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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 April 2019

Oldest Special Olympics athlete didn't take up golf until her 60s

Irish golfer Mairead Moroney, 69, is participating in the Special Olympics World Games for the first time

Irish golfer Mairead Moroney is the oldest disabled athlete at the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019. Victor Besa / The National
Irish golfer Mairead Moroney is the oldest disabled athlete at the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019. Victor Besa / The National

Mairead Moroney did not pick up a golf club until she was in her 60s, but seven years on, she has won a silver medal for her country on the world stage.

Competing for Ireland, she is participating in the Special Olympics World Games for the first time. At 69, Ms Moroney is the oldest disabled athlete out of around 7,500 competitors.

She is “having a ball”, according to her coaches, and is also a source of inspiration for Ireland’s 90 other athletes, who have so far won 70 medals.

But as all golfers know, the sport can prove frustrating.

“Sometimes it’s hard to play, because the ball goes in the bunkers and it’s difficult to get it out,” Ms Moroney said, following a morning’s play at Yas Links.

“But I love to play golf. I feel happy, like I’ve done well if I’ve hit a good shot.

"It’s a good pastime. I get lots of fresh air and it’s good exercise.”

It was her partner, Tommy, who introduced her to the sport seven years ago. She took it up again after he passed away three years ago. Every night, she says a prayer to him, and this week, Ms Moroney has been asking Tommy for help with her game.

She usually plays once a week at her local course in Ennis, County Clare, but increased her sessions to twice a week in preparation for the Special Olympics.

Among those giving her pointers before the Games was Padraig Harrington, captain of the European team for next year’s Ryder Cup. Harrington, who has won three majors, met her at the Portmarnock course, near Dublin, for a lesson in February.

“I’m very happy to be representing Ireland, it’s a great privilege and an honour,” Ms Moroney said. “It gives me great independence and confidence in myself.

“I didn’t realise I was the oldest until I got here. But I don’t mind that at all.”

The Abu Dhabi competition, however, could be the first and last time she plays golf outside of Ireland.

“I’ll be 70 in a few months,” she said, when asked whether she might return for the 2023 World Games in Berlin. “I think I’ll be slowing down a bit after this.”

Ireland has punched above its weight at the Games, thanks to the appreciation in the country of the importance of helping disabled people play sport, said Rita McNally, an amateur golfer who is one of the Irish coaches.

Dublin hosted the Games in 2003, the first time outside the US, and 16 years on, the movement is still thriving.

“We have a very good set up,” Ms McNally said. “It’s gone from strength to strength. Before 2003, it had been going on in the background, but afterwards it exploded, it really took off.

“It’s really well supported in Ireland, we’ve got loads of volunteers and there’s clubs running all the time. There is huge participation, a lot of fund-raising and the government also helps out.

“I took early retirement and decided to volunteer as a coach, and I love it, I get great pleasure out of seeing the achievement, joy and excitement the players get out of it,” she said.

At the Special Olympics, some golf competitions see athletes play alongside a "unified partner", who does not have a disability. The players take alternate shots during the game. Ms Moroney's partner, Jean Molony, is 73, while another unified partner for Ireland, Phyl Kelleher, is 80.

Ms Kelleher won gold in the 9 Hole Unified competition on Wednesday, while Ms Moroney and Ms Molony won silver later in the day.

Ms Moroney is the “life and soul” of the Irish team, said Ms McNally, who reveals that even at 69, the oldest disabled athlete in the UAE is still making new friends.

“Mairead has been absolutely fantastic,” her coach said. “She's the first one up every morning. We have a great photo of her dancing at the Opening Ceremony with a guy from Kenya.”

Updated: March 20, 2019 07:23 PM

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