Positive signs for Irish hopefuls

Team Ireland with Joe Costello TD

The Deaf Village was alive with silent chatter.

There was little actual talking going on but the conversation was flowing. What a pleasant experience to observe a captive audience being entertained by a man holding court through sign language, and the breakout of laughter as he delivered the punchline. Not following a word of it was irrelevant.

The gathering in Cabra, Dublin on Wednesday was to announce the Ireland team travelling to the 22nd Deaflympics in Sofia, which begins on July 25. It was almost the case that none of this happened after the original host city, Athens, opted out as the Greek recession deepened. As far as the competing countries were concerned, there would be no Deaflympics in 2013, but then Bulgaria stepped in. While everyone was relieved that the Games would go ahead, the downside for the teams was that there were just nine months to prepare. Still, better later than never and, after Junior Sports Minister Michael Ring followed Deaf Sports Ireland (DSI) president Kevin Lynch in making their announcements and wishing the team well, you enquire about interviewing a couple of our medal-chasers in Sofia. For a brief, thoughtless moment, you wonder: ‘how am I going to interview a deaf person? Will I write down the questions and get them to write the answers?’ Then logic drops in to say hello; the translator from the speeches, Mayo woman Michelle McNulty, gladly obliges. Then that’s one of the magnificent things about people involved in minority sports such as the Deaflympics, they’ll do just that because their good news travelling will only help them grow.

Through Michelle, affable chef de mission Sean Herlihy sits down on a brightly-coloured couch, all smiles. He explains the challenges of having just nine months to prepare. “Four years ago in Taipei, Ireland were represented in five sports, now it’s just two. We had hoped to have five again but the change in location from Athens to Bulgaria also meant a change in dates, and our marathon runner was not available. In tennis, we didn’t achieve anything this time.We had two good young swimmers but their coach decided that, because of the timeframe, that they weren’t ready.”

Eoin Nolan won gold in the pool in Taipei four years ago, after collected the full array of gold, silver and bronze in Australia in 2005 at the age of just 17. The Wexford man, who is now sports development officer, won’t be adding to that haul in Sofia because he had switched his attentions to his local water polo club and work commitments once Athens reneged on its promise to host the Games. Nine months just wasn’t enough time to prepare, as he signed. “I’m not a paid swimmer, of course I love it, but hopefully in four years I will represent us in Turkey.”

Time and again, our Deaflympic athletes remark on the honour of representing their country. Two of Ireland’s soccer team this year, Patrick Maher and Roy Keating, actually played on the waterpolo side that claimed fourth in Taipei. The friendly pair describe the difference in playing conditions and how the focus of their training has changed. Having gone from being indoors and in the pool, the team now expects to be playing in 40-45 degree heat in Sofia, though at least they will get two days’ training there to acclimatise to the conditions.

“It’s a huge challenge,” signs Dubliner Maher. “First of all focusing on swimming and these strengths and now we need to work so hard on our legs for football.”

“In water polo, you need be have a strong upper body, and also breathing techniques are very different for football and water polo,” adds Carlow man Keating.

“In football, you are out in the sun whereas swimming is all indoors so it’s a big challenge.”

Nolan describes how DSI are working with the Paralympics to see how they can increase awareness, and with that comes increased participation. “We’re also working with the Sports Council to get more funding but, due to the recession and cutbacks, it has been cut. But in the last few weeks, we got €37,000. We were starting to worry but we were very lucky in finding funding.”

Herlihy echoes the same and wants to see equality for all athletes in Ireland, as in Eastern Europe and Russia. “We are a minority community. People know more about the Special Olympics, which is quite publicised in the media compared with the Deaflympics. In other countries, like Russia, you get the same funding for winning in the Deaflympics as the Olympics. We’re hoping to get it recognised as the same in Ireland in the future.”


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