Inspiring females to embrace sport

August 31st, 2021 7:05 AM

By Emma Connolly

Anaïs O’Donovan enjoying kayaking on Lough Hyne. It’s more than sport to her, it’s also her ‘sanity, freedom and stress relief.’ (Photos: Anne Minihane)

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A West Cork kayaker was the star of Sport Ireland’s first campaign designed to get more women outdoors and enjoying sports of all kinds, and she insists there’s an activity to suit everyone, you just need to keep looking!

A YOUNG sports woman from Skibbereen was part of a recent national advertising campaign to encourage women and girls of all ages to discover their sense of adventure and experience all the outdoors has to offer physically, mentally and socially.

Anaïs O’Donovan, a 21-year-old white-water and freestyle kayaker starred in HER Outdoors Week. Run by Sports Ireland, it was the first initiative of its kind in Ireland designed to inspire all females to embrace outdoor sports.

Anaïs was the perfect choice to be included in the campaign which ran earlier this month – she’s a qualified gymnastics instructor and tumbling judge through Gymnastics Ireland, as well as a qualified personal trainer and fitness instructor.

From Coornishal between Skibbereen and Drinagh, she also recently completed her qualifications in outdoor education which included dinghy sailing instructor, power boating instructor, windsurfing instructor and kayaking instructor and is working in the industry.

Kayaking, predominately white-water and freestyle kayaking, is her sport of choice, but she also rock climbs, sails, windsurfs, surfs and swims.

It’s easier to establish what activities she’s not involved with!

‘I started kayaking about three years ago with West Cork Kayaking Club when, in one week, four of my friends suggested I give it a go. From that very first day I absolutely fell in love with it. I love the freedom it gives you, and how you end up travelling all over Ireland, down tiny roads, and getting to explore some of the most amazing rivers and spots.’

Her training schedule is pretty hectic to say the least, but she loves it.

Anais O'Donovan showing what she can do at Lough Hyne near Skibbereen. Photo: Anne Minihane.

At the moment, due to weather conditions, she’s only training in freestyle kayaking and that sees her travel to Clonmel a couple of nights a week. ‘I recently returned from Nottingham where I trained at the National Water Sports Centre. I also train in Galway and anywhere else that has a suitable water feature. I also practise on flat water in local places like Lough Hyne or my local lake.

‘Some of the features in Ireland are tidal and others are rain-fed. This makes a difference to how you train. If it is tidal you could be training at 4am and obviously if it is rain fed, you need to wait for rain,’ she explained.

Anaïs has always had a keen interest in promoting female sporting activity and when Sport Ireland rang to tell her about the HER Outdoors Week she was excited to jump onboard.

‘If I could make a difference to even a small number of the population to try something new this year I think it would be a job well done! I think it is important for both men and women to feel that they are allowed to and welcome to participate in sport and I think everyone needs a role model to get into and to stay in a sport.’

She’s very aware of the lack of females in kayaking and recalled how two years ago when he kayaked the River Shannon from source to sea as part of a group of four, she was the only female.

‘I was also the youngest and at first it was daunting and scary and I wondered if I’d be able to keep up with the lads but they were all so supportive and we were all there to enjoy the sport,’ she remembered.

Working to address this, in the past year she developed an initiative called Teen Connect to promote junior women in paddle sports.

‘We had four online sessions where approx. 50 junior women all around Ireland attended. We then had a country meet where we had nine different sessions being run in six different counties with over 100 junior women on the water which was so encouraging,’ she said.

Anaïs has also set up Teen Connect to get more girls involved in paddle sports.

Last month, she organised a polo day, and the plan is to host more events going forward.

‘Basically kayaking has lots of disciplines and we want to give the girls an opportunity to try all from whitewater to surf kayaking to polo to marathon.’

She feels there are particular barriers for females when it comes to outdoor sports, even small things like having access to toilet facilities can be a challenge.

‘But we are lucky these barriers are constantly being addressed through campaigns like HER Outdoors Week and it can only get better from here.’

Her message to all females of all ages and abilities is to ultimately find a sport they enjoy, and to keep looking until they find their ‘thing,’ as there’s something for everyone.

‘Sport is so much more than sport, it’s a lifestyle, it’s something to do when you’re upset, stressed or want to meet new people. It overflows into other aspects of your life as there is a sense of, “if I can do this, I can do anything”.’

Anais said kayaking gives her sanity, freedom and stress relief.

‘But my ultimate goal is just to have fun.’

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