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We spent a day competing with some of Ireland's most inspiring athletes

Ahead of the Rio Paralympics, we headed down to Santry to try out some of the sports Ireland will be represented in this summer.

MORTON STADIUM, THE official home of Irish athletics, is a hub of activity. On any given day, Wednesday afternoon in this case, you’ll find a conveyor belt of athletes or groups using the unrivalled facilities.

General view of Morton Stadium ahead of the event Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

Hanging above reception is an honours board which displays the stadium’s records – a list of some of Irish sport’s most venerable names: Eamonn Coughlan, Catriona McKiernan, Sonia O’Sullivan, Robert Heffernan, Thomas Barr and Mark English.

There’s an aura inside the grounds. A sense of purpose. It’s here fledging athletes, across a range of disciplines, are building towards their dreams – and in this, an Olympic year, there’s an added spring in the step.

John Shields, Ireland’s leading coach, is conducting a sprint session on the track. A large group of young athletes, both male and female, are put through their paces. It’s fascinating to watch. Each as motivated, committed and determined as the other.

Observing even the most straight-forward training session offers a unique insight into the prodigious talent of these athletes and an appreciation of the hours of hard work which are put in by every individual.

Looking across to the far corner of the Santry venue, there are two other female athletes working closely with their coach, Dave Sweeney. They’ve been out there all day and there’s no sign of the session ending any time soon. 

But, for Noelle Lenihan and Niamh McCarthy, time is of the essence. Both are in the final stages of preparation for Rio 2016 and are two of close to 50 athletes Paralympics Ireland hope to have at the Games.

Sweeney, the national performance throw coach, has used this opportunity to get the Cork pair together and work through a number of things as the opening ceremony, on 7 September, begins to draw closer and closer.

Lenihan and McCarthy are in the capital for the Paralympics media day, where a number of journalists were invited to take part in some of the sports Ireland will be represented in this summer.

It’s all a bit of fun and a chance for us to experience wheelchair racing, tandem cycling or indeed the discus – but there’s much more to it than that.

Sport has the most extraordinary ability to make a positive impact, break boundaries and change lives. In one room of six athletes, coming from all four corners of the islands and all walks of life, there are six vastly contrasting stories – but they are all united by their determination, perseverance and love of their chosen field.

Declan Slevin is a hand-cyclist from Westmeath and is just back from Abu Dhabi where he competed in the H3 category. This weekend he’s in Luxembourg and from there he’ll make his way to South Africa for the World Cup in May.

Slevin is explaining all this as we make our way around the track in Santry. It’s an incredible sport and one which requires an immense level of mental and physical strength.

screenshot.1458942794.73605 Source: PledgeSports/Twitter

For an outsider, it’s difficult to fully recognise the skill and dedication required until you see it first-hand. The 47-year-old trains four days a week and a significant chunk of that training is spent on the roads with Rosemount Cycling Club.

“The locals at home would blow the horn, cheer you on and it keeps you going,” he says.

“It keeps you focused. Going out on the road at night gets you away from other things and you’d have the craic with the lads but they’d push you on.

“When guys are on an ordinary bike, it pushes you on to stay with them and helps the training because it’s difficult to stay with them especially if you’re going up hills.”

While Slevin dedicates his life to para-cycling whether he’s on the road or advancing the sport, the bills still need to be paid and he spends the rest of his time on the family farm.

It’s very much a family affair and Slevin admits everything he’s doing and hopes to achieve is for his wife and kids, and the people of Rosemount, as much as anything.

For they were the ones who rallied behind him and supported him when his life changed in 2004.

“I was a carpenter by trade and was doing a job and fell off a ladder,” Slevin explains. “I broke my back but in 2010 I was asked to go down to an Athlone indoor event and fell in love with the sport there and then.

“If you told me 20 years ago I’d be training to become an Olympian I would have told you you were mad but to give it a shot is fantastic.

“The people in Rosemount have got behind me 100% as well as my family. Anything they can do for me, they’re doing it. I’ve been given the opportunity to do it and now I have to perform.

“A lot of people have put a lot of time into me, my wife, my kids, if I’m doing it for anyone, I’m doing it for them.”

For Slevin, finding a balance between top-level sport, work and family is now a way of life but Rena McCarron Rooney chose to go down a different path.

The table tennis player from Galway decided to go full-time and concentrate on qualifying for her second Olympics. She travels around the world chasing ranking points and will once again be Ireland’s only table tennis interest at the Games.

Rena McCarron Rooney 30/8/2012 Rena McCarron Rooney in action in London. Source: Jeff Crow

Her husband, one of Ireland’s most experienced Paralympians having competed in five consecutive Games between 1984 and 2000, is now the national coach and the pair have immersed themselves in the sport.

“We must have about 300 balls at home,” she says, mid-rally as we knock up. ”It causes some trouble trying to collect them as we’re both in wheelchairs. I would love to train the cat to collect them!”

McCarron Rooney, 51, requires her bat to be strapped to her right arm after suffering a spinal cord injury but she still manages to apply an incredible amount of spin to completely dumbfound the unsuspecting amateur.

Ease of movement, and nimble footwork, is an integral part of any tennis player’s armour so to master it sitting down in a wheelchair which can’t move is quite remarkable.

When McCarron Rooney serves in her first match in Rio in September, it will be the culmination of years of sacrifice and hard work – and the same can be said for former solider Sean Baldwin.

After three decades in the Defence Forces, it’s only natural for the 48-year-old to have a flair for shooting and he’s used his experience to channel his adeptness with a gun into competing in the most mentally demanding sport possible.

Baldwin will compete in three different events in Rio and as he says, ‘he’ll certainly get bang for his buck.’ He’ll spend close to three hours in the hotseat for each event and will need to hit the target a size of a Euro coin with pinpoint accuracy time and time again.

Sean Baldwin 25/10/2011 Sean Baldwin. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Ireland’s first Paralympic shooter lost his leg in an accident on duty in Liberia 13 years ago but described how he made a commitment to himself one morning in hospital.

“There was no point in feeling sorry for myself, I knew that,” he says. “It was one of the first things I thought about – why could I do when I get out of hospital? I wanted something to get me out of bed, to get the adrenaline flowing again.

“I briefly tried orienteering but it wasn’t for me because I was never going to be able to run as well as I could. So shooting is perfect because my leg didn’t effect my ability to shoot.”

Rio will be Baldwin’s second Olympic experience after competing in London. He admits he didn’t expect to qualify on that occasion and had always targeted 2016 as his year.

After spending five minutes with his Walther rifle in hand, we simply can’t quantify the Newbridge’s man ability enough. He’ll head to Brazil in a good position to bring a medal home.

Back outside, Noelle Lenihan and Niamh McCarthy are still working away in the corner. Both, according to their coach are strong medal hopefuls, with Lenihan in particular one to keep an eye on.

Under the guidance of her father, Jim, her journey to the top has been a rapid one as she announced herself on the world stage last October.

Announcement of Paralympic Games 2016 Media Team Ryan Bailey with Niamh McCarthy, Noelle Lenihan and coach Dave Sweeney. Source: Cody Glenn/SPORTSFILE

The Cork teenager, who has cerebral palsy, conjured a stunning performance on debut as she set a new F38 world record to claim silver at the Paralympic Games in Doha.

It was a remarkable achievement from the fifth year student in a sport she took up a little over a year again. Now, she’s hoping to win an Olympic medal at the age of 16.

“It would be a dream,” she admits. “I’ve come a long way in a short space of time and while I remain realistic about my chances, I now know I can do it. It gives you a lot of confidence especially after all the hard work.”

Lenihan concedes she wouldn’t find herself in this position if she didn’t have cerebral palsy and indeed each and every athlete continues to embrace their disability to the fullest.

As Paralympic Ireland’s new slogan for the upcoming Games asserts, it is more than just sport.

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Ryan Bailey

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