It was a golden weekend for Northern Ireland’s Paralympians as two topped the podium at the Tokyo Games.
Newtownards swimmer Bethany Firth took gold for Team GB in the relay, while Londonderry’s Jason Smyth won the men’s 100m race for Team Ireland.
Jason won the T13 event, claiming his fourth consecutive Paralympic Gold and bringing his career total to six, while Bethany helped Team GB to a world record performance in the Mixed 4x100m Freestyle relay, beating second placed Australia by almost six seconds.
The First and Deputy First Minister led the congratulations, hailing them as “truly remarkable athletes”.
Speaking after his triumph, Jason said an injury-disrupted 2021 had been one of the toughest years he had experienced.
"Nine months ago, I was wondering if this was me done,” he said.
"Three months ago I was wondering would I be at the Games and to be able to be at this level.
"But we got things right and we came together right at the right time.”
Jason’s wife Elise said his gold meant all the hard work and sacrifices he and his family had put in had been worth it.
“Honestly, this is going to mean the world (to Jason),” she told RTE.
“He’s had a really hard year, and he wasn’t quite sure how things were going to keep going as far as injury goes, as well as all the restrictions, and not being able to train they way he would prefer to train.
“So it’s been a really hard year — but to have it all just culminate in winning the gold he’s worked so incredibly hard for — I think it’s going to mean even more.
“He stays cool, he stays calm. It’s his job, and he works hard to succeed. So to have done it, to have it all work out the way he wanted it to — the relief must be immense. I can’t imagine how happy he feels right now. I know how happy I feel — and I’m sure he is just completely over the moon.”
Jason is due back in his home town on Thursday, Elise said, revealing that daughter Evie (5) was looking forward to hugging her Paralympian daddy.
“She was saying she can’t wait for Thursday — because that’s when he comes home and she gets to hug him — and that is when she’ll be happiest,” Elise added.
Among those sending their congratulations was Irish President Michael D Higgins who hailed “an extraordinary achievement by an exceptional athlete”.
Tanaiste Leo Varadkar said it was “a remarkable achievement” by “a true champion”.
For Bethany, there are two more events this week before she flies home to Northern Ireland on Sunday.
On Tuesday, she competes in the 200m IM SM14, and in the 100m Backstroke S14 on Thursday.
Her mum Lindsay said: “It’s been very exciting! We’re all delighted for her!
“She’s had a very tough year with all the injuries, and she’s been out of the water quite a lot, with a paddling pool in the back garden.
“So all in all it’s been a very strange year for her.
“We were really delighted — she was the fastest girl in the relay, and even beat some of the lads’ times. We were delighted with it.”
Lindsay said Bethany was resting on Sunday after her golden weekend, adding: “She’s a bit tired today… understandably, but she is absolutely thrilled at taking the gold medal.
"As she always says, the medal is not just for her — it belongs to the whole community. She wouldn’t be able to do it without their support.”
On Sunday night First Minister Paul Givan and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill paid tribute to both athletes.
Mr Givan said: “Jason Smyth has been at the very top of his sport for such a long time.
"This latest win reflects a sprinter who not only excels in his field, but sets the standard for others.”
He said Bethany Firth’s five gold medals were “an amazing total, which further cements her status as one of the best athletes Northern Ireland has ever produced.”
Ms O’Neill added: “Huge congratulations to Jason Smyth on his fantastic victory in Tokyo, winning his sixth Paralympics gold medal.
“What an outstanding record for a truly remarkable athlete who has once again shown his calibre on the world stage.
“I have no doubt there will be many people, across Derry and beyond, who will be honouring Jason today and celebrating his phenomenal achievements.”
Describing Bethany as “a world class sportswoman”, Ms O’Neill said the swimmer was “a real inspiration to aspiring athletes”.