one of the biggest representations.
“It's fabulous that it all ties in together, it's Paddy's Weekend, this is on and we've so many different activities planned throughout the week, after hours for the volunteers as well.”
But first, let the Games begin.