Rio Paralympics: Northern Ireland participants in the Games

The Olympic Stadium in Rio
Jason Smyth and Michael McKillop will be hoping to clinch gold in the Olympic Stadium
Paralympic Games on the BBC
Venue: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil Dates: 7-18 September Time in Rio: BST -4
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London 2012 gold medallists Bethany Firth, Michael McKillop and Jason Smyth will be joined by six other Northern Ireland hopefuls at the Rio Paralympics which start with the opening ceremony on Wednesday.

The overall representation should have been 10 but Belfast youngster Jordan Walker, 17, who was selected to join Ryan Walker and Cormac Birt in the Ireland seven-a-side football squad had to pull out because of injury.

County Down swimmer Firth, 20, won the S14 100m backstroke title when representing Ireland four years ago but will be among four Northern Irish competitors competing for Great Britain in Rio.

Larne woman Claire Taggart, 21, competes in Boccia for Britain with 16-year-old Ballymena youngster Katie Morrow (wheelchair basketball) and Downpatrick man David Leavy (seven-a-side football) also representing Great Britain at the Games.

Track and field stars McKillop and Smyth are joined in the Ireland team by seven-a-side footballers Walker and Birt, plus Dungannon shooter Phillip Eaglesham.

Here, BBC Sport takes a more detailed look at the Northern Ireland competitors.

1. Bethany Firth (swimming)

Seaforde woman Firth will aim to land gold during Thursday's first day of competition when she defends her S14 100m backstroke title.

The 100m backstroke remains Firth's strongest event but she will also compete in the 200m freestyle, 100m breaststroke and 200m individual medley later in the Games.

Firth could be a strong gold medal contender in the 200m IM on the penultimate day of the Games as Russian Valeriia Shabalina, who pipped her for gold at this year's European Championships, will not be competing because of the country's ban from Rio.

Bethany Firth switched allegiance from Ireland to Great Britain in 2013
Swimmer Bethany Firth won the S14 100m backstroke title at the London Paralympics

Firth, who competes in the S14 classes for swimmers with an intellectual disability, is one of Northern Ireland's top pool stars and competed in eight events at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

After winning gold in London, Firth won three silver medals at the IPC World Championships in Montreal a year later before opting to switch allegiance to Great Britain.

2. Claire Taggart (Boccia)

Twenty-one-year-old Larne woman Claire Taggart competes in the Paralympic-specific spot of Boccia, which is similar to Boules and requires major tactical nuance and accuracy from its athletes.

Claire was diagnosed with the condition dystonia after beginning to experience difficulties with her walking five years ago.

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Rio 2016 Paralympics: Boccia, the Games' most inclusive sport

But despite now being in a wheelchair, the county Antrim woman maintains a hugely positive approach to life.

"I'm learning to drive again. The only thing I can't do is walk and to be honest, I'm not that bothered," says Claire.

The Larne woman was thrilled by her selection for her first Paralympics and will be part of a strong British squad expected to challenge strongly for medals in both the team and individual events.

3. David Leavy (seven-a-side football)

Downpatrick man David Leavy will be another Paralympics debutant in Rio after being named in Britain's seven-a-side football squad.

The Queen's University student captained the Northern Ireland team at last year's Cerebral Palsy World Championships after discovering the sport when watching the London 2012 Paralympics on television.

Rio's Deodoro Stadium hosted Rugby Sevens matches during the recent Olympics
Rio's Deodoro Stadium will host the seven-a-side football tournament which will feature three Northern Ireland players

Leavy will be the first ever Northern Ireland player to represent Great Britain in seven-a-side football at a Paralympics.

"It's a real honour to be selected to represent ParalympicsGB and I'm delighted that all of my hard work in training has paid off," says the 24-year-old.

4. Katie Morrow (wheelchair basketball)

Sixteen-year-old Ballymena girl Katie Morrow was introduced to wheelchair basketball three years ago by Disability Sport Northern Ireland's Wheelchair Basketball Performance Officer Phil Robinson.

2015 was a remarkable year for the Cullybackey College student as she helped the British senior team win European Championship bronze after making her debut earlier in the season, in addition to helping the British Under-25 squad clinch World Championship gold.

Away from the basketball court, Katie is a highly talented swimmer having been a club-mate of Ireland star Danielle Hill in a Larne squad which claimed relay medals at Irish and British Age-Group Championships.

5. Jason Smyth (athletics)

The world's fastest Paralympian will be aiming to win gold medal number five in Rio after his T13 sprint doubles in Beijing and London.

With the International Paralympic Committee dropping the 200m event from the Rio athletics programme, Eglinton man Smyth will run just the 100m at these Games with his opening heat taking place on the first day of competition on Thursday before Friday's final.

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Rio 2016 Paralympics: Jason Smyth says preparations for Games have been 'ideal'

Smyth, 29, set world records of 10.46 and 21.05 as he triumphed in London although his 100m personal best of 10.22 set in 2011 was good enough to earn him a place in the sprint entry alongside Usain Bolt at that year's World Championships in South Korea.

Injury problems affected Smyth in the three years after London but his 10.39 clocking in Florida earlier this summer suggests that he should comfortably retain his 100m title.

As an eight-year-old, Smyth was diagnosed with the genetic condition Stargardt's Disease, which has left him with less than 10% of normal vision.

6. Michael McKillop (athletics)

Like his great friend Smyth, Glengormley runner McKillop will be unable to repeat his double triumph of four years ago after Games bosses also opted to remove the T37 800m from the Rio timetable.

Despite a series of injuries since London, which included a broken wrist after he fell off a bike while on holiday in Rome, McKillop has remained unbeatable at world and European level over the last four years.

Michael McKillop celebrates his T37 1500m triumph at London 2012
Michael McKillop will aim for a fourth Paralympics gold medal in Rio

McKillop has not lost in Paralympic competition since a defeat at the 2005 European Championships in Finland, which came three years before his first Paralympics gold medal in Beijing.

With the 26-year-old enjoying an injury-free 2016, he will be a strong favourite to clinch a fourth Paralympics gold medal.

7. Ryan Walker (seven-a-side football)

Nineteen-year-old Armagh man Ryan Walker will make his Paralympic debut on Friday when he lines out for the Ireland seven-a-side football team in their opener against the world's top-ranked team Ukraine at the Deodoro Stadium.

The tournament, which is played by footballers with cerebral palsy, will continue for the Irish on Saturday as they face hosts Brazil before they face Great Britain in their final group match.

Midfielder Ryan, who hails from Glenanne in county Armagh, has been playing football all his life and is a regular with his Ireland team-mate Cormac Birt and British representative David Leavy in the Northern Ireland team.

Ryan hopes to qualify as a personal trainer in the future.

8. Cormac Birt (seven-a-side football)

Toomebridge 20-year-old Cormac Birt will make his Ireland debut in Rio after being named alongside Walker in the 14-man squad.

A former GAA player, Cormac turned his hand to football in 2011 and hasn't looked back since and has been juggling training with his studies as an accountancy student.

Ireland's seven-a-side Paralympics football team in action against Great Britain at London 2012
Ireland's seven-a-side football team start their campaign against Ukraine on Friday

The county Antrim man has been capped 34 times by Northern Ireland's Cerebral Palsy team and his seven international goals include a wonder strike from the halfway line against England three years ago.

Belfast youngster Jordan Walker, 17, was selected to join Walker and Birt in the Ireland squad but had to pull out because of injury.

9. Phillip Eaglesham (shooting)

Dungannon man Phillip Eaglesham was serving as a Royal Marine in Afghanistan in 2010 when he contracted Q Fever, a rare airborne bacteria, and the steady deterioration in his condition left him wheelchair bound.

However, the father-of-three took began competing in disability shooting competitions in 2012 and despite the constant struggle to manage the physical and mental impact of his illness, he competed in his first IPC World Cup event in the USA in 2015.

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Former Royal Marine Cpl Phillip Eaglesham and his family will soon have their own home thanks to South West builders who are working for free

Impressive performances at the World Cup competition in Thailand in March secured the Somerset-based 34-year-old his selection on the Ireland team for Rio.

"There is no real prognosis apart from deterioration so we don't know where the future lies, but sport has really given me an outlook on doing something positive," says Phillip.

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