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“She won more than medals – she won hearts”

So the Special Olympic are over. The athletes are all home since last Tuesday and the four Wexford representatives won no less than eight medals.

I was in Enniscorthy this morning for the homecoming of Mary O”Brien and Ann Marie Talbot, pictured above with Irish soccer legend Paul McGrath (more about him later).

Pride and joy were the overriding emotions at the County Wexford Community Workshop (CWCW), which the dynamic table tennis duo attend, for their welcome home party.

It’s rare to attend something that is so purely positive and untainted by any sort of self promotion or grandstanding. There were no agendas here, just good old fashioned community celebrations.

I caught up with Ann Marie’s parents, Brendan and Dympna, nestled in a quiet corner, proudly watching their daughter in the spotlight. She may be a sprightly 42-years-old, but there was no doubt from talking to them that she’s still their little girl. Literally and figuratively!

Her height puts Ann Marie at a disadvantage in table tennis, but what she lacks in stature she more than makes up for in spirit, as Brendan explained to me:

“She’s very quiet, gentle and loving… until you put a medal at stake and then she’ll knock the daylights out of you! She fights tooth and nail for every shot and never knows when she’s beaten.”

Mary’s family were equally proud and loved watching her revel in the limelight, not least her entertaining exchange with the excellent MC for this morning’s event, local sports broadcaster Liam Spratt. ‘We’re very proud of her, she’s done so well,’ he sister Anna told me, while another proud sister, Margaret, was not one bit surprised that Mary had returned home with a gold medal.

In the end though, the real measure of success was in the beaming faces of all those who attend the community workshop and their two Olympic heroes.

Fintan Broaders, himself a former Special Olympian, summed it up when he spoke on behalf of all the service users there: “Congratulations Anne Marie and Mary for bring such joy to the workshop. Enjoy your moment, we all know how hard you’ve worked for it.”

On another note, there were lots of local dignitaries there today, but the man who most wanted to speak to was Irish soccer legend Paul McGrath, who lives in the area.

Paul, as was pointed out to me several times by different CWCW staff, is a regular visitor up there and great supporter of the vital services they provide. He also knows a thing or two about the fighting spirit that’s to be found in abundance there.

The polite and unassuming gentle giant of Irish soccer was a real star today, quietly lending his support to the event, while making time for all his friends from the CWCW, which is perfectly encapsulated in Pat O’Connor’s photo above, one of the many great shots the Enniscorthy Guardian man took today.

The Special Olympics is the subject I wrote about in my first ever blog post about, which was inspired by meeting Wexford’s Carole Ryan and her family.

The title of this post is a quote from Carole’s mother Mary. I spoke to her this week after her daughter returned home with two gold medals, countless new friends and priceless memories.

I hope she gets as good a welcome home in Wexford on Saturday as Ann Marie and Mary received in Enniscorthy morning. Bernadette Kennedy also a great welcome in Gorey on Tuesday night.

Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt

Wexford Special Olympian Carole Ryan

The reaction to Rory McIlroy’s fantastic win in the US Open shows clearly the effect that a sporting triumph can still have on the mood of our country.

His skill, determination, nerve and courage – following his collapse in the final round of the US Masters in Augusta – were outstanding throughout his record-breaking four days.

Golf has rarely has as many fans in Ireland as it did on Sunday night and the prodigiously talented 22-year-old golfer from Hollywood also excelled in his humble and mature reaction to what should be the first of many majors.

It was a win that lifted the mood of a nation, as great sporting triumphs tend to do.

We’re spoiled for choice at the moment when it comes to sports. Wimbledon has just started and the GAA season is in full swing, but it’s in Athens, starting next Sunday, where the most remarkable Irish athletes will be action.

The Irish Special Olympics team jetted out to Athens this (Monday) morning, ahead of next weekend’s opening ceremony.

7,500 athletes from 185 countries will be taking part and Ireland is punching well above its weight, sending out 126 athletes (from 12-year-old Fergal Gregory from Armagh to 69-year-old Mary Quigley from Carlow) and 49 coaches – the tenth biggest delegation in the Special Olympics World summer Games.

They will be supported by 200 volunteers and more than 400 family members making the trip to Athens for the games, which take place from June 25 to July 4. These are the people who – without fuss or fanfare – keep the country’s many Special Olympics clubs going and providing such a vital outlet for their many members, only a fraction of whom are going to Greece.

Four athletes from Wexford Special Olympics Club are on the Irish team and the club has coaches and volunteers making the journey too.  Wexford will be represented in badminton by Bernadette Kennedy from Gorey, in gymnastics by Carole Ryan from Newtown (just outside Wexford town) and in table tennis by Mary O’Brien from Duncormick and Ann Marie Talbot from Enniscorthy.

These athletes have dedicated a huge amount of time and energy to their respective disciplines and it would great to see them return home with medals. But, whatever the outcome, theirs is not a sporting triumph, it’s a triumph of the human spirit, which can’t be measured in gold, silver or bronze.

At a time when Ireland and Greece are making headlines all over the world for very different reasons and there’s sombre talk of huge challenges and insurmountable obstacles, we’d do well to keep an eye on sporting events in Athens in the days ahead, where there will be plenty of reasons to cheer and maybe just a little perspective on challenges and obstacles.

I spoke to Wexford gymnast Carole Ryan ahead of her departure.

My colleague David Medcalf spoke to Mary O’Brien and Anne-Marie Talbot.

And the Gorey Guardian’s Fintan Lambe talked to Bernadette Kennedy.