Ireland’s top Paralympic athletes have pleaded with the country to get behind them in the coming weeks with the same national pride and passion that buoyed up newly-crowned Olympic boxing champion Kellie Harrington.
Paralympic superstars like Londonderry’s Jason Smyth and Belfast man Michael McKillop will lead eight track and field athletes on the 29-strong Irish team for the upcoming Paralympics in Tokyo (August 24-September 5).
They’re joined in that Ireland panel by Newtownards swimmer Barry McClements and Dungannon shooter Phil Eaglesham.
Smyth, known as the ‘fastest Paralympian on the Planet’, has never been beaten in three previous Games.
The T13 200m is no longer on the programme but he goes to his fourth Paralympics hoping for a sixth gold medal (T13 100m) while four-time champion McKillop is hoping to add a fifth Paralympic medal (in T37 1500m) to his glittering collection.
They’re delighted to witness Ireland’s Olympic success and the feverish reaction it has garnered but, as they prepared to depart for their pre-Games training camp in Narita City on Thursday, they asked people to give their team’s achievements the same recognition.
“Obviously there was huge excitement around Kellie’s achievement and it’s been fabulous to see,” Smyth said.
“You’d hope now that we can take a bit of that (support) with us. The recognition (for Paralympic medals) isn’t the same. It’s improving but it’s still got a long way to go and it’s about how people buy into the Paralympics, which is often driven by the media.”
“I heard Kellie Harrington’s area is looking for the freedom of the city for her,” McKillop observed. “That’s brilliant, but it just doesn’t happen for Paralympians. There’s not the same interest in us, from the media or the public, and that’s based on generational change.
He asked the public: “If you downloaded the Tokyo (Olympic) 2020 app then please do the same for the Paralympics. You can switch the app over very easily. You’ll get the exact same option to select ‘Ireland’ and follow our daily schedule and progress and you’ll see even more medals.”
Paralympics Ireland have a stated target of winning six to 10 medals in Tokyo. That’s marginally less than the 11 (four gold) that was won in Rio five years ago or the 16 (eight golds) won in London 2012 but, like their Olympic counterparts, their aspirations reflect the soaring standards in international para sport plus some retirements since Rio.
Their athletics squad still includes the Rio F41 discus silver medallist Niamh McCarthy and the broader team includes defending cycling champions Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal and Ellen Keane, a bronze medallist in swimming in Rio.
In-form Greta Streimikyte, who has knocked a chunk of her 1500m PB this season, will be the first track athlete to compete on August 24.
RTÉ television will have live daily coverage and a nightly highlights programme and Paralympics Ireland CEO Miriam Malone said: “This is a great opportunity to get behind our athletes, to see them perform at their very best and to understand their performance and achievement levels on the very highest stage.”
Athletics: J Smyth, M McKillop, N McCarthy, G Streimikyte, O Comerford, J Lee, M Fitzgerald, P Monahan.
Cycling: Katie George Dunlevy & Eve McCrystal, Martin Gordon & Eamon Brynes, Ronan Grimes, Gary O’Reilly and Richael Timothy
Swimming: Patrick Flanagan, Ellen Keane, Barry McClements, Nicole Turner and Róisín Ní Ríain
Shooting: Phil Eaglesham
Equestrian: Tamsin Addison, Rosemary Gaffney, Kate Kerr Horan and Michael Murphy
Canoeing: Pat O’Leary
Table Tennis: Colin Judge
Powerlifting: Britney Arendse
Archery: Kerrie Leonard