They may not have had the heat of Athens on their back but the eight Donegal sportsmen who returned to an overcast county - a silver lining for every cloud - with medals draped around their necks following outstanding success in the Special Olympics World Summer Games were given the warmest of welcomes when they arrived in Letterkenny on Tuesday evening.
Family, friends and well-wishers were assembled at the Station Roundabout to greet the returning heroes, seven of whom secured silver medals on the football field and one in the kayaking event.
“Brilliant”, reacted Stephen ‘Rico’ Nesbitt from Lifford who spoke on behalf of the footballers at the special homecoming reception.
At approximately half six, the Very Special Olympians, who also included Oliver Boyle and Hugh Sweeney from Letterkenny (the latter is a native of Gweedore), Adrian Clarke, Gareth Egan and Luke Egan, all from Lifford, Mario McShane, Barnesmore, and kayak medalist, Shaun Bradley, Letterkenny arrived on a Marley’s coach to loud cheers from the assembly at Station Roundabout where Letterkenny Town Mayor, Gerry McMonagle, was present to offer official congratulations.
The eight stars of the Grecian games - in all Team Ireland returned with 107 medals - were escorted to the Market Square by members of the Caledonian Pipe Band for the specially organised reception chaired by recently co-opted Town Councillor Pascal Blake who introduced the medalists individually to an elated attendance.
Highlighting the months and years of training involved, Cllr McMonagle said it had culminated in Athens where the Irish team had performed so well and secured over a hundred medals in total.
Praising the mentors, he said: “You have done a magnificent job and these medals are a testimony to that.”
The Mayor referred to the goal netted by Adrian Clarke against the British team in the 1-1 draw and, echoing the famous rallying call for former Republic of Ireland player, Ray Houghton, said they could now had someone else who could boast of having put the ball in the English net.
Commenting on Hughie Sweeney, he spoke of his Gweedore connections but said; “We can claim him because he’s living in Letterkenny!.”
County Mayor, Cllr Noel McBride said the athletes had done the county proud and spoke of the work that went in to preparing them for the Olympic Games. They had secured their medals in a country which had hosted the very first Olympic Games. Stating that he was a personal friend of Shaun Bradley, the Mayor indicated: “I look forward to even greater and brighter things ahead.”
None brighter than the glittering array of medals draped around proud shoulders and both Stephen ‘Rico’ Nesbitt and Shaun Bradley addressed the gathering to thank the organisers for the welcome and those who turned out to greet them. Shaun, who finished second in the 200 metres and 4th in the 500 metres in the Kayaking discipline, said they all had shared a journey and the emotions of it.
Also addressing the attendance, Regional Development Officer for the Special Olympics, Seamus Campbell acknowledged the organisers of the homecoming, referring particular to the Letterkenny Mayor. Since the local organisation had been established in 1990, Letterkenny Town Council had given them solid support down the years while the County Council had also been with them.
Seamus also highlighted the contribution of the volunteers who had travelled with the Irish team and thanked the local football clubs who had provided their facilities for the footballers and all who had opened their doors.
On the efforts of the returning heroes, he maintained: “These people were not just handed these medals - they had to work for them.”
Tributes were also paid by clr. Blake who quoted Shaun Bradley’s words that it wasn’t about winning, it was about competing.
Speaking afterwards, ‘Rico’ Nesbitt, who at 28 described himself as the “baby faced assassin”, commented on the heat in Athens during the Games. “One day it reached 42 degrees but most of the games were held early in the day as it wouldn’t have been possible to play after 2.30 in the afternoon.
“I’ve a lot of tan to prove it,” he quipped.
The silver medalists were all due to return to further receptions in Letterkenny, Lifford, Barnesmore and Gweedore.