Ireland’s Paralympic heroes already looking to next goals

It was well before noon when the thick layer of green began to form.

The Irish Paralympic team wasn’t due through the arrivals gate at Dublin Airport for well over another hour but relatives and friends eager to bring a month-long separation to a close had soon colonised the meet-and-greet hall in Terminal 1.

An explosion of emotion greeted the first tracksuits as they finally dragged bags, 11 medals and countless tired minds and bodies into view after a two-day transatlantic journey from Rio de Janeiro and a lifetime of highs and lows.

The prospect of a familiar bed and the promise of normality beckoned but not before a splintering of more localised homecomings around the country and, first, a dizzying demand for soundbytes and camera flashes.

Among them was Orla Barry. One of three female discus medalists from Cork, she waited patiently for the last leg of a journey that will end with her introducing the silver from Brazil to the bronze she claimed in London in 2012.

“Can I go now?” she asked the media officer.

“Five more minutes,” came the pleading reply.

Just to pester her for her take on it all then.

“London will always be fantastic, from the support point of view,” she explained.

“The British people really got behind the Irish and the stadiums were packed all the time. At the same time, Rio was fantastic. The Brazilians were great to support everyone.

“Everything ran smoothly enough. I’m sure there were probably problems behind the scenes but the Paralympics Ireland staff were so fantastic over there and we saw none of that. I’d say they probably put down a tough month but we saw none of it.”

If London delivered a steady, almost daily, stream of podium places then Rio was a slower burn. It took time for Team Ireland to find its feet in that sense, although PBs and top 10 places proliferated throughout the Games.

In the end, an 11-medal haul compared favourably to a pre-Game target of eight and the 16 claimed at the ‘home’ Games of 2012. Every result, welcome or not, told a story. A few even hid them.

From Noelle Lenihan, who claimed a bronze in the F38 discus despite a shoulder injury, to Patrick Monahan who rose from his bed after four days of illness to finish 16th in the T54 marathon in 32C heat.

Everyone overcame some sort of obstacle to get where they did.

Colin Lynch rocked up to the English capital four years back as reigning time trial world champion but missed out on a medal by the vapours of a second. So his silver in his event’s C2 class had all sorts of redemptive qualities.

“The disappointment of not winning a medal can really drive you on,” Lynch explained. “Going there and making the mistakes that I did — small though they may have been — allowed me to learn from them.

“In Rio I was able to change everything to suit what I wanted to do and that does make a big difference. This final year I made all the right changes and so I could go to Rio and set out what I wanted to do.”

Maybe the dilution of expectation played its part in that.

Jason Smyth has never known anything but expectation. A four-time Paralympic gold medalist before Rio, the Derry sprinter took ownership of a fifth with another consummate performance in the T13 100m despite an oftentimes frustrating four-year cycle.

“It’s a huge amount of pressure when you are expected to win because you can’t exceed what people expect of you in that situation,” he said. “It’s easier to be ranked fourth and win than be ranked first and win again.

“You’ll always here people say it is easy to win the first time in sport and then much harder to do it a second and a third time or whatever. There is huge pressure but I feel like I step up to that.”

Like their Olympic cousins before them, all of those returning yesterday will slip back into the sporting shadows. Some will re-emerge into the light come Tokyo in 2020 although Smyth spoke for most when highlighting more immediate goals.

“I’m focused on next year’s World Championships back at the Olympic Stadium in London. That’s only 10/11 months away. As great as Rio was, it’s gone. It’s done and it’s time to start looking forward.”

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