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Members of the Derg AC Inclusive Athletics Club celebrate their Special Olympics membership. Photograph by Stephen O'Sullivan

Special day for Derg as Killaloe club gets Olympic recognition

A new Special Olympics Athletics Club is on the right track in Killaloe following research and planning undertaken by a local disability activist.
Derg AC Inclusive Athletics was unveiled as a Special Olympics Athletics Club at an official launch in Clarisford Park, Killaloe on Saturday.
This ensures that children can enter Special Olympics competitions, while Derg AC can now cater for more young members with special needs who want to participate in these events.
This is in addition to the inclusive one-hour training session hosted by Derg AC in Clarisford Park on Saturday mornings.
Nicola Welford, who set up the Inclusive Athletics Club in Derg AC, recalled it has taken a year to get through a lot of hoops and put all the necessary arrangements in place for the new club.
Last year, five or six children won medals in competitions run by the Irish Wheelchair Association (IWA), which was a source of great pride to the club.
However, it emerged that children with intellectual disabilities couldn’t enter these competitions because they were only for those with physical disabilities.
While Ms Welford recalled setting up a Special Olympics Club was a dream, this deficit put pressure on local people to achieve this goal. This prompted an engagement with Special Olympics Ireland, starting the journey to become a Special Olympics club.
“It is a big milestone for us. The overall Inclusive Athletics Club has 22 children with a mixture of neurodiverse disabilities ranging from five years up to 15 or 16,” she said.
“They can enter walking, running, sprints, throws, long jump Special Olympics competitions. Children don’t have to enter if they don’t want to, they can remain with Derg AC. Children now have choice. It presents a variety of options to them.
“Special Olympics has a great reputation, brand and image. Derg AC has worked very hard over the last five years to get to that level. The club has great volunteers and families who are travelling long distances for our sessions on Saturdays.
“Special Olympics can present opportunities to our club that we can pass to our children. Special Olympics can promote Derg AC as a community Special Olympics Club,” she said.
Clarisford Park Director, Keith Wood, who is on the SO patrons’ board for more than 14 years, said this development is a huge source of pride and some relief as he wanted a SO club in Killaloe for a long time.
Acknowledging the enthusiasm, energy and strategic skills of Ms Welford to make this happen, the former Irish Rugby hooker and captain said the park committee always strives to make all its facilities inclusive for people with special needs.
“I was telling Nicola when we were doing the park our idea of being inclusive is different to what it is today. The committee are trying to upgrade and enhance the park every time we get a chance to do so.
“We are always looking at different fundraising avenues. This is a volunteer run park, apart from some paid maintenance people. This is a park for and by the community.
“It requires high levels of control to maintain it at a high standard. Today is a celebration to see the park has moved on to be inclusive in the manner we want for the SO. It is fantastic to see the amount of special athletes in the park this morning, it is brilliant.
“The park originally was a dream of a few of us. Nicola Welford’s dream and all her group have made this come to fruition. We are delighted to support that.
“The park will always need to improve and grow, today is a great sign of that growth. It is a run as a business but the shareholders are the community,” he said.
In 2020, the committee commissioned a research team who used clickers to record 5,500 people visiting Clarisford and its all-weather pitches near St Anne’s Community College in one week during the winter months. Mr Wood said the high level of usage has continued in recent years.
“A different demographic uses the park at different times in the day. A large number of months and fathers go for a walk at 9.30am after dropping their children to school. Older people tend to come at 11 am. Different groups are here all the time. It is a hive of activity during weekends,” he said.
“The park was designed for the winter months because we didn’t have facilities for some clubs.
“Facilities and coaching are needed to develop sports like rugby,” he said.
A few years ago, one of the park’s founding directors, Josh Lowry died. When Mr Wood looks at the trees dotted through Clarisford he thinks of his old friend Josh, a Coillte forester and great community leader.
“I am sure Josh would be smiling today,” he said.
Sarah Conroy, who lives in Killaloe, was in Clarisford with her children who are Derg AC members when Derg AC chairperson, Deirdre Coleman asked her to get involved.
Volunteering as an inclusive athletics coach for three and a half years, Ms Conroy said it was nice for other wheelchair users to see that she also uses a wheelchair during her coaching duties.
“The inclusion of Derg AC as a Special Olympics club is fantastic. It means that all children can get involved in athletics activities,” she said.
Ms Coleman said Derg AC has inclusive, paralympics and now Special Olympics, which was the culmination of about 12 months work completed by Ms Welford.
“We are one of the few clubs with these components,” she said.
“Nicola saw the opportunity, gave it 100% and now we have a Special Olympics Club.
“Inclusive athletics is growing from strength to strength. The nearest other Special Olympics Clubs are in Ennis, Shannon, Nenagh and Limerick.
“Athletics lends itself to Special Olympics, with events like throws, sprinting and jumping that suit children with special needs.”
Eoin O’Beara, Munster Regional Director for Special Olympics Ireland, said the new Killaloe Club is hugely important for the growth of SO in the region.
Young athletes can join the SO athletics’ programme and competition and training structure.
“For athletes to stay in lane, that is a skill to learn. Having the proper facilities to train helps to be able to translate this into competition and compete to the best of their ability.
“Clarisford is a fabulous facility. I am sure Derg AC will be the envy of other SO clubs.
Marie Mulcahy, Ballina, said Derg AC provides her son, Liam with an opportunity to meet friends every week and now an opportunity to compete in different venues. Lily Flanagan drives 50 minutes from Loughmore to Killaloe on Saturdays as there is no inclusive club in her locality for her son Tommy Nolan (11).
“This is my third or fourth year coming to Killaloe. It provides me with a great opportunity to meet parents of children with similar needs. Tommy loves coming here on Saturday mornings,” she said.
“If I am having a problem, I can talk to another parent and get different ideas. It is very important that a child with additional needs can meet up with their peers. It is important for parents to have the support of other parents. It might mean learning a word or two but that can mean an awful lot to parents.”
Special Olympics patron, Aongus Hegarty, who lives in Ballina, said it is great to see so many children in Clarisford Park running, jumping and enjoying themselves with fantastic facilities. Mr Hegarty, who has been involved in SO Ireland patronage committee for 10 years, attended the SO World Games in Berlin last June and Abu Dabi five years ago, is delighted to see Derg AC joining about 200 SO club across the country.
“It is great to see how successful all our Irish athletes are representing us on the world stage. It is wonderful coming to clubs when you see kids trying their best, everyone is working together on exercise and teamwork on a fantastic set of programmes,” he said.

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