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LET THE GAMES BEGIN.. 2012 PARALYMPICS OUR HEROES.

Byline: AMANDA FERGUSON

THE countdown is on to the opening of the 2012 Paralympic Games.

The flame will be lit on Saturday at London's Olympic Stadium and until September 9, sports fans will be kept entertained and inspired by athletes from across the globe.

Over 11 days, at 19 venues, 4,200 athletes will compete in 503 medal events in 20 sports and 21 disciplines.

Northern Ireland is represented in athletics, swimming, archery, equestrian and cycling by eight athletes.

Six of the athletes are part of Team Ireland and the other two are part of Team GB.

They have all worked hard and share the same dream of bringing a gold, silver or bronze medal home from London.

The first official Paralympic Games was held in Rome back in 1960 and contrary to popular belief, the Para in Paralympic does not stand for paraplegic.

Para means alongside, which is a nod to the link between the Paralympics and the Olympics.

Paralympics Ireland chef executive Liam Harbison said excitement was building ahead of the Games.

He added: "London promises to deliver a tremendous event and already the support the athletes have received from family, friends and local communities ensures the athletes travel to London knowing their country is behind them."

Stormont Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin paid tribute to the athletes taking part in London 2012.

She said: "I am sure the excitement and drama of the Olympic Games has inspired us all.

"Now it is the turn of our Paralympians."

Former X Factor and Pop Star To Opera Star winner, Joe McElderry, will be top billing at this weekend's Paralympic Flame Festival at Belfast City Hall.

There will also be activities and displays by Disability Sport NI. Tickets for the event are free.

They are available from the Belfast Welcome Centre, in Donegall Place, on a first come, first served basis.

EILISH BYRNE, 48

THE Drogheda-based athlete has been riding since the age of 12. However, it wasn't until 2000, that she got involved in paraequestrian sport.

Eilish is now the dressage squad's most experienced rider, having represented Ireland in Beijing 2008.

She performed well there, claiming eighth and 11th in the freestyle and championship tests in hotly contested fields.

Eilish will take part in the individual test, freestyle and team event at the London Games.

From: Armagh

Event: Equestrian

Classification: Grade II (cerebal palsy)

JAMES BROWN, 47

JAMES is an experienced athlete, having competed for Great Britain in both summer and winter Paralympic Games in athletics, cross-country skiing and the biathlon.

In the 1984 Games, he won gold in the 800m and 1500m events.

The Gloucestershire-based athlete now rides with sighted pilot Damien Shaw and the pair has progressed well since teaming up.

Together they earned an 11th place finish in the UCI World Road Cup in Rome in May.

They will hope to carry their form into London 2012.

From: Portaferry, Co Down

Event: Cycling

Classification: T13 (partially sighted)

BETHANY FIRTH, 16

AT 15, Bethany Firth became the youngest and most recent addition to the Irish Paralympic swim team in 2011.

She began swimming in 2009 and has already made an impact on the international stage, winning silver in the S14 200m freestyle at the 2011 European Championships.

Bethany will be keen to build on her impressive form in what will be her Paralympic debut in London.

From: Seaforde, Co Down

Event: Swimming

Classification: S14 (learning disability)

MICHAEL McKILLOP, 32

MICHAEL is reigning 800m Paralympic champion and double world champion and world record holder over 800m and 1500m.

Michael also competes in able-bodied athletics and has represented Ireland in cross country at U19 level.

He is coached by his father Paddy, and will be targeting double Paralympic gold in London.

He also has the tremendous achievement of being the first male athlete to break a world record in the Olympic Stadium in London in May.

He ran 3:59:54 minutes in the 1500m at the Visa London Disability Athletics Challenge, smashing his previous best of 4:14:81.

From: Newtownabbey, Co Antrim

Event: Athletics

Classification: T37 (cerebal palsy)

LAURENCE McGIVERN, 19

HE will be competing in the 100m Backstroke.

Laurence is club captain of Newry and Mourne Swimming Club and hopes to continue his good run of form at his first Paralympic Games.

On his return from London, Laurence plans to study Accountancy and French at Queen's University, Belfast.

From: Rostrevor, Co Down

Event: Swimming

Classification: S9 (double leg amputee)

SHARON VENNARD, 50

SHARON has regularly represented Northern Ireland since 1998.

She finds her sport of archey addictive and loves competing, whether she is shooting by herself or with a group of others.

She now trains as a member of the City of Belfast Archery Club and has the support of a great circle of friends within the sport.

In addition to her achievements in Archery, Sharon also has a BTEC in Medical Laboratory Science. Sharon will make her Paralympic debut in London.

From: Newtownards, Co Down

Event: Archery

Classification: ST1 (ambulant disabled)

SALLY BROWN, 17

SALLY has left arm dysmelia, meaning her left arm did not develop from below the elbow.

In August 2010, she made her international debut when she was selected to run for Great Britain and Northern Ireland at the IWAS Junior World Championships.

Sally made her senior debut at the 2011 IPC Athletics World Championships in Christchurch, New Zealand, where she won bronze in the T46 200m.

She has also competed for Ulster at the All-Ireland Championships in the 300m non-disabled competition.

From: Ballykelly, Co Derry

Event: Athletics

Classification: T46 (arm amputee)

JASON SMYTH, 25

JASON is reigning T13 100m/200m Paralympic champion and world record holder.

He was the first Paralympian to compete in athletics' able-bodied European Championships (Barcelona 2010) and World Championships (Daegu 2011).

He won gold and set world records in the Assen World Championships in 2006, but missed out on the 2011 World Championships through injury.

The Florida-based athlete is dubbed "The Fastest Paralympian on Earth".

He trains with US sprint king Tyson Gay.

From: Eglinton, Co Derry

Event: Athletics

Classification: T13 (partially sighted)

CAPTION(S):

WORLD CHAMP Co Derry sprinter Jason Smyth
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Aug 20, 2012
Words:1025
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