Memories, achievements, friendships, camaraderies, newly crowned heroes, highs and lows, all packed away in team gear bags.
Plans to relax and talks of training plans in preparation for Rio discussed among athletes. Then, there were us at home.
First the Olympics, which we thought could not be topped and then the Paralympics, the biggest Paralympics to date and the most successful Irish Team in 25 years. What is going to hold our interest now?
One thing is for sure, we are more familiar with our Paralympians and while, most may not have been household names up until this point, their heroics and phenomenal strength has catapulted them to the peak of our memory bank and we will, in the future, be keeping a close eye out for their progression through their careers and look forward with earnest to Rio 2016.
The games began with the Opening Ceremony on Wednesday 29th August. The reception the Irish Team received was unique, the pride on the athletes’ faces, the atmosphere and joy that reverberated around the stadium will remain with many people for a long time to come. There were many highlights during the games, double gold for Irish athletes, personal bests, world records smashed, South Africa’s Nathalie du Toit picking up her 13th Paralympic Gold and retiring from the games and the defeat of Oscar Pistorious in the T44 100m by 19 year old Jonnie Peacock of Great Britain.
Pistorious summed it up perfectly when he said, “this has been the most phenomenally successful Olympic and Paralmypic Games and I think the world is finally seeing that Paralympic sport is truly elite.”
Some highlights of the 2012 Paralympics Games
As well as winning double gold and concreting his position as the best Paralympic distance runner, Ireland’s hero Michael McKillop finished off his games by receiving a Whang Youn Dai Achievement Award. This award is given to athletes who portray the true spirit and ethos of the Paralympic Games. A gold medal was presented to McKillop, in essence, representing the time this young man dedicates to helping and encouraging Irish school children and demonstrating that sport is for everybody, those with and those without disabilities. He is a true role model for the next generation both on and off the track.
Our Irish Usain Bolt, Jason Smyth winning double gold, retaining his title in both the 100m and 200m T13 disciplines. Smyth smashed the world record three times in four races and has placed himself on the world wide podium with Tyson Gay saying that Smyth has the best sprinting technique in the world.
Mark Rohan winning gold in both the H1 Individual Road Race and Individual Time Trial. Rohan, a previous inter-county footballer proved to be the best in this discipline. Having previously played wheelchair basketball, Rohan said that once he had a feel for hand cycling, he was sold. Following his second gold, Rohan said, “I have always given 100 percent to sport. Sport is sport, whether it is in an able-bodied competition or a disabled competition. The emotions are the same.”
“I want to promote disability sports. I want to show people that there are real opportunities out there in sport if you have a disability.”
Our first gold of the games, won by youngster Bethany Firth. This was Firth’s first paralympics and her first competition of the games. She won gold in the 100m backstroke S14, touching the wall a full 1.4 seconds faster than her qualifying time. Unfortunately, Firth did not compete in any further events, as the result of a shoulder injury
Wicklow lady Helen Kearney proved to be another vital cog in the medal wheel of the Irish Team. Kearney, in her first Paralympics, claiming two bronze and one silver medal in the para-equestrian arena. Speaking after winning her final medal, Kearney said, “my first games, I cannot even put into words how it feels.” In relation to her team bronze, she said, “the team bronze is fantastic. The team worked so hard that it was a great achievement for us all and is testament to all our hard work that we secured the bronze.”
In athletics, Catherine O’Neill, eventually, after years of hard work and dedication, claimed a much coveted Paralympic medal. The saying, third time lucky is a definite for this super lady as she claimed silver for her country in the Women’s Discus Throw – F51/52/53 in her third Paralympic Games. Her best paralympic result to date was fourth in her discipline in Sydney in 2000. Following her victory, O’Neill said, “I have been waiting for this for a long time. This is my third Paralympics and you cannot understand how much this means to me. I want to thank those who have supported me and stood by me.” Ireland’s Orla Barry placed third in her discus F57 event. The Cork Lady had a throw of 28.12 going into the medal throw off and this proved to be enough to claim the third place position. Barry said, “I came here to get on the podium and I am going back with a bronze medal. I am absolutely delighted.”
Another gold for Team Ireland as Darragh McDonald touched home first in the 400m freestyle S6 event. The teenager romped home with a huge amount of time to spare on a time of 4:55:56. The silver medalist, coming in with 5:03:44 on the clock. This young man is only swimming six years, with his local Asgard swimming club. His inspiration to commence swimming, none other than his now team mate, Ellen Keane. McDonald competed in Beijing in 2008, winning silver in his 400m freestyle event. Four years later, his experience and perseverance put him on the gold medal position on the podium.
Outside of the Irish camp, there was huge upset on the track, when the most famous paralympian, South Africa’s Oscar Pistorious was beaten in the T44 100m and 200m final. The South African was defeated in the T44 200m final by Brazilian Alan Fonteles Cardoso Oliveira by .07 of a second.
Pistorious made his feelings publicly known claiming that Oliveira’s blades were longer and for this reason, the race wasn’t exactly fair. He went so far as to ask the International Paralympic Committee to hold an investigation into same. In the 100m final, 19 year old Jonnie Peacock won the gold medal on a time of 10.90 sec. Peacock was the only man to break the 11 second barrier, setting a new paralympic record.
Pistorious entered the 100m final as defending champion and in the end didn’t even feature in the medal ceremony. It took the 400m final for Pistorius to come to life and finish off the 2012 track and field programme with a gold medal.
“it was very special to me. It was the last event of my season and the last event of the games.”
He came around the final bend, some 20m ahead of his closest competitor and crossed the line almost 3.5 seconds ahead of silver, creating a new Paralympic Record of 46.68 seconds.
Sticking with South Africa, Nathalie du Toit, one of her countries greatest athletes, finished her competitive career with a silver place in the S9 Women’s 100m Freestyle. Du Toit already has 13 gold medals in her possession and was expected to finish her career with 14. However, Ellie Cole of Australia had a different plan and she beat the legendary du Toit to the gold. Similarly to her countryman Pistorious, DuToit did not take the defeat likely and could not hide her emotions. She removed her silver medal and stalked away from the podium instead of posing for photographs. She eventually returned and stood for the media saying, “It’s not the medal that’s emotional. It’s knowing that I’ll never walk out there again. It’s sad. I’ve been there for 22 years.”
The Irish cycling duo of Catherine Walsh and Fran Meehan also showcased their talent, leaving London with a silver and a bronze medal. Their silver medal was the result of their Individual B Pursuit at the velodrome and their bronze medal was won on the road, in the Individual B Time Trial.Walsh, previously a pentathlete, changed disciplines in 2007 to tandem cycling and has not looked back.
The games ended in superb fashion, just as they began, with a magnificent ceremony. Following four years of dedication and training each and every athlete, representing 75 countries, can take a well deserved break to rest and recuperate. Ireland finished at 19 on the medal table, returning home with 16 medals.
The Irish athletes bypassed the medal predictions, touching down with eight gold, three silver and five bronze. The newest Irish heroes will touch down at around 8pm tonight and will meet and greet their many adoring fans at Dublin Airport.
The Chef de Mission Liam Harbison, expressed the wishes of the team to greet the public at the airport this evening instead of an official homecoming.
In total, they have been away from their nearest and dearest for a month and are eager to be back among their loved ones. The team will be honoured by Enda Kenny, President Michael D. Higgins and other members of the government later in the week.
If there is a lesson to be learnt from the performance of our Paralympians, who have lifted the spirits of the nation over the past two weeks, it is that the biggest barriers in this life are the barriers we construct ourselves. Now, hurry up Rio 2016.