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Lucky Day for Irish Gymnastics
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St. Patrick's Day in Belfast brings cultural celebration and international competition, in the form of a dual meet between the U.S. and Great Britain.

The two-day meet commences Saturday with team and all-around competition, and concludes Sunday with event finals. The meet will be held in Northern Ireland's first purpose-built Olympic Training Facility, in the City of Lisburn (10 miles south of Belfast). The facility opened in October 2006.

Tony Byrne, director of the Salto Gymnastics Centre based at the facility, referred to the competition as "the most exciting day in the development of gymnastics in Northern Ireland."

The U.S. team includes recently crowned American Cup Champion Shawn Johnson, Bianca Flohr, Ivana Hong, Natasha Kelley, Hilary Mauro, Samantha Peszek, Bridget Sloan and Shayla Worley.

Nominated for the British team are Olivia Bryl, Hanna Clowes, Rebecca Downie, Laura Jones, Marissa King, Melanie Roberts, Leigh Rogers, Jodie Standish, Emma White and Rebecca Wing.

Byrne said Saturday's program includes St. Patrick's Day festivities for gymnasts from both teams.

"The gymnasts will visit a big display at the civic centre where all cultures of all sides of our community will be represented," he said. "There will be Irish dances, drummers, pipers and other entertainment. We have bought small green ribbons for each of the gymnasts to wear in their hair."

St. Patrick's Day also coincides with the United Kingdom's Red Nose Day, an event organized by Comic Relief, a charity that raises money for disadvantaged people in Africa and the U.K. "We have therefore also bought a small red nose for each of our guests, and we hope they will enjoy this and have fun," Byrne said.

Although no Northern Irish gymnasts will take part in the dual meet, Byrne said the country's young gymnasts show potential.

"We don't have competitors this time, but we have many talented youngsters and hope that they will compete in the future," he said.

Among the Salto club's top prospects are Rebecca Wallace, Emma Gorman, Aimee O'Driscoll and Shannon Garritt - three of whom will compete in this year's European Youth Olympic Days meet, Byrne said.

Northern Ireland's most successful gymnasts to date are Holly Murdock and Katie Slader. Representing Great Britain at the 2001 World Championships, Murdock finished 14th all-around - the highest British women's all-around rank in Worlds history until Beth Tweddle placed fourth in 2005. Slader won the 2004 North European all-around title.

The independent nation of Ireland became a member of the FIG in 1976. Barry McDonald, who competed in Atlanta in 1996, is the first and only Irish Olympic gymnast.

Ciaran Gallagher, National Development Director of Irish Gymnastics, said the country's program has improved dramatically in the past year alone.

"Sport in Ireland has been going through a process over the past number of years of modernization – moving from voluntary run to professionally led," he said. "Irish Gymnastics put in place a modernization program over a year ago, and as a result the sport has seen great development in the Emerald Isle."

Other recent advances include a planned Irish National Training Centre program in Dublin, and an Irish Gymnastics Coach Education team that has recently been appointed to facilitate the ongoing development of the federation's coaching ladder.

"The future of the sport in Ireland looks very bright," Gallagher said. "We will have numerous Irish representatives across all of our disciplines stepping out onto the international stage this year, and we look forward to further exciting developments."

Gallagher said the Irish program still replies in part on the country's fabled good fortune.

"While it's great to see that the hard work regarding the modernization of the federation is showing real benefits to the sport in Ireland," Gallagher said, "all at Irish Gymnastics are hoping that the 'luck of the Irish’ will have its part to play!"

International Gymnast Magazine Related Features
"Pride of the Irish" - Katie Slader profile (March 2005)
"Pressing Her Luck" - Holly Murdock profile (August/September 2001)
"A Taste of China" - Shawn Johnson profile
Johnson on cover, Johnson center poster (October 2006)
Natasha Kelley profile (March 2006)
Samantha Peszek profile (November 2006)
Shayla Worley poster (July/August 2006)

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