Ireland’s record-breaking Paralympics team arrived home last night to a tumultuous welcome, capping a historic campaign that secured 16 medals, half of them gold. With that amount of metal, God knows how long it took them to get through the airport scanners in London.
Cityjet flight AF5119 touched down almost an hour behind schedule at a damp and murky Dublin Airport, but it was the only time the squad has lagged the pace after a sensational Games which has prompted many to dub them the most successful Irish sports team of all time.
Witnessing the joy on the faces of those who wore the green during the Games, and the emotion on the faces of family and friends there to welcome them home last night, it was hard to disagree.
Late they may have been, but any wait was worth it. Six gold medals — two each for Michael McKillop, Jason Smyth, and Mark Rohan — with three silver for Catherine O’Neill, Catherine Walsh, and Fran Meehan, and five bronze, brought home by Corkwoman Orla Barry, Walsh, and Meehan again, James Brown and Damien Shaw, Helen Kearney, and the Irish team in the mixed equestrian event.
Then there were the others that came so close, and the three world records broken along the way, along with the national and Paralympic records. McKillop, from Glengormley, Co Antrim, topped it off when he was chosen as one of the two recipients of the Whang Youn Dai Achievement Award at Sunday’s closing ceremony, as one of those deemed to exemplify the best spirit of the Paralympic Games. The unprecedented medal haul added the glitter, but last night was also about acknowledging the achievements of all 49 athletes who took part.
McKillop revealed that the wait to touch home soil had been delayed when the athletes had to wait on board for an extra 45 minutes because of a missing bag. On his “extra” medal, he said: “It’s one of those things I didn’t expect.”
Nor did he expect his mother to give him one of his gold medals, but that’s what happened. He said it was the highlight of his Games, an event he said “showed that Paralympic sport is elite sport”.
In the arrivals hall, the greeting party gathered early, with some stationing themselves near the gates just after 5pm, among them the parents and aunt of Ireland’s chef de mission, Liam Harbison.
Dad Cyril and mother Deirdre were decked out in green Team Ireland T-shirts while Liam’s Aunt Anna sported novelty hat.
Spirits could not have been higher.
“He has been involved since 2000 — this is his fourth Paralympics,” Deirdre explained of her son’s career. “It has been his life, he is totally dedicated to it. He even did his thesis on people in sport with disability.”
All Liam’s Ireland-based siblings gathered later to welcome him home, a sight matched for many of the other Paralympians. Deirdre had said she was hoping for a big turn-out — “they deserve it” — but she needn’t have worried.
“I think [The Games] has changed Ireland’s whole outlook,” she said.
“You are just looking at them and going: ‘Wow — what an athlete’.”
Liam, clearly thrilled with the medal haul of the team, called it “the greatest Irish sporting success story ever”. He was on his way back to his home in Termonfeckin, where he lives with his wife and two young children. Others were doing the same, heading home tired but happy.
As he addressed the media and the team, Liam said: “It has been the most amazing journey over the last four years.
“The target was five medals, three of which were to be gold, but we secretly thought we could get more.
“To come back with 16 medals is beyond our wildest dreams. The whole team performed absolutely stunningly.”
Another fan waiting for the team last night was Anne Ebbs, a veteran Paralympian and a torchbearer when the Olympic flame visited Ireland earlier in this sporting summer.
“It has exceeded everyone’s expectations,” she said. Anne had only just returned from London on Sunday, having been at the Games. She glowed with pride when asked how the team’s success reflected upon athletes who have represented Ireland at previous Games.
“It’s brilliant — the atmosphere was electric over there,” she said.
“I hope that now, given the profile it has had, people will look on people with disability, particularly in sport, in a new light.”
Once they had disembarked from the plane, minister of state Michael Ring was on hand to welcome the athletes into the airport building, claiming: “Tonight, this is a team victory and it is a great victory for Ireland.”
The arrivals hall was thronged by the time the athletes came through, led by the celebratory tones of piper Michael Russell of the Black Raven Band, a blur of green, white, and orange hugs and kisses.
It was simply the first of a string of events planned for the Paralympians. They will be acclaimed in their communities and feted by their own sporting organisations, while Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Sports Minister Leo Varadkar will host a reception in their honour at Farmleigh House this coming Friday.
To top it off, President Michael D Higgins will receive them at Áras An Uachtaráin on Oct 22. They will be celebrating the achievements of this summer for quite a while, but they will be heroes for a lifetime and more.