Our Very Special Olympians

One of the joys of sport is when it transcends a mere result and opens up a window on something deeper and ultimately much more important.

Over the past two weeks we have thrilled to the achievements in sport, and in life, of the 91 strong team of Special Olympians that represented us at the World Games in Abu Dhabi.

On evening news bulletins throughout the week of competition RTÉ’s Paul O’Flynn pulled back the curtain on some of their stories and on Friday night the nation got to meet a host of the winners on the settee of the Late Late Show.

Earlier in the day I had the privilege to be at Dublin Airport for their homecoming. It was one of the most emotionally uplifting experiences you could imagine in sport.

The athletes themselves had been in a bubble of competition. Surrounded yes by media, including Ian Dempsey from Today FM and Henry McKean from Newstalk, but the world of Abu Dhabi is its own world and you can never quite grasp what the impact or reaction has been like at home.

On Friday when they gathered at the steps leading down to Area 14 in Dublin Airport’s Terminal One the athletes, coaches and enablers that had lifted our spirits could have been lifted up into the air with the force of goodwill that came from those gathered to meet them.

There were banners from every corner of the country, family members and friends with tears flooding down their cheeks in pure emotion, renditions of the Fields of Athenry and Olé, Olé that were loud and proud as any sung by a crowd of 50,000.

It was a special moment.

We had the honour to catch a few words with Sarah Louise Rea, the 19-year-old Badminton winner from Lisburn who’s fist pump on court en route to Gold captured the nation.

We shook hands with Simon Lowry and Mark Claffey who had won Golds on the golf course.

It was a day for family to reunite and begin the process of bringing the stars back to earth, perhaps forever changed by soaring so high as their ability overcame their disability.

Chatting to those from Special Olympics Ireland whose tireless effort makes such moments possible it was clear that this was so much more than a job.

Concern over how the athletes will come down from such highs was tempered by the fact it will be a while yet.

Over the weekend and throughout this week they will be celebrated at local authority receptions, at local town meetings, at gatherings in every home town from the corners of Wexford and Kerry to Donegal and Antrim.

Media and politicians were there, all of them laughing and swept away by the sheer joy of those they had come to celebrate.

There are more challenging days ahead in sport, days where governance takes centre stage, days where the hardship of preparation away from the spotlight of success have to be put in again and again and again.

But when it all comes together in the pure joy of an athlete’s face coming back to their family, their people, after excelling in a foreign field, that will carry you through a lot.

Thank you Special Olympians. You certainly lived up to your name.

 

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