Paralympic Heroes

Padraig Coyle appraises the performance of Northern Ireland's athletes at the London 2012 Paralympic Games

After all the years of planning and preparation, the London 2012 Paralympics, the second of the two greatest shows of 2012, is drawing to a conclusion.

And when the flames from the Thomas Heatherwick-designed steel and copper cauldron have finally died out in the Olympic stadium and darkness descends on the 80,000 arena, what images will stay with those who were there in person, or the countless millions who watched all the drama unfolding on television?

The wonder and excitement of the Olympic Games have been matched in equal measure by the Paralympics, and it is only fitting that both events should be remembered as having crossed the finishing line side by side.

Could the performances of our rowers, the Chambers brothers and Alan Campbell, our boxers Katie Taylor, John Joe Nevin, Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlon, and showjumper Cian O’Connor have been bettered?

The answer is a definite yes. Who could not have been captivated by the gold winning performances of County Down swimmer Bethany Firth or Eglington sprinter Jason Smyth, the fastest Paralympian in the world, who broke two world records in the 100 metres in the space of 24 hours before repeating the feat again in the 200 metres final?

And when middle distance runner Michael McKillop spotted that the person presenting him with his second gold meal of the Games was his mother Catherine, who could not have been moved by his tears of delight as he accepted his prize from the person who knows best what this incredible journey to the top of the world has meant to him?

McKillop, who is coached by his father Paddy, left Brad Scott of Australia and Tunisia’s Mohamed Charmi floundering in his wake as he romped home in the 1,500 metres by more than six seconds. In the T32 800 metres, it had been a similar tale as the Glengormley man tore the field apart to retain his title and set a new world record time of 1.57.22

'It’s one of those things that will take a long time to sink in,' said McKillop 'Winning in Bejiing was wonderful but to come away with two golds four years later at what can be described as the home Olympics is a marvellous achievement. Dreams are made of things you want to achieve in your life, and when they come true, it’s unbelievable.'

For McKillop’s close friend and room mate, Jason Smyth, the pressure is now on to do the double and defend his 200 metres title as well. The first part of that task was achieved with apparent ease as the 25-year-old, who is visually impaired because of Stargardt disease, streaked down the track to break his own world record with a time of 10.46 seconds.

The signs had been there – Smyth had run 10.54 in the heats. When he romped home in the 200 metre final in a world record time of 21.05 seconds the inevitable comparisons with double Olympic champion Ussain Bolt began.

While Smyth has been coming to terms with the disappointment of missing out on the qualification standard for the Olympics, he showed the world that he could perform on that stage as well.

'I had put in a lot of hard work to try and get there and it would have been fantastic. To be in that stadium with 80,000 people, half of them seeming like they're Irish cheering, and even the British were really supportive, makes the whole Games a lot better. It was an added bonus to break the world record again. Coming in as champion, you are under pressure to retain your titles so thankfully I was able to do that.'

Also on the track was Ballykelly sprinter Sally Brown, who was competing for Great Britain in the 100 and 200 metres. The 17-year-old, who won bronze in the World Championship 200 metres in 2011, made it to the T46 100 metres final, where she finished sixth in 13.74 seconds.

Brown, who has youth on her side, can run much faster. Having battled hard to recover from a stress fracture in her foot to be ready for London, she knows that there will be better days ahead. 'I’ll never forget it. It’s been an amazing experience,' said Brown. 'I can’t wait to get back home and start training and come back stronger for next year. It has inspired me.'

Bethany Firth

Team Ireland’s first glint of gold came at the Aquatic Centre on the second day of competition when Seaforde teenager Bethany Firth (above), a relative novice to swimming, powered through to first place in the 100 metres backstroke final. Firth’s achievement was all the more remarkable given that she was recovering from a shoulder injury.

Trailing in fourth place, Firth took control of the final on the turn and never looked like losing out to silver medalist Taylor Corry of Australia, with Dutch swimmer Marlou van der Kulk third. 'I was like, "Oh my word this ain't looking good",' Firth later recalled. 'So I said a prayer and then I just kept on going.'

The 16-year-old has been training with Ireland’s mainstream swimming team and could compete at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

'It's just unbelievable,' said her father, Peter. 'To pull something like that off bearing in mind the shoulder injury, not being able to get much time to exercise her arm in the pool, it's just incredible, so exciting. It doesn't seem to phase her – all the stress is on us.'

'She is a remarkable talent and is capable of achieving a great deal more,' commented Nelson Lindsay, Firth’s coach at Ards Swimming Club. However the effort of winning that gold in the backstroke aggravated Firth's shoulder injury and in the following days she was forced to withdraw from the free style and breaststroke events.

Portaferry’s James Brown, meanwhile, narrowly missed out on bronze in the veladrome, where he and tandem partner Damien Shaw were pipped on the line by Spain in the 4K pursuit. However he made up for that by taking bronze in the tandem road time trial, where the pairing finished just over 28 seconds behind the Spanish gold medalists with Italy in silver medal position.

Armagh-based Elish Byrne and her horse Youri were part of the equestrian team that claimed bronze for Ireland. Byrne’s fourth place finish in the individual freestyle was also a cause for delight. 'I am not disappointed in any way. I couldn't have asked for anything more from Youri,' said the 48-year-old. 'To be fourth in the world is a magnificent feeling.'

And Sharon Vennard, the archer from Greyabbey, epitomised the ideals of the Paralympian movement as the Great Britain lost out to the number three seeds from South Korea in the quarter-finals of the Team Recurve competition. 'We win as a team, we lose as a team,' declared Vennard – surely the best way to sum up the Games as a whole.