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Paralympics: Gold fever

Just when you thought it was safe to forget the Olympics and Beijing: Along comes the Paralympics -- and the best prepared Irish team ever should give this nation plenty to be proud of at the second greatest show on earth.

Making the team, which had a strict quota of places on offer, has taken a huge effort by all 45 members. To be selected they have had to prove that they are world class and this they did.

Sprinter Jason Smyth is second only to Paul Hession on the 100m rankings and third behind Hession and Brizzell for 200m. He burst on to the scene two years ago when he set world records on this way to winning both 100m and 200m at the World Paralympics Games in Essen, Germany.

Since then, he has got even faster and after improving his own records to 10.53 for 100m and 21.47 for 200m this year, he is so fast that spectators find it hard to believe that he is partially sighted.

"No, I certainly can't drive," he tells us.

"I see different colours and blurs rather than faces or bodies, but on the track I have no problems really because I can see the lines."

For his first Paralympics, training with his full-time coach Stephen Maguire has gone well. "I had a nerve problem at the top of my hamstring earlier on, but that's gone. I'm a lot stronger this year and a lot quicker when I'm racing."

Despite being tipped to take two medals, the mantle of favourite isn't bothering him.

"I don't mind the pressure -- I just run!"

Another young athlete tipped for gold is 18-year-old Michael McKillop from Glengormley. When aged only 16, he won the 800m at the World Paralympic Championships in Assen, setting a new world record on the way.

One of the best known names on the athletics team of just 10 is Patrice Dockery, of Clonliffe Harriers, who will carry the flag for Ireland at Saturday's opening ceremony in the Bird's Nest Stadium. Beijing will be a sixth Paralympics for the 37-year-old Dubliner. Her best performance came at Sydney in 2000 when she finished sixth in the 5000m. In Athens four years ago, she was involved in a spectacular crash that underlined the competitiveness of wheelchair racing.

For Beijing she decided to go back to her sprinting roots and has qualified for the 100m, 200m and 400m in the T53 class.

"I've been reclassified from T54 as at previous Games, which means I have a better chance of reaching a final at least. But it won't be easy."

Back on the team for the first time since 1996 is Roy Guerin from Tralee, who supervises the strength and conditioning of other athletes such as Patrice Dockery.

"Roy had the A standard but just missed out on the team for Sydney, so it is great that he is back," says Dockery.

New to the team is Sean Heary from Navan who goes in the archery.

"I'm competing in the compound bow class, which is included in the Paralympics for the first time. It's easier to shoot than a regular recurve bow, but more difficult to be good because the targets are small."

Heary at 58 is the oldest member of the team; not far behind is table tennis player Kathleen Reynolds, now 55, who competed at her first Paralympics 36 years ago in Germany.

Both compete in sports where mental strength is crucial. Babies of the squad are swimmers Ellen Keane from Dublin, aged only 13, and 14-year-old Darragh McDonald from Gorey.

First into action for Team Ireland this Sunday will be the dressage rider Eilish Byrne, originally from Drogheda, competing with her horse Youri at her first Paralympics. She will be followed soon after by all the boccia team members, including Kilkenny man Gabriel Shelley, lining out for his fourth Palaympics and winner of the gold in 2000.

At the Laosham Velodrome, Ireland will have four cyclists to cheer on.

Two of them, both visually impaired, are converts from athletics -- Michael Delaney competed in the high jump at both Atlanta and Sydney, while Catherine Walsh, competing at her fifth Paralympics, won a bronze medal in the pentathlon in 2000.

"I switched to cycling because it was a new challenge but also because they dropped pentathlon from my category," says Walsh, still a prominent member of Fingallians athletics club in Swords.

She is paired with Joanna Hickey, Irish record holder for 1km and 3km on track. Piloting Michael Delaney is David Peelo, a cousin of Irish Olympic sailor Ciara Peelo.

On Monday, the Irish seven-a-side football teams plays its first match against Iran. The team, coached by Paul Cassin, is a good mix of youth and experience and included ex-athlete Derek Malone, winner of a bronze medal for 400m in Athens.

Ireland has a good history at the Paralympic Games, with Sydney in 2000, where the team came home with nine medals, five of them gold, at particular highlight.

By the time of Athens four years ago, standards had rocketed, but the team still won three silver medals and one bronze.

Waiting to give the team a surprise welcome when they arrived at their Beijing hotel ten days ago were the Irish Olympic boxers. An ecstatic Irish Paralympic team greeted the new heroes of Irish sport with a rapturous standing ovation.

"To have Ireland's Olympic boxers visit us on our camp on day one has had an amazing motivational effect on whole team," said Paralympic performance director Liam Harbison.