The party started shortly after lunch on Friday, when the six members of Ireland's Alpine skiing team and their coaches began making their way to their hotel about a half-mile walk from athlete catering. The trip took longer than they expected.
"It's taken us about an hour and a half to get this far," said Julie Dwyer, Ireland's assistant head of delegation, as she stood with her team about one-third of the way to Hotel Neue Post. "Everyone wants to take photos with the team."
For good reason. Earlier in the day at divisioning, preliminary races used to group athletes by skill level, the members of the Ireland team skied with green feathers in their helmets and immediately drew attention and selfie requests. If anyone at the Special Olympics Winter World Games had forgotten, the Irish skiers were in Schladming to remind them that Friday was more than the day before Jason Mraz and Grace VanderWaal would perform in the Opening Ceremony. "It's St. Patrick's Day!" said GS and slalom skier Lorraine Whelan. "My favorite holiday."
After lunch, the team donned sparkly green hats, wigs, shamrock headbands, pins and star-shaped sunglasses, and carried enough noisemakers and musical instruments to construct an impromptu marching band. So they did.
As they walked -- ahem, marched -- up the Hauptplatz, the town's main square, they shook shakers, tapped claves and punched rhythms on a tambourine. For one afternoon, they were royalty, the most popular athletes in Schladming. They posed for photos, swapped pins with fellow athletes and paused their parade route for impromptu dance parties.
Four years ago when the team returned home from the World Winter Games In Pyeongchang, South Korea, they were invited to march in the St. Patrick's Day parade in Dublin. Of all the invitations they've received -- to appear on national news and radio shows or attend events for sponsors like AerLingus -- marching in the Dublin parade was a highlight. "It was a massive honor," Dwyer said. "But the Games were in January, so we had already returned from competing."
This year, rather than lament missing out on the parades back home, they decided to bring the parade to Schladming and packed their bags accordingly. "I think it's brilliant," said Ireland's youngest athlete, Caolan McConville, 14, from beneath a bright green wig. "In good terms, this day is really fun. I'm proud to be here on St. Patrick's Day."
After another brief stop at a photo booth and pin-making station in the sponsor village, the party continued toward the hotel. But as the sun dipped behind the Alps, the exhaustion of the day was beginning to show on their Irish faces, their shamrock deely bobbers drooping ever so slightly to one side. But there was one last stop to make before dinner, in the lobby of the team's hotel.
There, the band gave its final performance of the day, complete with sleigh bells, spoons, a tambourine, shakers and Ms. Dwyer on the concertina, a traditional instrument she began learning to play only one year ago, at age 62. "I'll start with a traditional Irish polka," she said, and then lit up the room with music.
"One more!" her athletes shouted when she finished. Reluctantly, she continued with "Black Velvet Band" and then "Fiddler's Green," two Irish classics that got the group singing along. Irish eyes, as they say, were smiling.
As perfect as the moment was, it wasn't the real finale. A few moments after the team headed upstairs, 16-year-old Laoise [pronounced: Lee-sha] Kenny remained in the lobby with two of her coaches. She sang and joked and looked at photos from the day, unsuspecting of why they had asked her to stay behind.
Then a voice boomed from the hotel's entrance, catching the teenager's attention.
"Hell - ooo Laoise!"
Surprised, she looked up, jumped up and screamed. "Oh my god! I didn't know you were here!" In the doorway stood her father, mother, sister, brother and aunt, proud expressions on their faces. "You're in Austria!" her dad, Austin Kenny said. "At the Olympics!"
The next few minutes were filled with hugs and introductions and happy tears. "It took us longer than we planned to get here," her mom, Joan Quealy said. "We had to rent four cars in Munich to fit us all." The Quealy-Kenny clan was rolling 20 deep -- six aunts, a few cousins and uncles, even Laoise's 85-year-old grandmother made the trek from Ireland. "So where is she?" a coach asked.
"Grandma's with everyone else -- at the pub across the street," mom said. "Where else would she be? It's St. Patrick's Day!"