JOE Backpacking Diary #26 - Why the Paralympics in Rio was one of the best experiences of my life
Following the Irish Paralympic team produced four Gold medals, four Silver medals, three Bronze medals and a lifetime of memories.
My name is Joe Harrington; I'm travelling through Central and South America for eight months, here's what happened during week 24.
Rio De Janeiro, Brazil (continued)
At the end of last week's diary I said, "fingers crossed for some more special moments over the next few days" after Jason Smyth's gold and the Irish Paralympic team delivered in style.
It's all a bit of a blur to be honest and I actually can't believe it's over, but I'll do my best to describe what was a momentus week for Irish sport.
I spent last Sunday morning in the Olympic Stadium, Orla Comerford was in the T13 100m final and Michael McKillop was defending his gold in the T37 1500m final.
Orla, who did her Leaving Cert in June, finished in 8th place in her race and even though she was a little disappointed with her run, she reached her target of making the final.
I met her parents and brothers after the race and her mother told me the story of how it was actually Jason Smyth and his achievements that inspired Orla to compete in Paralympic sport.
The two are teammates now, which is so cool.
Michael McKillop's target was gold. Plain and simple. We'd heard rumours that he was suffering with an injury in the build-up so we weren't sure what to expect in the race.
The London 2012 double champion showed his class and blitzed the field winning comfortably in the end.
He arrived in the media mixed zone about 15 minutes after the race and the first person to greet him was his good friend Jason Smyth, it's one of my favourite moments of the games.
Another medal in the bag, the Irish team was aiming for eight so that was three down; Jason Smyth, Eoghan Clifford and McKillop.
I had some free time on Sunday night and I ended up having one of the best experience of my whole trip through Central and South America.
My Brazilian buddy Gabi's father is a well-known samba conductor here in Rio and he was in a competition that night in a place called Ramos. It's in north Rio.
The winner of the competition was given the honour of playing the samba for Carnival in February so it was a huge deal for everyone involved.
We got a bus to Ramos where the streets were busy with people, young and old, and the sound coming out of the venue was thunderous.
We met Gabi's dad outside just before he was set to perform and he was buzzing, it was so exciting even though I didn't have a clue what was about to happen.
The venue was like a huge community centre with stages and platforms on the four sides and it had a metal roof so that added to the atmosphere.
The sound was deafening as a band of 20 men beat drums, musicians played all sorts of instruments, the crowds sang chants, yelped and clapped. It was mayhem, but in the best possible way.
When Gabi's dad went on stage to lead the troops, I was handed a flag and the lyrics of the song they were singing. We were ready.
The next 15 minutes are up there with the most fun I've ever had. I waved the flag furiously and shouted as loud as I can all while looking around the place in amazement about what I was in the middle of.
I was also the only "gringo" (non-Brazilian) in the place so I got a few stares and an old woman even came over for a dance. I twirled her around and laughed before getting back to waving my flag like a lunatic.
There was a huge cheer when his piece finished and he looked happy with how things had gone.
On the drive home we got the news that Gabi's dad made it through to the next round. He was delighted so we all had pizza and a few beers to celebrate. Great times.
It was a big day for the Irish footballers on Monday, they were out of medal contention after losing to Brazil and Ukraine, but the final group games was against Team GB.
The game didn't go according to plan for the Irish lads as they came out at the wrong end of a 5-1 defeat. They had plenty of bright moments but GB were just very clinical.
The Irish football fans and the locals seemed to build a real bond during the competition singing songs together and mixing like they were all friends.
They all gave the team a nice send-off at the final whistle.
Next stop, the Aquatic Arena.
14-year-old Nicole Turner swims in the 200m Individual Medley final at 11:39pm, her third final of the #Paralympics pic.twitter.com/xsPLIkpAVL
— JOE.ie (@JOEdotie) September 12, 2016
Nicole Turner was putting in some serious performances in the pool reaching final and final. Have a think about when you were 14... Imagine reaching three finals in five days, it's crazy.
Nicole admitted herself that the 200m Individual Medley isn't her strongest discipline and she came home in 7th place after a DQ for another swimmer. Another great experience for the youngster.
The following day I decided to go to Marina da Gloria to watch the Irish Sonar Sailing team - John Twomey, Austin O'Carroll and Ian Costello - in action.
I met John Twomey in Cork a few years ago and you couldn't meet a nicer man. He carried the Irish flag in the Opening Ceremony and was competing in his 11th and last Paralympics.
It was very cool to be there when the guys raised the Irish sail.
It was a long day on Flamengo Beach as there were delays due to a lack of wind but it's as nice a place to kill a few hours as you'll find in the world.
The guys eventually got out in the water and they struggled a little bit in the conditions so they came home in 12th.
The Irish sonar sailing team finish 12th in Race 3 here in Rio. They're now 13th overall #Paralympics pic.twitter.com/br8KJZGcSh
— JOE.ie (@JOEdotie) September 13, 2016
That's the Sugarloaf mountain in the background, so yeah, not a spot to spend a day.
I won't forget Wednesday for a long time as it was a rollercoaster from start-to-finish in Pontal.
It started with Colin Lynch in the Men's Time Trial C2 as he came home in second place bagging a silver medal.
The next Irishman in action was Declan Slevin in hand-cycling, it was the 47-year-old's first appearance at the Paralympics.
He told us after that he thoroughly enjoyed the experience and he was as proud as he'd ever been pulling on his Irish jersey that morning.
His wife and kids were there to cheer him on which made it all the more special. I managed to capture a quick video of him zooming by at the finish line.
An awesome start to the day and we had Eoghan Clifford, Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal still to ride in the afternoon.
Eoghan was expected to do well and we were getting messages of support on Snapchat from his students in NUIG during the race which was cool.
Despite his chain coming off in the final lap (!), Eoghan stormed to victory claiming gold for Ireland and in doing so winning his second medal of the games.
Watch the Galway man below getting the gold.
Ireland's @eoghan_clifford getting his #GOLD medal in Rio right now 👏🏻🇮🇪🏅❤️ #Paralympics #Rio2016 pic.twitter.com/vRtUbvRPu8
— JOE.ie (@JOEdotie) September 14, 2016
The drama didn't end there. As Eoghan was doing his post-race interviews, Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal were finishing their Time Trial.
The two Irish riders crossed the line in first place, but four more teams still had to finish so the result was far from decided.
I walked down to where the two girls had finished. They were on the ground from utter exhaustion and they had no idea of the final results. Nobody did.
I managed to capture the moment they Katie and Eve found out the result, it's absolutely magical. This is what winning a gold medal means.
The exact moment Katie-George Dunlevy & Eve McCrystal found out they won #GOLD at the #Paralympics
Absolute magic. pic.twitter.com/44uWhLyBXw
— JOE.ie (@JOEdotie) September 14, 2016
It was amazing to be there for that moment in those womens' lives. It reminded me of when Trish O'Donovan found out her sons won silver during the Olympics.
They are two of the most emotional and joyful things I've ever been part of and, yes, I did almost burst out crying again.
Here are Eve and Katie on the podium in Pontal.
Ireland's Katie-George Dunlevy & Eve McCrystal receiving their #GOLD at the #Paralympics.
Look at those smiles!🏅🇮🇪 pic.twitter.com/P9nxH9qx7w
— JOE.ie (@JOEdotie) September 14, 2016
Ellen Keane was swimming in the final of the SB8 100m Breaststroke and I had to watch it on a TV in the media centre in Pontal because a late bus meant I couldn't get to the Olympic Park in time.
She produced the performance of her life finishing in third place to claim a bronze medal. A great achievement.
The reaction of @keane_ellen after she won #BRONZE for Ireland at the #Paralympics last night 🇮🇪👏🏻❤️ pic.twitter.com/q1aeW4Ni1Z
— JOE.ie (@JOEdotie) September 15, 2016
What an incredible day; two gold medals, one silver and one bronze for Team Ireland.
I decided to go to the Olympic Stadium on Thursday to follow the fortunes of the Cork discus pair, Orla Barry and Niamh McCarthy.
The roommates from Leeside were expected to contest for medals, but as Orla told me before the games, "This is the highest level of competition, the margins are fine, anyone can pull out a big performance."
I was hoping they'd be the ones to produce big performances.
Orla was out first in the F57 Discus final in the morning session and she delivered the goods. A fantastic third throw put her in second place and she held onto it to win a silver medal.
The high of Orla's win was in complete contrast to Paul Keogan who was disqualified from the 400m T37 race after he was judged to have jump-started.
He was distraught in the aftermath. It was difficult to watch because I can't even imagine what he was going through.
I know that the support team around him, his family and friends, and the Irish team rallied behind him and he's young enough to go to Toyko so it's not the end. He'll be back.
The attention that evening turned to Niamh McCarthy who was competing in the F41 Discus final.
I met Niamh's mother Caroline before the event as she was "certain that Niamh would win a medal" and that filled me with hope. She was so persuasive.
Niamh, whose throwing style is stunning by the way, nailed her fifth throw and finished in the silver medal position.
This is how the Carrigaline native reacted to the result. It's class.
#SILVER for Niamh McCarthy in the F41 Discus final.
Watch her reaction just after she found out the result. A STAR! pic.twitter.com/FSDLizGS1k
— JOE.ie (@JOEdotie) September 15, 2016
What a day for Orla and Niamh. For Cork. For Ireland.
I took the long journey back out to Pontal on Friday to watch Eoin Clifford and Colin Lynch in the Road Race. Eoghan was one of the favourites to win.
The Galway man put himself in a great position to claim another medal but his chain came off in the final 200m and he rolled home in fifth place.
I got a spin over to the Olympic Park with the RTE guys because the bus situation in Pontal was so unreliable. I was there to see Ellen Keane in the another final.
Eight place for Ellen Keane in the 100m Backstroke S9 final #Paralympics #Rio2016 #PositiveEnergy pic.twitter.com/8Z1ieBUmPL
— SportsJOE (@SportsJOEdotie) September 16, 2016
I saw Ellen's parent in the crowd and they were proving to be very popular. There were Brazilian people queuing up to take photos with them, it was hilarious.
The Irish were finished for the evening and I had no plans so I watch the Women's GoalBall final between Turkey and China. It was unreal.
We're watching #Goalball in Rio tonight, follow us on Snapchat (JOE_ie) to see some action #Paralympics pic.twitter.com/N7XoeV3aXs
— JOE.ie (@JOEdotie) September 16, 2016
It's a brilliant spectator sport and it's one that would take off anywhere in the world given the right support. I'd love to see an Irish Goalball team at the next Paralympics.
The track to Pontal is well-worn by me at this stage and I went for one last time on Saturday to watch the three Irish teams in action in the Tandem Road Races.
There was no joy in the men's race, but Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal produced another stunning performance to win silver.
How they were able to calm down and refocus after what happened on Wedensday is beyond me, but they did it. A phenomenal achievement.
I hopped into a car with a few more media heads and raced across Rio to the Olympic Stadium where there was one more Cork discus thrower left to compete.
Her name is Noelle Lenihan, a 16-year-old from Charleville in north Cork. Noelle showed skill and maturity beyond her years to win a bronze medal.
Medal number 11 for Ireland at the #Paralympics 16-year-old @noelle_lenihan wins #BRONZE in the Discus 👏🏻🇮🇪 #Rio2016 pic.twitter.com/j2YWlcEGdy
— JOE.ie (@JOEdotie) September 17, 2016
And that was it.
The closing ceremony is on tonight and I'm a bit sad it's all coming to an end. I've been in Rio for two months covering the Olympics and Paralympics, and it's been an unforgettable experience.
I've got to follow the stories of dozens of Irish sportspeople and share in the highs and lows with the athletes themselves, their families and the Irish fans.
The overriding emotion after all of it is pride, I've never been prouder to be Irish.
Finally, a huge thanks to the Paralympics Ireland team here in Rio who have been exceptional over the last two and a half weeks.
My journey continues this week with the south of Brazil, Iguazu Falls and Argentina on the horizon. As always, thanks for reading.
Read about my trip through Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru by clicking here.
The National Dairy Council has partnered with the Irish Institute of Sport to share how top Irish Athletes are built by protein but powered by dairy. To learn more about the importance of dairy in sports nutrition, click here or see the hashtag #poweredbydairy