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Sarah Jane is Northern Ireland's first Special Olympics hero

By Laura Abernethy

Published 28/07/2015

Team Ireland’s Sarah Jane Johnston, from Lurgan, celebrates winning a bronze medal in the 100m backstroke yesterday
Team Ireland’s Sarah Jane Johnston, from Lurgan, celebrates winning a bronze medal in the 100m backstroke yesterday
Sarah Jane with her medal

Sarah Jane Johnston wasn't expected to live past her first birthday.

But now the brave Lurgan swimmer, known to her friends as Jane, is the toast of Northern Ireland after her historic achievement of winning a bronze at the Special Olympics in Los Angeles.

She has had to overcome many difficulties to compete at the games. Although she is deaf, partially blind and she can't speak, she can read and write, and communicate by signing.

And with the support of her parents, two sisters and brother-in-law, who have flown out to Los Angeles to cheer her on, Jane has secured a bronze medal in the 100m backstroke. She has been swimming at various levels for the past 12 years and was thrilled just to be selected for the Irish team for the first time.

Before heading off to the games, Jane wrote: "I was absolutely gobsmacked at first. So after the initial shock wore off, my family and I were completely delighted.

"It makes me feel very happy to be a part of Special Olympics Ireland."

Speaking last night from Los Angeles, Jenny Hughes, head Coach of the Ireland Aquatics Team in LA, said: "Jane is an extraordinary athlete. We are all so delighted for her. She swam so well. What Jane has achieved is simply fantastic - and we're all so, so proud of her!"

The 35-year-old has been squeezing in extra training sessions between her other hobbies of solving word searches, reading and tenpin bowling. She also attends craft classes with her mum Helen and enjoys walking her sister's dog. Despite her packed schedule, Jane revealed: "I like to be busy!"

At home, Jane goes to Eden Social Education Centre every weekday and enjoys helping with community events and taking part in sports.

Day care worker Siobhan Lavery said: "She's just a lovely, lovely girl. She's very well thought off in the centre. She's just a great part of our team here.

"Nothing stands in Jane's way. She leads a great life and does many, many things."

Angela Litter, manager of Ripples Special Olympics Club where Jane has trained for the last 10 years, said: "She doesn't let her disabilities hold her back at all. She will be involved in everything and she just loves being a part of it."

Jane flew out to LA last Tuesday with the other 87 Irish athletes and she has already been making an impression on her teammates and the 40-strong coaching and management team.

Angela explained: "Obviously with having no speech, it's very difficult for her but I was saying to the head coach of the Ireland aquatics team, you will still see her personality coming through and she said, 'Oh! I already have.'"

"Jenny Hughes, Team Ireland head coach, had left her flip-flops lying on the pool deck and Jane told her off that they shouldn't have been there. She's very much one for the rules. She'll be keeping them all in line and making sure they have what they are meant to have."

Friends and family across Lurgan and Portadown will continue to cheer her on as she also hopes to bring home more medals from the 100m freestyle and team relay,.

Angela added: "For an athlete who was never supposed to see her first birthday, we are all extremely proud of her."

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