Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Northern Ireland's Paralympic heroes left mark on fantastic games

Jason Smyth, from Eglinton, Co. Derry, celebrates with his gold medal after the men's 200m - T13 final

The curtain came down on the Paralympic Games on Sunday night at a spectacular closing ceremony bringing an end to London 2012 after six-and-a-half weeks of magnificent sport.

Northern Ireland’s Paralympians returned home with five gold and two bronze medals adding to the two silver and three bronze won at the Olympics making it an astonishing summer of achievement for our local athletes.

The success was led by the fastest Paralympian on the planet, Jason Smyth, who had the pressure on his shoulders to retain both his T13 100m and 200m titles he won in Beijing four years ago.

Pressure — what pressure?

The Derry sprint king, who is visually impaired, not only destroyed the opposition in both finals but set new world records in doing so. Not even Usain Bolt managed that in the Olympics last month.

Smyth’s first task now will be to find a new coach with Stephen Maguire, who has guided him for the last nine years, moving on but he believes there is still plenty more to come.

“I’m funded as a Paralympic athlete and what I achieve in Paralympic sport in hugely important and that will always be my number one priority but there’s absolutely no doubt that a major goal will be to try and reach Rio and the Olympics,” Smyth said.

“I was so close this year, far too close for my liking, so as I say I think there’s more to come and I think it would be wrong of me not to have that as a goal. As an athlete I want to reach my potential and wherever that is I’m going to strive to do that.”

Smyth shared a room with Newtownabbey’s Michael McKillop who not only defended his T37 800m title in a new world record but achieved the middle distance double as he coasted home in the 1500m. The longer distance wasn’t on the schedule in Beijing but London meant that the two friends could celebrate doing the “double-double” together.

And what McKillop, who has a mild form of cerebral palsy, didn’t know was that his mum, Catherine, would be there to present the medals after the 1500m, not the first time there were tears on a medal podium for a local athlete this summer.

There would be one more honour for McKillop who picked up the Whang Youn Dai Achievement Award as one of two athletes who exemplified the best spirit of the Paralympic Games, his dedication to helping and encouraging thousands of school children throughout Ireland being recognised and his belief that all Paralympians should help promote their own sports and serve as role models for the next generation.

While the success of Smyth and McKillop was expected the biggest smile belonged to 16-year-old Bethany Firth after the Seaforde swimmer took gold in the 100m backstroke S14 final.

What made her success even more remarkable was that after suffering a shoulder injury at the start of July she had to train using only her legs while keeping up basic fitness.

She only started using her arms again two days before the heats and swam through the pain to gold.

Bethany, who has learning difficulties, was happy to share the moment with everyone. When asked where she would keep the medal she replied, “Under the bed, with all my other medals.”

She’ll now have her shoulder examined and the injury will be given time to heal but Bethany has a bright future ahead looking forward to Rio.

The youngsters didn’t steal all the headlines. A pair of 47-year-olds are also bringing home bronze medals.

Armagh’s Eilish Byrne, on board her horse Youri, helped Ireland to third place in the team dressage and paracyclist James Brown, from Portaferry, won bronze in the road time trial.

There were three other competitors from Northern Ireland in London. Rostrevor swimmer Laurence McGivern set a personal best in the 100m backstroke S9 while, representing Great Britain, Greyabbey archer Sharon Vennard reached the quarter-finals in the women’s individual recurve and Ballykelly sprinter, 17-year-old Sally Brown was sixth in the final of the T46 100m. It was her first Paralympics and a stress fracture in her foot robbed her of a full winter’s training but like so many she was inspired by the occasion.

“It’s been an amazing experience, I’ll never forget it, being in the village and the atmosphere and the support of the team and how close we are and then the crowd and being in the stadium has just incredible,” she explained. “I now can’t wait to get back home and start training and get a proper winter in me and come back strong next year for the worlds. It has inspired me and it just makes me want to do even better.”

Sally did however cross the line first twice as Hannah Cockcroft, winner of two gold medals, named her wheelchair after her best friend.

A fantastic Games and Northern Ireland should be very proud of what our athletes have achieved.