Ireland’s medal-winning Paralympic team got a heroes welcome tonight as they touched down on home soil clutching a haul of medals.
Hundreds of supporters filled Dublin Airport’s arrivals hall as the jubilant athletes flew in from the Beijing Games.
Sprinter Jason Smyth and runner Michael McKillop – who smashed their own world records in the Bird’s Nest Stadium – beamed as they held their gold wins with pride.
Smyth, a visually impaired Derry man, was the man of the hour after securing two of Ireland’s three golds in the 200 and 100 metre sprints.
The 21-year-old said his next target would be to double up and take part in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games in London 2012.
“You can’t do much better than to be able to, not once but twice, stand and listen to your national anthem and getting a medal,” he said.
“Everything went to plan which made it even better.”
Gay Shelly, one of the country’s most experienced Paralympians, got the medal rush underway in the opening week of the Paralympic Games claiming bronze in the individual Boccia competition.
Teenager McKillop followed, taking gold in the 800m on the track in his first Paralympic Games.
The 18-year-old, from Glengormley, Co Antrim, who suffers from mild cerebral palsy, said he went out knowing he was fit enough to do well.
“I’ll definitely be back for 2012. It’s near enough a home Olympics,” he added.
“It will be a new experience and a new dream. My dreams will start again in four years time and hopefully the dream of this year can live on and we will bring back more medals in 2012.”
There were emotional scenes as family and friends greeted the team in the terminal building.
Double amputee Darragh McDonald got the loudest cheers with a 150 supporters from his school and swimming club chanting his name.
The 14-year-old from Gorey, Co Wexford, who exceeded all expectations by winning silver in the pool in the 400m freestyle, said: “It’s amazing, just brilliant. It was a pleasure to be in China.”
A total of 45 Irish athletes from six different disability groups travelled to the games in Beijing.
Cerebral palsy sufferer Derek Malone, who had been deemed “not disabled enough” to compete in the seven-a-side football tournament, was among the weary team members off the long-haul flight.
The 28-year-old from Clare, who took bronze in Athens in the 800 metres, said his disqualification had been a surprise.
“They just felt my CP did not impact on my sports performance on the field of play,” he said “It was very frustrating, I was ten years waiting to do it.
“But I wouldn’t say it went down the drain. I’ve had some very good experiences but this is just a low point.
“It (Beijing) was a fantastic experience. We had a very successful games and Beijing put on a great Paralympics. I couldn’t have experienced that from home.”