Our Special Olympians in the spotlight

Off the fence
Our Special Olympians in the spotlight

Off the fence
Mike Finnerty

NOT a lot of people know this but the 2010 Special Olympics Ireland Games get underway in Limerick next Wednesday evening, June 9. Athletes from all across the country, including a sizeable delegation from Mayo, will gather in Thomond Park, for a spectacular opening ceremony that will feature music from The Cranberries and no shortage of pomp and fanfare.
Over the four days that follow, athletes, basketballers, footballers, bowlers, golfers, bocce players, to mention but a few, will compete against their peers from north, south, east and west. The winners, and the lucky few, will bring home medals and certificates. Everybody involved, though, the athletes, parents, sisters, brothers, friends, coaches and chaperones, will take away memories and moments that will last long after the medals have lost their shine.
Four years ago, the Finnerty family were lucky enough to welcome home an Irish Special Olympics champion when Michelle, the biggest and brightest star in our house, brought home a gold medal for table-tennis from Belfast. She became a household name around Ballinrobe for months afterwards and even got a Garda escort into town on her return. The pictures are still hanging in Creagh to prove it!
We thought of those great moments last week when Teresa Ward, Mayo’s Special Olympics co-ordinator, reminded us that the Finals have come around again.
Truth be told, without the likes of Teresa, and the thousands of volunteers all around the country that give of their time to coach, train and chaperone the athletes, next week’s Games in Limerick just wouldn’t be possible.
For example, did you know that every Tuesday evening the Castlebar Strikers bowling club go through their paces in Mayo Leisure Point with a handful of volunteers helping them to be the best they can be.
And on Thursday nights, a hall in GMIT Castlebar echoes to the sound of table-tennis balls as some of the most talented exponents of the game in Mayo sharpen their skills. Again, a small, loyal, dedicated group of volunteers are always there to lend a hand.
Some do it because they have a son, daughter, sister or brother involved. Others do it because they want to help people less fortunate than themselves. All do it because they want to.
Sometimes, you can take ‘mission statements’ and well-meaning press releases with a pinch of salt. However, in this writer’s opinion, Special Olympics Ireland have got it right when they describe their Games as follows: “It’s about fun, friendships and team spirit; it’s about a feeling of belonging, and ultimately improving quality of life... Through sport, athletes develop both physically and emotionally, they make new friends, realise their dreams...”
We could learn a lot from them.