GRAEME COUSINS reports on Megan McElherron’s Special Olympics’ glory and her triumphant return to Bessbrook
The people of Bessbrook came together last week to welcome home Special Olympics hero Megan McElherron.
The 18-year-old was the toast of the village as she displayed the gold and silver medals she won in equestrian events at the games Abu Dhabi.
Since she was eight Megan has had a passion for horse-riding. It is an interest that has helped her to overcome the many complex health conditions in her life including cardiomyopathy, dyspraxia and asthma.
After winning a silver medal in the Working Trials event, just a few days later she won a gold in English Equitation.
She then came fourth in her final event – Dressage.
Megan, who is a former pupil of St Joseph’s Primary School and St Paul’s High School in Bessbrook, said: “I started horseriding when I was about seven or eight.
“I found being around horses helped make me feel calm.”
Of her daughter’s horse-riding career, her mum Sharon said: “She used to go with her friends on a Saturday to clean out the stables.
“She watched them for a while, her sister (Melissa) was riding, she took it up herself and went from there.
“She was a natural, she had picked up so much just sitting watching.
“She started with Millbrook in Bessbrook and then she moved out to Saddle and Reins at Mayobridge.
“I knew she had what it takes to achieve something like this.”
Megan joined the Special Olympics squad when she was 13. At last year’s National Games in Dublin she won a double gold for Team Ulster.
She later learned she was to represent Team Ireland as one of 91 Special Olympics Ireland athletes to compete in the world games in Abu Dhabi.
Megan said: “I was excited when I was selected to go to Abu Dhabi. Everyone was so supportive, the trainers, other competitors and their families.
“Team Ulster are amazing. When you are feeling down you just can’t be. They pick you up.”
Having been inundated with well wishes and interview requests since returning to Bessbrook, Megan is understandably overwhelmed by the attention.
The 18-year-old, who is studying Maths and English at Newry SRC, said: “It was an amazing experience to take part, but to come home with two medals makes it even more fantastic.
“It’s been hard to come to terms with the attention.
“I couldn’t believe how many people came out on Friday in Dublin and in Bessbrook to welcome us home. They were so nice, it meant a lot to me.”
Her mum Sharon said: “I was out watching her at the Games for 10 days. I’m over the moon with her.
“There were 35 ‘A’ riders, and she actually got second highest out of the whole lot of them. She did really well.”
There has been enormous goodwill towards Megan from the people of Bessbrook who helped fundraise to enable her family to go out to Abu Dhabi to support her – collections, a raffle and the staff in Vivo also organised a sponsored walk.
Children from Megan’s old primary school St Joseph’s in Bessbrook also got involved making posters and banners to welcome her home.
Of the homecoming ceremony for her daughter, Sharon said: “The whole village came out to see her come home.
“It’s a very tight knit village. People had raised money to help us go out and watch her.
“What everybody’s been saying is that she’s got Bessbrook in the news for the right reasons. I think she’s still on cloud nine.”
Asked what was next on the agenda, Megan said: “I’ll be getting back into my training now trying to qualify for Berlin in 2023.”
Vivo owner Dara Cosgrove, who helped organise the celebrations, said: “We’ve been running the Vivo shop here for 12 years and we’ve never experienced anything like the excitement when Megan arrived home in style on Friday evening by police escort.
“The whole community is so proud of her amazing achievements in Abu Dhabi. Megan has put Bessbrook on the map and in the news for all the right reasons. We are thrilled to have an Olympic medal winner in our midst.”
Both Megan’s mum and her aunt Tina work in the Vivo store and Megan herself spent some time there on work experience. Dara said: “Megan came here on work experience a few years back and there is such a difference in that shy teenager who would hardly say ‘boo’ and the confident young woman we know today.”
Matt English, CEO, Special Olympics Ireland said: “The incredible achievements of our athletes over the last week has resulted in a ripple of pride across the country, as so many people – both at home and around the world – have followed their journey.
“The medals, ribbons and personal bests they achieved were beyond all expectations but it was their energy, passion and pride that captured people’s hearts.
“Special Olympics is about more than just medals – these games were a life-changing experience for our athletes and for everyone involved.
“As we look beyond these games, we need more volunteers to join us to support future Special Olympics champions.”