The British swimmer flying the flag for the UAE at the Special Olympics

Teenager Conor Conway has taught his own family that nothing is impossible, as he sets his sights on glory

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British-born Conor Conway is living the Olympic dream in his adopted home of the UAE.

Just three short years after swapping life in the UK for the Middle East, the swimmer is preparing to compete for Team UAE at the Special Olympics World Games.

Being a part of the squad in March is just another example of the tenacious teenager’s impressive ability to break down barriers and shatter misconceptions.

Conor, 16, who has Down syndrome, will be among a handful of non-Emiratis flying the flag for the UAE when he takes part in the 1,500m open-water swim.

He will join more than 7,500 athletes from 192 countries at the event that celebrates the achievements of athletes with special needs, which is being held in Abu Dhabi from March 14 to 21.

For dad John Conway, who is principal of the Sheikh Zayed Private Academy for Boys in Abu Dhabi, the pride in his son’s achievements is clear.

Conor practises for the mile-long race. Willy Lowry / The National

“Conor broke many stereotypes,” said Mr Conway, 56. “No one expected him to be doing the things that he is doing now, not even us.”

Conor has been busy ever since he set up home in the UAE.

He has won writing competitions, swum in races across the world, played football and basketball, worked part time in The Club and run a 5 kilometre marathon in the capital.

“The fact that he is representing a country that he has come to live in, the idea that he will stand side by side along Emiratis to represent their country, is something I can’t put into words,” Mr Conway said.

Conor’s mother, Rachel Macauley, said the family’s move to the UAE was a concern because of Conor and the level of support he required.

“In England, the services start from day one,” said Ms Macauley, 49. “When Conor was born, the services started coming in and in the first 12 months I realised that I was being skilled up as a parent.

“I was learning how to do his speech, how to do physiotherapy through speech, through play and other things.

“I was hugely worried about moving to the UAE and at one point we did withdraw because we couldn’t find a school that was right for him.”

Conor began speaking at the age of six and before that communicated with sign language.

He was accepted at Zayed Private Academy, which had just opened and at the time did not have an inclusion programme for children with special needs.


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Conor was also the only westerner at the school of predominantly Emirati pupils, al though there are now more.

“The school and I had a commitment to make it work. It was a risk but there is also a risk at staying at your own life and not challenging yourself,” Mr Conway said.

The family decided to take the leap of faith and have never looked back.

In England Conor was involved in horse riding, football and in other activities to bolster his development.

“He was treated like a VIP,” Mr Conway said. “When we would go to his medical appointment, they would see us immediately.

“There was a massive team around him so the concern was, are we going to have this in the UAE.”

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - Conor Conway, 16 is head of the United Arab Emirates Special Olympics Swimming team, and suffers from down syndrome on October 13, 2018. (Khushnum Bhandari/ The National)

The answer was not as much, at first, but the UAE’s determination to ensure people with disabilities were included in society fixed that situation quickly, and eventually led to the Special Olympics.

“All of these things have emerged to the point that when we return home, we are wondering if that will be available for him,” Mr Conway said.

“Someone said to me, ‘Conor is very lucky to have you as a dad’, and I said, ‘No, we are very lucky to have Conor as a son’, and that is absolutely how we feel. We are absolutely blessed to have him.

“Now as principal of a school, the most important thing for me is that the children are happy at every stage of their life. I always tell Conor, ‘Always join and do your best and that keeps everyone happy’.”

The National joined Conor as he practised for the mile-long race. Willy Lowry / The National

Ms Macauley said: “With Conor you celebrate every achievement and you don’t take anything for granted.

“You think 16 years ago of that moment that you are first told about your child’s condition and if some had then said to me that when he is 16, we would be living in a different country and he would be selected to compete at the Special Olympics, he would have won a writing competition, he would be doing work experience and all these things that Conor is doing now, I would have said that is impossible.

“Every step of the way, he has surprised me. He hasexceeded my expectations of what I thought is possible.

“In all of those days and weeks when we thought, is he ever going to learn these skills, from speech to behaviour management, I look at him now and I can’t believe it. He has achieved so much.”

Mr Conway said: “They will often tell us that we as parents have done so well but honestly we didn’t do anything. It was all him.”