Fountain grandmother Joan Robb still gets a “tingly” feeling when watching the Paralympic Games on TV.
She has experienced that feeling of excitement in every Games since the Toronto 1976 when she finished fourth in the 50m Freestyle swim and also competed in the 50m breaststroke. Representing Ireland in the Paralympic Games in Canada was three weeks of her life that she will never forget and will always treasure.
“Now when I see the Games on the TV I say to my husband Wallace ‘you don’t know how this feels for me’ - I get all tingly. It’s so exciting and brings back the memories of the amazing atmosphere when I took part all those years ago.”
The mum of four and grandmother of four, who was then Joan Rosborough, recalls the opening of the Toronto Games when the 18-strong Irish team - which included fellow Derry athletes Angela Doherty (table tennis) and double silver medallist Pat McCool (discus and club) - paraded with the world athletes around a horse racing track. “It was nothing like the opening ceremonies are these days but the atmosphere was brilliant. Just to be there was fantastic, it was the experience of a lifetime and I’ve never experienced anything like it since.”And the golden memories didn’t end there. On returning home from the Games there was a host of receptions and celebrations to enjoy. The city’s mayor at the time, James Hegarty, invited Joan and the other Derry athletes to a civic reception at the Guildhall - an event which was attended by All-Ireland Catholic Primate Cardinal William Conway. That was followed by recognition from the Lord Mayor of Dublin in Mansion House.
It was a far cry from what Joan’s everyday life in Derry in the mid 1970s.
Having contracted polio at nine months old, Joan lost the power of her legs and could only walk with the aid of crutches after having callipers fitted when she was just three years-old.
Her mum, Mamie, made every effort to ensure that her disability would not get in the way of her daughter getting on in life. Mamie told the ‘Journal’: “The first time I took her to the swimming baths she was only a baby. I remember not being able to swim and struggling to hold her on my arm while holding onto the side of the pool with the other.”
At just seven years-old, Joan joined a local polio club swimming classes run by Rosemary Doyle at William Street Swimming Baths. When she was 23 years-old, Joan was taking part in a swimming gala in Belfast when the Irish Paralympic team selectors invited her join the Toronto team.
During a heavy training schedule for Toronto, Joan had the “privilege” of training side by side with Derry swimming legend Liam Ball, who competed for Ireland in both the 1968 Mexico City and 1972 Munich Olympic Summer Games in the 100 metres Breaststroke and 200 metres Breaststroke.
“Liam was a brilliant swimmer, I mean unbelievably good. It was great to even be in the same pool as him.
Taking part in the Toronto Games gave Joan a huge sense of personal satisfaction. She remembers saying to her mother when she returned from the Games: “I’ll never cry again about what I can’t do.”
When the Games begin next week, she’ll be watching from her home with great interest.
“I’ll be keeping a close eye on the swimming but I’ll be watching as many sports as I get the time to watch.”