One year to go to Rio 2016: NI athletes focus on Olympic bids

By Nigel RinglandBBC Sport NI
Rio 2016 challenge excites NI trio

With 12 months to go until the Rio Olympics get underway some of Northern Ireland's top athletes across a range of sports are striving to be part of the Greatest Show on Earth.

There were 19 local competitors at London 2012 - 13 as part of the Irish team and six with Team GB - and many of those will be hoping to be part of another Games in Brazil.

Northern Ireland's five medallists from three years ago should all be in contention to be on the podium once again.

Belfast boxers Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan both secured qualification for Rio through the World Series of Boxing earlier this year. Barnes is a two-time bronze medallist from Beijing and London and only has thoughts of gold in his third Games while Conlan also clinched bronze in London and believes he can do better.

Meanwhile Commonwealth Games silver medallist Michaela Walsh will want a rematch with GB's golden girl Nicola Adams.

In rowing, Coleraine brothers Richard and Peter Chambers won silver together three years ago but are currently in different GB rowing boats, with Richard in the lightweight double sculls and Peter in the lightweight four.

Coleraine sculler Alan Campbell is aiming to be amongst the medals at the Rio Olympics next summer

Alan Campbell is looking to compete at his fourth Games and become the first competitor from Northern Ireland to do so. Could there be more tears of joy to celebrate another medal in Rio?

First, they must secure qualification at the World Championships in France later this month.

Coleraine has a fourth oarsman who could force his way into the team. Joel Cassells won European gold with Peter Chambers earlier this summer in the non-Olympic class lightweight pair and will be pushing more experienced team members hard next year.

The Irish rowing squad will also be hoping to qualify a number of boats, including the women's pair of Enniskillen's Leonora Kennedy and her partner Monika Dukarska.

Golf will be played at the Olympics for the first time since 1904 and that means the exciting prospect of a shootout for gold between Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth…well one can hope!

The battle to join McIlroy on the Irish team looks to be between Graeme McDowell and Shane Lowry.

The Irish men's hockey squad must wait until October to see if their Olympic dream will be realised

Stephanie Meadow is currently holding on to a qualifying place as well but with points to be gained up until next July, she will need a return to her best form to keep it.

Hockey could be another sport that provides medals for local athletes. Iain Lewers was devastated to miss out on a medal in London and he's joined in the Great Britain squad by Mark Gleghorne, David Ames and Ian Sloan. They have already booked their place for next summer.

Ireland's men face an anxious wait though and won't know their fate until October, but if they do qualify for the first time, Ulster will be well represented with Mark's brother Paul Gleghorne likely to lead the side.

Aileen Reid had a disappointing Olympic experience in the London 2012 triathlon and last weekend took part in the Rio test event so she knows what to expect. On her day she has beaten the world's best and is sitting in a very comfortable qualifying position.

On the water, Matt McGovern and Ryan Seaton made sure of Ireland's participation in the 49er discipline and James Espey did the same in the laser at last year's Sailing World Championships and, subject to selection, the trio should take part in their second Games and use the experience gained in London to put in strong performances.

McGovern and Seaton must be considered medal contenders.

Steeplechaser Kerry O'Flaherty achieved the Olympic qualifying standard in July

After taking time out to have a baby, Hannah Craig has returned to action in canoe slalom this year with the goal of qualifying at the world championships at the Olympic venue in Lee Valley in September. It should bring back happy memories of her achievement of making the 2012 final and this time she will have little Arlo cheering her on.

World champion track cyclist Martyn Irvine has work to do to secure his place in the men's omnium. He currently lies 13th in the European rankings with only eight places available.

Lydia Boylan and the Irish women's team pursuit are in the mix, ranked seventh in Europe with six spots available but the entire squad will face a gruelling schedule that will see them travel to Colombia, New Zealand and Hong Kong before the World Championships in London in March which will be the final qualifying event.

In athletics steeplechaser Kerry O'Flaherty recently achieved the Rio qualifying mark, as too has marathon runner Breege Connolly, while the likes of Ciara Mageean, Katie Kirk, Ben Reynolds, Amy Foster, Paul Pollock, Christine McMahon and Adam McMullan all have hopes of doing the same, as do Sycerika McMahon, Bethany Carson and others in the pool.

Rugby sevens is a new Olympic sport and Ireland's men and women have both reached the final stage of qualifying next year with Ulster representation in both.

If qualifying went well, there could be nearly 30 Northern Ireland competitors heading to Rio. The next 12 months promises to be quite a journey.

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