JENNIFER O'LEARY COLUMN
THERE are countless inspiring stories around the country from Irish women in sport – and we need to hear more of them.
I was one of a number of speakers at Ulster GAA’s Empowering Female Sport conference held in Armagh City Hotel last month, and it was an eye-opening experience.
The verb ‘empowering’ can be defined as giving (someone) the authority or power to do something. It also has the ability to make (someone) feel stronger and more confident. This conference certainly achieved that. It was empowering in every sense.
We need to give more women the platform to share their incredible stories and experiences, the challenges they have overcome, the triumphs they’ve enjoyed. The recent conference captured all that.
It was an inspiring day and a great innovative idea by Ulster GAA to showcase all the fantastic talented women we have in abundance. Their progressive attitude and forwarding thinking as a province allowed motivating women in sport to highlight their individual or team sports for the public to gain an insight into their world for just a few hours.
It was such a feel good day, an event that could become an annual date on the calendar. And more of these should be rolled out around the country.
Speakers on the day were from many different codes in sport, from Juliet Murphy recalling her Cork ladies football playing days, to Aoife Cassidy, a recent senior camogie All-Ireland club winning captain with Slaughtneil, to a moving speaker called Janet Gray who is a blind water-skier and world champion.
I spoke myself about my camogie career, the teams I have been involved with and also how it’s important to now give something back to the sport.
While I didn’t get the opportunity to hear everyone speak, I did talk to the guest speakers to hear their stories and thoughts on the day itself. It was refreshing to hear so many recall their sporting memories and recent experiences with a happy heart. The overwhelming consensus by all was that there were no regrets.
Juliet spoke about her role in coaching now and how the break from playing football has been a positive aspect in her life. She has a phenomenal calming aura about her that just draws you in. Unassuming and modest, she felt very humbled to be asked to speak at this event. Little does she know the upbeat effect she has on so many young players and coaches who look up to her.
Aoife Cassidy, just 22, captained her club (Slaughtneil, Derry) to lift the All-Ireland senior camogie club title weeks ago when they defeated the favourites Sarsfields (Galway) in an epic encounter (1-10 to 0-11). She’s so mature and level headed for her age.
A very composed and confident girl, what struck me the most was her strength of character. Playing alongside her two sisters, a week before their Ulster final they lost their father who suffered a long illness. He was a constant in their camogie lives and a huge void was left following his death but she used this loss as determination to continue their winning ways for him, and so they did. Their win captured the hearts of the country, a feel good factor followed because deep down we knew a win would be what they needed at this time in their lives.
Ann Downey, camogie legend for Kilkenny and present Kilkenny senior camogie manager, was one of the key speakers on the day. Bumping into her at the beginning of the event was special for me as Ann and her twin sister Angela were two players I watched and looked up to enormously when I was a young camogie player.
Her motto is: ‘If you are ever going to do anything at all, do it right, or if you are not going to do it right don’t even bother.’ It’s simple, yet effective advice.
Like Slaughtneil’s run of wins in camogie, football and hurling this year, Kilkenny too have had their fair share of victories, especially with camogie winning the senior title last year – but it’s not just victory they have in common, both Aoife Cassidy and Ann Downey professed that all their teams within the GAA are all supported equally.
Slaughtneil camogie were given the same treatment as their male counterparts when it came to providing teams with gear, use of training facilities, etc. The same could be said of Kilkenny county where Ann Downey says that there is a strong mutual respect for all the county teams, no matter if they are male or female, and she hasn’t been treated any differently because she is a female manager. It was satisfying to hear these close links do exist within the GAA today.
While all the speakers left a lasting impression, one lady who made me vow to try my very best to never complain again was a woman called Janet Gray, a blind water-skier.
Her story was incredible and made me ask myself if I have ever really pushed myself to my very limit in any area of my life?
At the age of 21 she went completely blind due to an irreversible eye disease. This turned her life upside down but instead of merely learning to cope with this disability, she decided to learn to water ski, blind.
What was even more amazing was the fact that she became very good at it, so much so that she became a world champion in a number of different water skiing events.
For me, this was almost unfathomable, but from hearing her story, it was clear that she was no ordinary woman, she was the most determined and resilient I have ever met.
But it didn’t end there. She suffered a life-threatening accident a few years into the height of her sporting career and was left on life support with her heart stopping four times in the process. They were nightmare moments. But she was there to tell the tale.
While everyone told her she would never walk again, she defied all the odds and not only walked again, but took the brave step to water ski again at a high level.
This is just a snapshot of her story and it certainly left the room in total silence. She defied all odds, overcame every obstacle and showed resilience like no one I have ever known.
This idea of empowering people in a public arena such as this is something more provinces should adopt. There is so much talent to explore, so many stories to hear and many ways in which people can learn to be inspired and grow in confidence by people in sport.
I hope other sporting organisations around the country will follow suit as an event as worthwhile as this can only bring out the best in people and leave you feeling blessed that you are involved in sport, no matter what it is.