Jennifer O'Leary Column: ‘I'm not a woman that's an athlete, I'm an athlete'

February 9th, 2016 8:00 AM

By Southern Star Team

A real hero: Cobh and Irish running legend Sonia O'Sullivan was a female sportswoman that our columnist Jennifer O'Leary looked up to and drew great inspiration and strength from when she was growing up in West Cork.

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Our GAA Columnist Jennifer O'Leary talks about the importance of female role models in sport


MOST of you will never have heard of Skylar Diggins.

She’s an American basketball star – a starting guard for the Dallas Wings – who has achieved great things. She’s a two-time WNBA All-Star, a five-time USA basketball gold medallist, a four-time college All-American, and a role model for aspiring young sportswomen.

‘I’m not a woman that’s an athlete, I’m an athlete,’ Skylar once said. And I’m 100 per cent in agreement.

That’s a positive (and correct) way to look at women in sport today. It’s 100 per cent true.

We are athletes, not women who are athletes.

We are living in a time where women are really pushing the boundaries in sport. Women are showcasing what training hard can do and their ability to inspire the world over is becoming quite a regular part of the time we live in. 

Skylar is coming back from an ACL injury and she has set herself a target – to become the best in the world. She’s talented, confident, committed and inspiring, and a generation of young women look up to her.

Women like our own Katie Taylor and Jessica Ennis are modern sportswomen who have demonstrated their natural talent in sport. They have captured the public imagination and their success is being recognised as it truly should be.

Clearly there are many women in sport who are truly inspiring today, and there were lots of female sportspeople I looked up to and admired when I was growing up. 

My heroes weren’t given as much recognition as they deserved. They spanned from local camogie players, to national athletes, to world champions and international superstars. 

But no matter how much coverage they received in the media or the success they achieved in their chosen sport, they were inspiring to me for various reasons and made me want to try my very hardest in whatever sport I was destined to play. 

Back when I was nine or ten, I remember the excitement I felt leading up to the Wimbledon tennis tournament. My brothers, sisters and myself were often found in the local tarmac tennis court in Barryroe, practising day-in day-out like we were about to feature in this famous tournament. 

That was the dream – to be a professional tennis player, to be talent-spotted by some visiting professional tennis coach who would admire our ability to smash and volley the ball (with relative ease, I might add!) over the net. We didn’t need to be coached, we had raw, natural talent – sure, you can’t teach that!

And I guess that is why Monica Seles really grabbed my attention and admiration all those years ago.

Okay, leaving her annoying ‘grunt’ to one side for a while, Seles was a figure I truly admired and wanted to be. She was a huge part of my life growing up. I loved watching her in action and her two-handed style of play was so unusual at the time but so effective in her game. 

I didn’t know anyone who had a shot as powerful as her and her ground strokes over the ball were a deadly advantage in her game. I used to practice her type of two-handed shot nearly every day in the summer, when it felt like we actually had the feel of the warm summer sun. Remember those days? 

They were great times. It was great to get lost in the moment, to dream I actually was Monica Seles. Her speed and agility defeating names like Sabatini, Sanchez Vicario and Graf (aka my sister, who used one of these names, while I was Seles) always amazed me. 

But the main reason I found her inspirational was because she was so determined and tenacious. She went to each ball with guts and tried her very best in each game she played. And even in defeat she was gracious and accommodating to her fans. For such a young player to have achieved so much I admired her, and the fact that she didn’t give up following her shocking stabbing attack in 1993, it showed me that you cannot allow your dreams to dissipate even when life’s trials test you to your limit.

Closer to home, a heroine who made me feel proud to be Irish – but more importantly a proud Cork woman – was Sonia O’Sullivan. She is a household name, a sporting legend, who won national, world and European titles. 

I will always remember watching her in the Sydney Olympics in 2000 where she was defeated by less than a second in the 5,000m by Romanian Gabriela Szabo. 

I was glued to the TV in secondary school where the final was show on a big screen by our teachers in the study hall. I’ll never forget the tension in the room as she sprinted her final 200m, her trademark kick when she needed to give it her all to overtake or outsprint her opponent. There were many lips bitten and teeth gritted that day and despite her narrowly losing out in the end, she will forever remain a true inspiration to me. 

She is living proof that hard work pays off and while we don’t always win, we can certainly make a lasting impression on people. What really struck a chord was how she mentally prepared herself to train on her own. It’s such a lonely sport and it has to test your mindset. 

How did she keep herself so positive and driven all the time? She was such a talented runner so she must have trained extremely hard but the majority of the time she would have been solo. I find this remarkable. Her mental strength really amazed me. 

It’s often difficult to exercise with a group, you can easily convince yourself to drive home instead of stopping off at the gym and it’s too easy to have too many chocolate biscuits in the comfort of your own home. But for her to excel at her sport, she had to sacrifice a lot. She had to sacrifice human contact, resist tempting treats, and her extreme lean physique shows her determination to push her body to the limit for her sport. Not only this, she always had a smile on her face, pre and post races. She seemed like a real down to earth person. I liked this, I wanted to be like her, I wanted to train hard like her. 

We all need role models to look up to. We are lucky that there are so many amazing sportspeople out there that fit the bill, who inspire us to strive to be the best we can be. They keep up focused and grounded and allow us to challenge ourselves not only in our sport but in every facet of our lives. 

Remember, we are not women who are athletes, we are athletes.

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