Forty-five years since its maiden outing, the HSE Community Games continues to capture the imagination of the Irish sporting public.
The AIT Campus in Athlone — home to the national finals since the move from Mosney in 2009 — was awash with colour, competition, and camaraderie over the weekend as 5,000 participants flocked to the Midlands, each sharing the one ambition — to bring home the gold.
Winning a medal, however, is by no means a stroll in the park as Ireland’s latest World Champion Rob Heffernan will testify to. The race-walker from Togher competed in the 1993 Community Games finals, but the then 15-year old was unable to garner a podium place.
Indeed, nine years earlier, fellow World Championship gold medalist Sonia O’Sullivan took to the roads around Butlins in the girls’ U16 marathon, claiming the silver on that occasion.
By competing alone then, this year’s participants — aged between six and 16 — joined the ranks of Heffernan and O’Sullivan, with the menu in Athlone serving up a feast of sporting talent across hurling, Gaelic football, tennis, soccer, basketball, and track and field.
For a sprinkling of Limerick and Clare supporters, involvement in Athlone meant the trek to Croke Park could not be made. Nonetheless, the jerseys were out on show yesterday, even if contrasting fortunes were encountered.
The Derg U14 camogie team — comprising of Scariff, Ogonnelloe, and Bodyke — romped to victory in the gold medal final against Banagher of Offaly, claiming the spoils by 4-10 to 2-2.
For the Kilmallock girls’ soccer team however, much like John Allen’s men, they would have to be content with second best, losing out to Trim in a hugely entertaining U15 decider.
Kilmallock’s conquerors were Leinster champions Trim and Captain Karley Leavy, daughter of joint-manager Mark, was understandably delighted to have bagged a gold medal upon her first visit to Athlone.
“To get to the nationals and to win is something so, so special,” she said. “We had got to Carlow to the Leinster finals last year, but didn’t progress, so we were so determined to win it outright this year and to do it with your family involved makes it extra sweet.”
Those lucky enough to get on the podium proudly donned their medals around the AIT campus, but “the HSE Community Games is all about participation,” stressed president Gerry Davenport.
“Even though children come from all over Ireland with big dreams, just having fun in a sporting environment in Athlone IT is better than any medal they could win.”
General vice-president Carmel Grealy paid homage to work of the many volunteers, without whose help the smooth running of the weekend just wouldn’t be possible.
“It is very difficult because we are depending on volunteers. Apart from the few paid officials we depend on volunteers and they are very scarce on the ground. So it is very difficult. We need to acknowledge their great contribution.
“These two days are the result of twelve months of hard work and there is no such thing as sitting back even for this weekend.
“At the same time it is brilliant to see the fruition of hard work, the tears, and the excitement.
“Each child will leave here with friends and memories they will keep throughout their life and that is what it is all about.”
The games, watched this weekend by more than 5,000 spectators, continue to go from strength to strength with the addition of duathlon and futsal onto this year’s year agenda.
Once competitors, managers, and officials have checked out this morning, preparations will begin in earnest for the 2014 games.
“No rest for the wicked,” said vice-president Ms Grealy.
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