IRISH female professionals in sport are a rare phenomenon, but Balbriggan's Diane Caldwell is bucking the trend and making a name for herself in the unlikely surroundings of the Norwegian fjords.
Avaldsnes is a small town on Karmoy Island, near the city of Haugesund, and is home to the local women's soccer team who play in the second tier of the national league. Republic of Ireland international Diane signed for them this year and also in the squad is a Nigerian girl who has played in four World Cups and two Olympics, four Icelandic natives and one English girl, with the bulk of the team being Norwegian.
With Avaldsnes closing in on promotion to the Toppserien (top flight) - the season runs from April to October - more signings are imminent thanks to the financial resources of a local property owner/entrepreneur. 'The club is making quite a name for itself within the Norwegian soccer community, becoming the Man City of Norwegian women's football!' said Diane, who yesterday celebrated her 24th birthday.
With most of the players on professional contracts, training takes place almost every day, with just one rest day per week, and Diane also works for a landscaping company. 'I do it mainly to keep myself busy, and with the minimum wage here being the equivalent of €20 an hour I just had to get myself a part-time job even though I could live off what I make playing,' she explained. 'I really like the job, but it can be physically demanding so I have to closely monitor how I am feeling and when I need to rest to enable me perform at my highest level for my main job - football.'
It may be a long way away from Fingal, but as far as Diane is concerned she is living the dream. There is a newly-formed National League in Ireland, which Diane welcomes, but the standard hasn't yet reached the level of Norway's second tier, let along the Toppserien, so a return home wasn't really an option for Diane once she'd finished her college degree in the United States. Asked how the opportunity in Norway arose, she recalled: ' A women's football agent noticed I had been drafted to a professional women's pre-season team in America and contacted me asking would I be interested if he could get me a professional contract in Europe. I signed with him and I haven't looked back since. 'Soccer is my life, but I wouldn't have it any other way.
I feel very blessed to be doing what I love, while being able to travel the world and meet many wonderful people along the way. 'The scenery here is simply spectacular with all the fjords, mountains, valleys, waterfalls and lakes, and in all my worldwide travels I have never been to a country with such vast amounts of natural beauty. 'So I'm loving being able to pursue my favourite outdoor activities such as hiking, biking and snowboarding… when coach allows me!' On the international scene, Ireland recently missed out on qualification for the 2013 European Championship Finals, but Diane - who has 15 international caps - still hopes to be involved in the two remaining qualification games against France and Israel next week and of course in the qualifiers for the 2015 World Cup which begin next year. Some of her Irish teammates recently travelled to London to see their former international soccer colleague Katie Taylor claim boxing gold at the Olympics, and Diane was delighted with the Bray girl's triumph.
'I played alongside Katie many times at under-19 and senior level for Ireland. She is a tremendous athlete and what's more a tremendous person. She has worked so hard to achieve what she has achieved and she really is an inspiration to all of us.' Like Katie, Diane has packed a huge amount into her 24 years, and the first months away from home were a steep learning curve for her. 'Moving to the States at 17 was a huge life-learning experience for me,' she reflected. 'At that time I just thoroughly enjoyed it and loved every minute of it, but looking back on it now I realise it taught me so many important life lessons. It made me independent, broadened my mind and sculpted me into the person that I am today.
'America opened my eyes hugely to the science behind sports training. I feel like I went to America a footballer and came back an athlete, with all aspects of my performance such as nutrition and psychology improved. 'I've always set myself goals and done my best to try and achieve them. As a female footballer I should be hitting my peak in a couple of years, so right now I wish to just continue on playing and enjoying my football for as long as I can.'