12 Irish Paralympians to look out for

Having only missed 1 Paralympics since the first Paralympic Games in Rome in 1960, Ireland has a proud record of 499 athletes taking part in the games, who have amassed 222 medals (65 gold, 66 silver and 95 bronze) between them. With Tokyo 2020 games being delayed due to the Pandemic, this year the 31 person strong Irish Paralympics squad have already arrived in Tokyo, with the games opening ceremony taking place on the 24th of August. Here is just a selection of some of the squad to look out for:

Britney Arendse – Para-Weightlifter – 1st Paralympics

Born in South Africa, Britney moved to Ireland with her parents at the age of 5. Britney was then involved in a car accident in 2009 and went through five months of rehabilitation in the National Rehabilitation Centre, before returning to Cork for further treatment. Having originally started playing wheelchair basketball, Britney’s coach Ken Hurley spotted her potential to be a para-weightlifter. Britney set a junior world record in the 73kg category at the 2018 Asia-Oceania Open Championships in Kitakyushu, Japan and is expected to be in contention for a medal in Tokyo.

Katie George Dunlevy – Para-Cyclist – 3rd Paralympics 

Born in England to an Irish father, she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP) aged 11 and is registered blind. Part of Paralympics Ireland since 2011 the 34 year old is one of Ireland’s most celebrated Paralympians. Having originally been interested in para-rowing, Katie-George eventually chose cycling. In 2013 she teamed up with her sighted pilot Eve McCrystal at an event, having never met previously. Together the pair have 14 medals at international para-cycling events including a gold and silver medal in Rio Paralympics in 2016. Speaking to The Irish Times she said “We believe we can win (three gold medals) in Tokyo: that is the aim.”

Peter Flanagan – Para-Swimmer – 1st Paralympics

A native of county Longford Peter was born with Spina Bifda and began swimming in his local Longford swimming club. According to the Paralympic Ireland website “He was the proud recipient of the Swim Ireland Disability Swimmer of the Year award in 2012, completed at collegiate level with UCD where he studied Economics and Finance. Patrick now trains at the NAC Swim Club” having competed at the 2015 European Para Youth Games, Peter then went on to feature at the 2018 European Para-Games and the 2019 World Paragames in the 100 backstroke and 400 freestyle. In August 2021 Peter tweeted about how his wheelchair had been badly damaged while en-route to the games. Before adding that luckily he had a previous wheelchair that was being flown out to him.

Rosemary Gaffney – Para-Equestrian – 1st Paralympics (having been a reserve twice)

At the age of 62 Rosemary is Ireland’s oldest competitor at the Paralympics. But it’s been quite the journey to get to Tokyo. Having always been involved in Dressage (a form of show-jumping) all her life, in 2007 Rosemary broke her fiba and tiba while mounting a horse. After surgeries and physio Rosemary went back to competing in 2009 and qualified for the Paralympics. Having represented Ireland at European events in Paralympics, in 2014 her horse was spooked while she was riding and Rosemary fell saying to The Irish Independent “in doing that (falling), I put out my good leg to save my bad one, and suffered 40 breaks from my hip to my ankle” Bed ridden for six months, after 6 operations in 10 days, Rosemary returned to action and then qualified for the Rio Games. Then in April 2020, Rosemary got diagnosed with Covid-19. Now fully received Rosemary is competing after being reclassified and on a new horse.

Colin Judge – Para-Table Tennis – 1st Paralympics

Born without three limbs, when Colin was a teenager he went to St. Michaels College in Dublin. While many of his classmates went on to play rugby for Leinster and Ireland, Colin began to imagine himself playing wheelchair rugby for Ireland at the Paralympics. However, with wheelchair rugby not being a good fit he tried many Para-sports until he found table tennis. Colin told The Irish Examiner “it’s a sport I can play with no limits and that’s why I was drawn to it”, as well as being a sport that he could beat his brother in! Having narrowly missed out on qualification for Rio 2016, Colin took a two year absence from the sport to concentrate on his professional life, as an actuarial analyst with KPMG. Colin returned to the sport, qualified for Tokyo under a new classification and is now travelling with the team to the tournament.

Ellen Keane – Para-Swimming – 4th Paralympics

One of the most recognisable faces of the Paralympics, having been the face of the European Para-Swimming Championships in Dublin the 2018, appearing on an AIB ad and being part of Dove’s “Arms Up” campaign. Ellen holds the record of being Ireland’s youngest ever athlete when she competed at the Paralympics in Beijing in 2008. Since then she has represented Ireland at the last two further Paralympics Games, with Tokyo being her fourth games. Being a specialist in the Breastroke, Backstroke and Butterfly, winning three bronze medals in the process as well as gold’s in the European and World Paralympic Swimming championships. In 2017, Ellen gave Tedx Talk entitled ‘My Lucky Fin’ telling the story of how she changed the way of looking at her own body- and how that in turn changed her entire life. She has also gone on to be featured in the likes of Image Magazine and Irish Country Living Magazine.

Róisín Ní Ríain – Para-Swimming – 1st Paralympics

Being 16 years old Róisín is one of Ireland’s youngest representatives at this year’s Paralympics. The Visually Impaired athlete is a member of Limerick Swimming Club and studies at Gaelcholáiste Luimnigh, a bronze medal at The World Para-swimming Championships put her name firmly on the Radar of the Paralympic selection team. She will be competing in 100m Backstroke, 50m Freestyle, 400m Freestyle and 100m Butterfly and 200m Individual Medley.

Michael McKillop – Para-Athlete – 4th Paralympics

The Ballymena native was born with Cerebral Palsy, and is celebrated as the best middle-distance Para-runner Ireland has ever produced. According to Paralympics Ireland “Michael will be remembered as one of the greatest Paralympians of all time having won 10 medals at major championships along with representing Ireland at 3 Paralympic Games winning 4 Paralympic Gold Medals in the process.” Having been brought up in a sporting background with his father being his running coach and his mother was an All Ireland Gealic Football Champion at minor level. Michael owns his own business, giving motivational and guest speaking opportunities to business. Having been awarded an MBE from the Queen’s and Queen’s University Belfast awarded Micheal with an honorary doctorate in 2014.

Pat O’Leary – Para-Canoeing – 2nd Paralympics

While studying for his Leaving Cert, Pat was diagnosed with bone cancer, resulting in chemotherapy and had the bone of his left knee replaced with a metal joint. When Canoeing was added to the Paralympics in 2016 Pat became Ireland’s first Paralympics Canoeist, eventually finishing in sixth place. Pat was the first Irish athlete to book his place at the 2020 Tokyo Games. In his professional life Pat works at NUI Galway where he lectures in Organic Chemistry,  originally from Cork Pat now works and lives in Galway with his wife and family.

Gary O’Reilly – Para-Cyclist – 1st Paralympics 

After his Leaving Cert, Gary started an apprenticeship at his uncle’s garage as a panel beater repairing damaged cars. According to The Laois Today Newspaper “On March 14 2014, Gary O’Reilly’s life changed forever…The Portlaoise man fell from a forklift and shattered three vertebrates in his back.” After Gary’s injury, he plunged head first in sport and tried wheelchair basketball and rugby – but he soon found his love for Para-cycling. The 27-year-old is now a H5 Handcyclist and made his debut for Team Ireland in 2018. Since his debut Gary has gone on to represent Ireland at the UCI Para Cycling Road World Championships and the World Para Cycling Track World Championships.

Jason Smyth – Para-Athlete – 4th Paralympics 

The fastest Paralympian on earth, Jason is one of Ireland’s most celebrated and successful paralympians. The Derry born visually impaired sprinter, who was diagnosed with Stargardt disease at age eight, has less than 10% vision. Having five Paralympic titles to his name, the Paralympic Ireland website states “Jason has been the most consistent performer in the world for the past 15 years and he is the World Record holder in both the 100m and 200m events.” Jason has more than 15 European, World and Paralympic titles to his name and the 34 year old believes this won’t be his last games, aiming to sign off from the track at Paris 2024.

Nicole Turner- Para-Swimming – 2nd Paralympics

Born with Hypochondroplasia, Nicole is a little person and Para-Swimmer. Having started swimming in her local club Laois Marlin in County Laois, Nicole has been representing Ireland since 2015, having qualified for Rio 2016 Paralympics Nicole was chosen as flag bearer to lead the team into the closing ceremony. According to Paralympics Ireland website “with no fewer than 4 medals at the World Para Swimming European Championships in Portugal last month”. Following her brilliant performances at the World Championships in London in 2019, Nicole was nominated for both the RTÉ Sport Awards 2019 Sportsperson of the Year and was also named in the Young Sportspersons category.

The very best of luck to the entire squad!!

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