10 NORTHERN Ireland sports heroes jetted off to the US to compete in the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games.
They are among 88 athletes across the country who will represent Team Ireland at the games which began in Los Angeles on July 25.
Running until August 2, the games will see local competitors ranging in age from 14 to 71 go head to head with the world’s top Special Olympic athletes in everything from 5-a-side football and table tennis to golf, aquatics and ten pin bowling.
Matt English, CEO Special Olympics Ireland said: “I am so proud of every one of our athletes who will be representing their country and communities at the 2015 World Summer Games in Los Angeles.
“Each of these athletes has shown great motivation, discipline and tremendous skill in getting this far and it is worthy of real celebration. They are all winners and it is a truly remarkable achievement for all our athletes, their coaches, their families and Special Olympics volunteers.”
The sportsmen and women from Northern Ireland who have made the cut are all part of the Special Olympics Ulster organisation which was set up in 1978.
The organisation was set up for people with an intellectual disability, but provides athletes with far more than the physical benefits of sport.
Special Olympics Ulster currently has a network of 92 clubs across Ulster and is an all year round sports training organisation and is supported by Sport Northern Ireland.
Shaun Cassidy, Regional Director, Special Olympics Ulster said: “It is a real honour for our local athletes to be selected to represent Team Ireland at the Special Olympics World Summer Games and we feel an immense sense of pride as they depart on this special journey to LA2015.
“We would encourage people across Ulster to join us and get behind our athletes and the whole of Team Ireland over the next few weeks, sharing their well wishes and messages of support on social media.”
Meet Northern Ireland’s Team Ireland Special Olympic sports heroes:
Christopher Kane, 19, from Lisburn
Competing in: 5-A-Side Football
Christopher is a goalie and has been playing football for around four years after being introduced to his club by a friend.
He said he didn’t expect to be chosen for Team Ireland: “I was over the moon to be selected for the LA games, I just didn’t expect it. It was amazing, it’s such a great honour.”
In the run up to LA Christopher has been training extra hard.
“I’ve been working on my footwork and ball skills with the club once a week, and then I also go to the team training every month in Dublin” he said, adding: “I also started going to the gym twice a week to help build up and develop my fitness.”
And when he’s not training?
“I love going out with friends and socialising. I’m a big Belfast Giants fan as well, I have a season ticket and support them at as many matches as I can. I used to train in boxing but now I just focus on my football” said Christopher.
Peter Fitzpatrick, 20, from Ballynahinch, Co. Down
Competing in: 5-A Side Football
Peter has been playing football now for two years and trains regularly by going to the gym and attending his local club to play.
When told he had been selected for Team Ireland Peter said he couldn’t believe it.
He added: “I was completely speechless when I found out that I had been selected. I am honoured – it will be an amazing experience and I’m looking forward to it.”
Having already won gold at the Limerick Games Peter is hoping to recreate his success in Los Angeles.
And when he’s not training he’s an avid fan of music and Manchester United and says his favourite footballer is Cristiano Ronaldo.
Carole Catling, 3, from Newtownabbey, Co. Antrim
Competing in: Table Tennis
Carole has been playing sports such as table tennis, badminton and Bocce for ten years. She says competing with Special Olympics has helped improve her fitness levels and given her more confidence in all aspects of her life.
Being selected for Team Ireland was a surprise for Carole.
She said: “I was shocked when I was told. I didn’t expect to be picked to be a part of the team going out to LA. I’ve had many memorable moments through Special Olympics and I’m sure LA will be another one.
“I enjoy the sport of table tennis and the experience of meeting people – it gives me the opportunity to try new sports, socialise and make new friends.
“I’ve been training with the Ireland squad every month since January and then my family have been arranging special training for me so that I can be as prepared as I can possibly be.”
After her gold win at the World Games in Athens in 2011 Carole is hoping to see her mum’s reaction to another win in Los Angeles.
And when she’s not training Carole has a busy life.
She said: “When I’m not busy training I enjoy going to the cinema, scrap booking and walking my dog. I’m also a big music fan; my favourite song is Bad Romance by Lady Gaga. Andy Murray is my sporting hero. My favourite film is Alvin and the Chipmunks.”
Kirsty Devlin, 20, from Belfast
Competing in: Gymnastics
Kirsty has been a gymnast for eight years, she trains with her club weekly and once a month with the Irish squad.
She said: “When my Mammy told me I had been selected for the team I was really happy. Then I found out she wouldn’t be going and I was sad but now both my mum and my brother Ian are going out to LA to support me, so I can’t wait to compete now.
“I like being part of the team, I’ve met new people and made new friends.
“I have travelled to Games around Ireland but the Limerick Games 2014 were definitely one of the best. I also went to China for the world games eight years ago and had an amazing experience.
“I won two gold medals, silver, a bronze and a ribbon. I hope to make more memories like these at the LA Games.”
Kirsty has been training hard to make sure she performs her best at the competition.
She said: “I train with my club every Wednesday night as well as once a month with the Irish squad. I also swim three times a week to help keep me fit and trim ahead of the games.”
And when she’s not training Kirsty said she loves music.
She added: “I like to go swimming and to dance – give me a microphone and I’ll sing away to anything, although my favourite band is JLS.”
Jill Connery, 29, from Scarva, Co. Armagh
Competing in: Golf
Jill competes in more than one sport and is an Ulster Finals gold winner for Horse Riding. However, she was selected for the Special Olympics Team Ireland golf team for the Los Angeles games.
When the news came that she had been picked for the team Jill said: “I couldn’t believe it when I was picked – my mum had a feeling it was going to be my year and she was right. I was delighted to be chosen and I can’t wait to go to LA.
“It gives me a sense of real pride. I relish being a part of Special Olympics Ireland. My mum gets nervous when I compete but I love the sense of competition.”
In the lead up to the competition Jill has been to the driving range every week to practice as well as once a month with Team Ireland.
One of the things Jill is looking forward to with the competition is meeting up with the rest of the team and supporters.
She explained: “I enjoy the whole sense of competition – the whole experience is the best. From travelling together as a team, to competing to being in a club, the whole experience has such a good buzz.”
And when she’s not competing she loves music, especially One Direction and enjoys getting dressed up for parties and events.
She added: “My brother Michael and I get along well. I was a bridesmaid at his wedding last year and I loved getting all dressed up and being girly.”
Ursula McDonnell, 71, from Belfast
Competing in: Golf alongside Jill Connery
While Ursula is not necessarily an athlete in the traditional sense she’s registered as an athlete in the tournament as Jill’s golfing partner.
She’s been playing golf for seven years and says she feels “proud and humbled” to be part of Team Ireland.
When told she and Jill had made the cut Ursula said she couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
She added: “It was unbelievable. It is thanks to my partner Jill that I am here. We have been working hard at improving our Golf and enjoying every minute.
“Jill and I will meet as often as possible to play together. In between times we will each practise and
play as much Golf as possible.”
Ursula is a retired teacher and says when she’s not training she loves golf, reading and walking.
Sarah Jane Johnston, 35, from Lurgan, Co. Armagh
Competing in: Aquatics
Sarah Jane has been swimming for 12 years but the Los Angeles games will be her first experience of competing at a World Games level.
Finding out she had been selected for Team Ireland was a shock to Sarah Jane.
She said: “I was absolutely gobsmacked but it made me feel very happy and proud. There were so many great swimmers at the Limerick Games that I never thought I would be selected for the World Games. So after the initial shock wore off, my family and I were completely delighted.
“It makes me feel very happy to be a part of Special Olympics Ireland and I love training with my Club.
“I love the club and the competitions, but my best memory so far is winning a gold medal and silver in Limerick for the 200m backstroke and the 100m backstroke.”
In the lead up to the competition Sarah Jane trained twice a week with her club and once a month with Team Ireland.
She explained: “I also walk ,ten pin bowl and play Bocce to help keep my fitness levels up.”
And when she’s not training Sarah Jane has a wealth of hobbies.
She said: “I like to surf the web and look at pictures from the Special Olympics Games. I also love to solve word searches and read books. My friend and my sister both have dogs, so I like to visit them and go for walks with their dogs.
“Monday to Friday I attend Eden, which is a social education centre in Portadown, as well as going to a life skills class at the local Tec on a Friday. My mum and I like to go to a craft class together on a Monday evening as well. I like to be busy.”
Déarbháil Savage, 14, from Mowhan, Co. Armagh
Competing in: Equestrian
Déarbháil is the youngest sportsperson from Northern Ireland to go to the games this week.
She has been training at her club for two and a half years with her favourite horses Tinkerbell and Skippy.
When she found out she was going to be part of Team Ireland Déarbháil said: “I was absolutely thrilled, I just couldn’t believe it. I am excited to compete in LA and fly out to America. I am absolutely delighted to be an athlete with Special Olympics Ireland – I love my sport and my club.
In the lead up to the competition Déarbháil has been training every week with her club and twice weekly in the final weeks and once a month with Team Ireland.
Having already been a winner she’s looking forward to recreating the magic.
She said: “My best memory with Special Olympics so far is winning gold and silver at the Limerick Games in 2014. I loved every minute of the games and my complete favourite moment was winging a gold for equestrian. I hope I win something in LA as well.”
And when she’s not training, she’s a TV and sports fan.
Déarbháil said: “My favourite television programme is the X Factor and I love the music of One Direction. I have three brothers and five sisters and we love to go and watch the Armagh GAA matches.”
Sean Campbell, 30, from Coleraine
Competing in: Ten Pin Bowling
Sean has been involved in a range of sports from aquatics and basketball to golf and bowling for around 10 years.
Getting selected for Team Ireland was a dream come true for him.
He said: “I was jumping up and down with excitement and pride, I couldn’t believe it.
“I like Special Olympics because I get to meet new friends. I get to try my best and I get to travel to different places.”
Sean trains weekly with his club and once a week with Team Ireland and says after his experiences at the All Ireland Games in Limerick he’s hoping to recreate some of the memories.
When he’s not competing Sean still likes to make it to the gym.
He said: “I enjoy watching TV, Movies and playing on my Xbox. I work as a Cleaner in my local Leisure Complex and I am also a member of the Gym there where I like to work out a few times a week, if I can.”
Nuala Browne, 38, from Strabane, Co. Tyrone
Competing in: Kayaking
Nuala has been kayaking for six years, before than she was an avid swimmer.
She said she feels “proud” to have been selected for Team Ireland this year.
“When I heard I got selected it felt great, I squealed with happiness” said Nuala, adding: “My mum brought the paper up to me in the day centre I attend and I was thrilled to bits to find out that I had been chosen. I want to win two gold medals at the games. I’m very proud and very happy.”
Nuala trains once a month with Team Ireland and has been to a number of residential camps for intense training sessions.
She said: “For me Special Olympics is the best as I get the chance to do all kinds of Sport. But my best memory is probably dancing at the opening ceremony in Dublin in 2010. I loved every minute of it and I met lots of celebrities at the ceremony. Another best memory would be the Limerick Games, during which I won two gold medals for kayaking.
“I enjoy every moment of it. It’s great to meet new friends.”
And when she’s not training Nuala loves drama and dance.
She said: “I like to be busy, so I dance with two different dance groups; I play bowls and play basketball every Saturday with another Special Olympics Club. I love drama and like to go to a drama group sometimes as well. I also work two days a week in the local crèche which I love. I even got to meet the Head of Barnados in London because he had heard of my good work.”
Follow the progress of the team on Twitter @SOIreland and @SO_Ulster or log onto www.specialolympics.ie