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Page last updated at 20:51 GMT, Tuesday, 22 July 2008 21:51 UK

Reception held for Paralympians

Seven of NI's paralympians with acting Sport NI chairman Dominic Walsh
NI's paralympians attended a Sport NI reception at SINI

Northern Ireland's Beijing Paralympics hopefuls received the red carpet treatment at Jordanstown on Tuesday.

Runners Jason Smyth and Michael McKillop were joined at the reception by swimmers Jonathan Cummings, Stephen Campbell and Hannah Clarke.

Armagh dressage rider Eilish Byrne and Irish Football team member Mark Jones were also guests of Sport NI.

All seven will compete for Ireland at the Games while rower Karen Cromie will represent Britain in China.

Karen was unable to attend Tuesday's Sport Northern Ireland reception held at the Sports Institute of Northern Ireland facilities which have become so familiar to the Paralympic stars.

Paralympic Council of Ireland performance director Liam Harbinson passed on the best wishes of all the Irish team to Karen and said that they would be looking out for her results with interest.

Sprinter Smyth and 800m track hopeful McKillop, already both world champions, have been grabbing most of the headlines in the run-up to the games but the other Northern Ireland hopefuls are also determined to make an impact.

"I'm aiming for gold," said Armagh-based dressage rider Eilish Byrne.

My school La Salle in west Belfast have been great about me getting the time off to go to the Games
Mark Jones

"It's not about world rankings but performing when it matters.

"My event will take place in Hong Kong and I'm so looking forward to it.

"This is what I've been aiming for over the last eight years."

Like several of the Northern Ireland hopefuls, Eilish travelled to Beijing last September on an acclimatisation trip and the Irish athletes will be staying at the same 5-Star accommodation 12 months on.

Seven-a-side footballer Mark Jones didn't look a likely candidate for the Games a year ago but a remarkable scoring run of 11 goals in his last seven games secured him a place in the Irish squad for Beijing.

Beijing will be his latest long-haul destination as his scoring exploits earned him a ticket to South Africa earlier this summer and he only recently returned from a pre-Paralympics training camp in Portugal.

"Things have been going well. My school La Salle in west Belfast have been great about me getting the time off to go to the Games so everything is full steam ahead," says Mark.

The county of Tyrone will have not one but two swimmers at the Paralympics with Coalisland man Jonathan Cummings joined by Cookstown-based Stephen Campbell.

Swimmer Hannah Clarke
Hannah Clarke will compete in the 100m breaststroke in Beijing

Like many younger members of the Ireland squad, Stephen's main target is the 2012 Games in London but on rankings, he looks capable of reaching at least one final from his three events.

"The games are coming up fast now and I'm just looking forward to getting out there and competing," says Stephen.

Remarkably, triple amputee Jonathan played underage gaelic football during his teenage years and, even though he has only one arm, was a regular scorer for his team.

"They just lumped the ball in on top of me and I was able to fist it over the bar," said Jonathan, who will compete in 400m freestyle and 100m backstroke in China.

Hannah Clarke joins City of Belfast club-mate Melanie Nocher in earning the chance to represent Ireland in China over the next two months.

"It's great that both of us have made it and it makes all those early starts for training seem worth it," said Hannah.

Only three Northern Ireland athletes represented Ireland in 2004 and Liam Harbinson is "delighted" by the increase in numbers to seven.

"It's testament to the support that disability athletes receive up here," added Harbinson.

The Northern Ireland athletes have been receiving funding and other forms of support from Sport NI in addition to backing from the Irish Sports Council.

see also
Irish Paralympic selection named
02 Jul 08 |  Paralympics
Disability sport on the BBC
23 Apr 08 |  Paralympics

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