What I love the most about being a Special Olympics Coach is when you see how much the athletes are enjoying what they are doing, and when they learn to do something new or improve at what they are doing. It is great to see the personal growth of each of them also; it’s not just about the sport, but the social aspect too and the friends they make. Each of the athletes is so different, and you really grow yourself learning how to approach things differently for each athlete, and they end up teaching you too. I also love that I am able to give back to the community – after all the help I got in my athletics career over the years, I am now able to pass on this knowledge and help to someone else.
My name is Róisín Howard and I am a Senior Software Engineer working in a Full Stack role for WP Engine in Limerick.
I was always interested in solving problems and figuring out how things worked as a child. My mother was a mechanical engineer, so this was something that interested me. I really enjoyed maths and physics in school, so I knew engineering was definitely the path for me. I enjoyed working with computers on projects in school, and I started looking up a little bit about coding and creating websites to see if it was something for me when I was in the senior cycle of secondary school. My mother was a driving force behind me choosing the Computer Engineering degree – she thought it would be a great role to have in the future where I could work from anywhere and not be tied to going into an office the whole time (little did we know this would become a reality last year). It was so easy for me to switch from working in the office to working at home in my role.
I am originally from Cork, Ireland. I moved to Limerick for college and have stayed there since for work. What drew me to UL (University of Limerick) first day was what has kept me in Limerick for my career. My mother graduated from UL with her Ph.D. when I was in secondary school, and I fell in love with the UL campus when we went down for her graduation. The sports facilities were a huge draw for me. I was big into athletics – to have the track and all the training facilities so close when living on campus was great. I also looked at the track record for the engineering programs at UL and knew that I would be onto a winner.
I am actually living in Cork at the moment; I moved home for the lockdown so I would be with my family rather than alone in the house I rented in Limerick. We live on a farm, so any excuse to be back here and helping out on the farm with my dad. I love the outdoors and animals, so I was in my element after work just taking a quick stroll up the fields.
Outside of my job, I love athletics and I work as a Special Olympics Coach. When I was at university, I was lucky enough to represent my country twice with athletics in the Heptathlon. I had a really nice training group at UL with great facilities, so I was happy to stay there. I was also close to Nenagh, which had a great set-up for indoor training facilities, including the first indoor track in Ireland. There was a great bunch of coaches there who were willing to help me, which I am grateful for.
I started coaching with the Limerick City Special Olympics Club in 2008 when I had finished my degree. I knew I would have a bit more free time in the evenings compared to when I was in college, so it was the perfect time to start. I began coaching the swimmers and the athletes 2 nights a week, and I loved it. I also did a few volunteering days at competitions for the region and province in the Track at CIT (now MTU Cork), as I was always home in Cork at the weekends. I then moved on to volunteering with the Ireland Games when they were held in UL.
The Special Olympics competitions move in 4-year cycles: Year 1 is Regional, Year 2 is Provincial, Year 3 is Ireland Games, and Year 4 is World Games. The following Ireland Games that were held in Dublin, I didn’t go as a general volunteer; I instead went as a coach chaperone for Team Munster with the squad of athletes. I really enjoyed this, and it made me think more about what I could do for the Special Olympics, so I applied to be a coach for the World Games. I was really lucky to be chosen to be 1 of 3 coaches for the athletics squad in Team Ireland. We travelled to Abu Dhabi for the World Games in 2019. This was an amazing experience, and I was delighted to have been given the opportunity to attend and help the athletes achieve all they did at these games.
Currently, I coach the swimmers and athletes. Our club also has a basketball team and a floorball team, but I stuck to 2 sports, as it is a big commitment and I wanted to make sure I was always available for the training sessions that I committed to. I still do my own athletics training in the evening, so I often train first and then go to their training sessions, or vice versa. Obviously, the last year has been a big change, so we moved to online training. We can’t really do sports-specific training, so I now do a general fitness class with them once a week for an hour. It’s a mix between a HIIT session and circuit training, but being mindful of the different movements to make sure they suit all the varying abilities.
There are a lot of life lessons I try to teach the athletes that I coach. Never give up is something I like to instill in them and to show them that everything is possible if they put in a bit of work – just because they haven’t done something before, or they find it a little challenging, doesn’t mean it can’t be done. It’s great to see them try the different events or things they find challenging and see how much they improve once they do give it a shot. Cheering on each other at the sporting events and helping our fellow athletes is something we also do great in the Special Olympics; the camaraderie is brilliant. If anyone wants to see a group of people who are so happy to see each other succeed, all you have to do is come and watch a Special Olympics sporting event. Their happiness is infectious, and it really makes you become a better person having worked with them.
A particular special experience was when one girl was so shy that she didn’t speak to anyone or make eye contact. Over the last few years, we have really noticed how much she has come on – she is always laughing and chatting with us and the other athletes, and her smile is infectious. It is great to see how far she has come on a personal level. Obviously, her sporting ability has come on great too, but sometimes that isn’t the most important thing for the athletes.
Being selected as one of the Team Ireland Coaches was a really proud moment for me too; I was delighted that I could help coach these athletes towards the World Games and help make a difference. It was amazing to see the rewards after, and how happy all the athletes were returning from the games.
The coaching team and athletes all had some great experiences at the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi 2019. The World Games prep began a year before the games themselves. We met our athletes for day training sessions a few times in the year, and we also had a full weekend where we practiced how it will be at the games. This was great for the athletes as they learned about how the games would be and who they will be sharing a room with; they also got to really make friends with everyone on the team. When it comes to the games themselves, the athletes made great friends with each other and they became very familiar with their coaches. This was important as we were their caregivers during the games also. We were responsible for them and they needed to feel comfortable with us.
We had 8 athletes on the team, 2 coaches/chaperones, and a head coach. I was one of the coach/chaperones, and I had 4 athletes in my care for the duration of the games. We all made our way separately to the airport and then met with the athletes and their families at Dublin Airport – there was a great send-off here with Irish flags everywhere. We took care of the passports and tickets for the athletes and travelled in our group together at all times. The athletes and swimmers ended up being in Dubai for the games, and the other sports were in Abu Dhabi. The first 2 days we spent adjusting to the area as a full team in Dubai (then the other sports went on to a new hotel in Abu Dhabi, while we stayed in Dubai). We had a few day trips before the games started where we got to see a bit of the sights in Dubai, and then we had a great opening ceremony in Abu Dhabi. We went to the Dubai Mall with the athletes to show them the fountain and the Burj Khalifa, which was great. Every hour, there is a light show at the fountain in the evenings, which the athletes really enjoyed.
For the games themselves, they were split into qualifying days and then finals. Each athlete gets to compete twice. The first competition was to allow them to be fairly divisional into their finals, so that the athletes of the same ability compete against each other. We had an amazing medal haul during the finals – the athletes had an amazing time and loved every minute of it. Some of their families travelled over to see them, so we were able to sit together with the families during the races and cheer the others on. One of the athletes happened to meet “The Mountain” from Game of Thrones at the track and get a picture – he was delighted. During the games, food was provided for us by the hotel in the morning and evening and at the track during the day. It was March when we went, but still very hot – we had a marquee where we could sit in with the athletes and keep out of the sun before the races. We had a day off from the track one day, so we were able to head into Abu Dhabi to the Healthy Athletes Village – there were different stalls there where they learned about physical and mental health. We also got to sit in on some of the other sports events while we were here and cheer on Team Ireland. This was great for them all to see how well the other athletes were doing in the other sports.
On the final day, we travelled to Abu Dhabi again to take part in the closing ceremony. They really enjoyed this – there were fireworks and music and the handing of the torch over to the hosts for the Winter Games. When we arrived back at Dublin Airport, there were huge crowds there to cheer them all on; just a sea of green!
I see a few similarities between being a Software Developer and a Special Olympics Coach. Over the last year, it has been very useful having the know-how for tech, where other coaches might not. It was easy for me to set up training and coaching online for my athletes, and I was glad to have this skill. The parents and athletes were also really glad of this, as it gave them an outlet and a means to keep in touch. This is great and it will help with integrating everyone back into the training group when we are eventually able to train together again.
My advice to anyone interested in being a Special Olympics Coach is to reach out to your local club and just ask them where they need help and what sports they do. Turn up to a few of their training sessions and see what you enjoy and feel you would be a good fit with. The clubs will be able to advise on becoming a volunteer, and then the steps you will need to take to get Garda vetting and do the safeguarding course. You can also get in touch with the Special Olympics offices in each of the provinces – maybe you don’t want to be involved in the coaching side, but you might want to help with the administration, and there may be volunteering opportunities there too if that is more in line with your skill-set.
There is always more than tech. Technology is something which can benefit us in all areas of our lives. Sport is just one aspect where we see the benefits of technology and how it has improved our sporting ability: recording of events, scoring of events, and much more. These other interests are why tech is used in so many areas of our lives. People like us have said “how can we use tech in sport and run with it?” I actually did my Ph.D. in this area. I looked at the electrical impulses of muscles during different movements in athletics. I developed algorithms and analysed the signals to show what muscles were doing the most work and in what sequence during the movements. So overall, it is great to see that those involved in tech are not just involved in tech, but have other great interests too.