Special Olympians make triumphant return from Athens games

NOT since Pope John Paul II flew in more than 30 years ago has Dublin Airport seen — and heard — such excitement.

Team Ireland came home to a Greek chorus of cheers from hundreds of supporters who gathered a Terminal 1 to applaud their outstanding performances at the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens.

The 126 athletes and their 49 coaches entered the arrivals hall to a deafening roar of welcome as they were greeted by family and friends.

Team Ireland recorded a number of personal bests and came home with a total of 107 medals and dozens of place ribbons in 12 sports.

The World Summer Games was the biggest sporting event this summer with 7,500 athletes from 185 nations competing.

Team Ireland’s 126 athletes brought home 31 gold, 44 silver and 32 bronze medals.

Hundreds of family and friends travelled from around the country and waved flags, banners, posters and tricolour feather boas as the athletes finally arrived home.

The youngest competitor, 12-year-old Fergal Gregory proudly wore his gold for swimming, while the eldest, 67-year-old Mary Kirby form Limerick, carried a bronze for bocce.

“I was so happy,” said Fergal, from Crossmaglen in Co Armagh.

“I swam and swam and touched the wall.”

Ten-pin bowler Joyce Haughian fulfilled a lifelong dream to bring home a gold medal from the Special Olympics.

“It was the best experience of my life, it definitely was,” said Joyce, 29, from Warrenpoint, Co Down, holding up her gold and two silver medals.

“I feel I have completed my goal, the goal I’ve been waiting for all my life. I’m shouting at the top of my voice ‘I’ve done it, I’ve done it’. Not only for me, for Ireland.

“It’s ecstatic here, it’s phenomenal.”

A host of celebrations including street parties and barbecues are planned in towns around the country, with a civic reception being staged for gold-winning gymnast Carole Ryan from Wexford on Saturday.

But Ruairi O’Toole, 35, from Spiddal, Co Galway, who won gold and silver in kayaking, wanted something a bit more down to earth.

“I’m going home to have a pint or two,” he said.

Aaron Harkin had waited anxiously for his girlfriend of four years, Laura Kelly, who secured a second place in golf. The pair met at their day unit in Navan.

“I missed her when she was away in Athens,” he said, holding a banner for her. “I got two postcards from her and I’m going to surprise her when she gets here. She doesn’t know I’m here.”

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