Team Ireland jets home with haul of 86 medals and 'awesome' memories
The Team Ireland plane will be weighed down with 86 medals when it leaves Los Angeles today destined for Dublin.
Our athletes came to California almost two weeks ago with the simple aim of doing themselves and their country proud.
Not only did they do both, but right up until the last moments of the final day of competition they were fighting for medals. The final tally hit 26 gold, 29 silver and 31 bronze.
Some 31 of the 88 athletes, who took part in events including soccer, golf, bocce and equestrian, set personal bests during a week described as "extraordinary".
After the worst possible start to the World Games when they were comprehensively beaten by Russia in the preliminary stages, the country's all-female basketball team worked their way to the gold medal match on the final day of competition.
Huge crowds of supporters arrived in the University of Southern California for a showdown with Mexico that went all the way to the buzzer.
The Mexicans led most of the way but Team Ireland snatched victory by 19-17 in the final minute.
Player Lydia McGowan from Dublin admitted that, at the start of the Games, they were "like headless chickens", but they worked hard to turn it around for the knock-out stages.
"It's awesome. I just can't believe it," she said.
The star player all week has been Dubliner Sarah Byrne, who told the Irish Independent: "I'm so proud to be Irish. I'm so proud to put on the green jersey and play for my country.
"The team are really close. We've spent months together getting to know each other and then the past week, all the time together, so it's just great that we won it together," she said.
Ireland has been the best supported country throughout the Games and the basketball final was no different.
Oisin Nolan from Foxrock, Dublin, whose sister Clare was on the team, said: "My family were in absolute bits. It was so tight but Ireland just pipped them at the end. I could not be more proud of all 10 of them."
Nicola Farrell's mother Bernie was unable to be in LA to see her daughter win gold, but managed to watch the entire match in real time online.
"I'm absolutely so excited. They've worked so hard. It really broke my heart not to be able to travel but it was amazing to watch it online," Bernie said.
At the same time as the basketball final in UCLA's Drake Stadium, the 11-a-side soccer team faced Iceland with a chance of bronze, and a very similar story emerged.
"In the final game we got the equalizer with three minutes to go. That just epitomised the determination to bring home a medal," said soccer coach Paul Martyn. The game went to penalties, which Ireland eventually won 5-4.
"The respect the lads showed after the missed penalty was sportsmanship of the highest order," he added.
On the athletics track there was further medal joy for the relay team - Aoife Beston (25) from Claremorris, Co Mayo; Donal O'Mahoney (42) from Kilcoole, Co Wicklow; Timothy Morahan (26) from Rathmines, Dublin; and James Meenan (20) from Dundalk, Co Louth - who won silver.
In badminton there was gold in the mixed doubles for Amy Quinn (30) from Bray, Co Wicklow, and Brian Hooper (33) from Gorey, Co Wexford.
There were more medals for Mullingar man Peter Malynn (57) and Anne Hoey (51) from Drogheda in the doubles bocce. They took silver.
Special Olympics Ireland CEO Matt English said: "Each and every member of Team Ireland has put in an extraordinary effort here in Los Angeles.
"From medals, ribbon placements and personal bests, this has been one of the most successful World Games ever."
He paid tribute to the coaches and the management team who helped the athletes.
"I know the people of Ireland will welcome back our athletes and give them the heroes' welcome they rightly deserve," he said.
The Games drew to a close last night at the LA Memorial Coliseum where Carly Rae Jepsen was among the performers.
"It is inspiring to see the thousands of athletes, families, coaches, volunteers and supporters who have gathered from across the world," she said, adding: "It is a true honour to perform in front of such an amazing audience."
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