'No mens team would put up with our conditions...They'd go nuts' - Mayo's Sarah Rowe taking a stand against inequality
She was known as "the baby" of team from day one. As a "cheeky" newcomer, Sarah Rowe had no qualms about hopping on the team bus, marching down to the back seat and sitting beside her hero, Cora Staunton. She was just 14, but already training with the Mayo senior team.
Although she wouldn't be eligible to play at inter-county level for two more years, the Ballina player was like a sponge around her idols. She observed them, listened to them, looked up to them - and of course, had a bit of crack.
Despite the dedication, commitment and sacrifices the ladies made to grace the red and green jersey, Rowe, even as a teenager, saw the inequalities they, and counterparts, faced within the GAA. The barriers became even more pronounced as the talented young sports star started playing soccer for Ireland at the same time. Six years later, Rowe has excelled in both sports and is now the senior player the younger Mayo girls revere.
Despite the ongoing success of the Ladies' Gaelic Football Association's current advertising campaign, sponsored by Lidl - the retailer has invested €1.5m in the women's game in the first year of a three-year deal - Rowe says teams are still battling many of the same obstacles. Although she is hopeful, deep down, Rowe doesn't know if women's sport will ever be on a level playing field with men.
In terms of funding and structures, she says ladies' Gaelic football and soccer couldn't be more different. The disparities became particularly apparent to the attacker when she returned from the Republic of Ireland under 19 women's soccer team's memorable campaign at the UEFA European Championship last year.
"We got to the semi-final and lost, but it was the first time an Irish team had ever done it, so I came home on such a high," she said.
"I thought soccer is definitely the way: I got to travel, live with the girls, we were treated so well. Then I went back to Gaelic and back to training on really bad pitches, not getting food after training, not getting any supports."
She currently plays football for Mayo, Dublin City University and her home club in Ballina. She also plays soccer for Shelbourne and hopes to line out for Ireland later this year. She says the fundamental set-up for women's soccer is a lot better than the GAA. It comes down to one thing: finance.
"There is just more money involved in the soccer. Our Shelbourne team are treated really well; we still wouldn't get food after training, but you get nice gear, there is a very good structure in place, it's very professional," she said. "With Mayo at the moment, we are training on a pitch in Ballyhaunis where there are only two floodlights and we can barely see to the other side and the pitch is absolutely in a heap."
The Mayo ladies currently have a rota set-up, so that one person brings food for training. "It could be sandwiches or fruit or rice cakes, but it's not even anything proper that you should be eating after training," said the aspiring PE and biology teacher, who is on a sports scholarship at DCU. "Often times we have to arrange our own lifts because we can't afford to get a bus to the matches. It's very frustrating."
Her friendship with Aidan O'Shea - the two were a couple for a while - has given her first-hand knowledge of the enormous gap between the treatment of the county's men's and ladies' sides.
"It doesn't even compare. MacHale Park is the main pitch in Mayo and we get to play on it once a year for the Connacht final, while the lads train on it day in and day out," she said. "They get food after training, physio, access to any gym, they literally get whatever they want because they want to make them perfect - whereas we definitely don't get that."
This year, the Mayo ladies were able to use the men's gym, which she describes as being "one step closer". Although barriers continue to frustrate players and affect performance, Rowe believes sportswomen from all disciplines have almost accepted this attitude as "the norm".
"It definitely impacts on players, but we're nearly so used to it at this stage that it feels normal, we don't complain about it because it's not going to change anyway. It's not acceptable, definitely not. When I look at any boys' team - and I've talked to a few of them - I realise that I train more than them and they get way more than I've ever gotten.
"No lads team would put up with the conditions we train and play in, they would go nuts. The lads complain that the game isn't professional, while we'd settle for a bit of food."
Although Rowe is thrilled and honoured to be part of the current LGFA campaign to raise awareness of the difficulties female athletes have in getting the same recognition as their male counterparts, she says a lot more money must be invested before they reap real and lasting dividends.
For instance, she wants to see All-Ireland double-headers in Croke Park, so the ladies and the men play their finals on the same day. The forward also believes if ladies' teams all over the country were treated better and got more respect, it would encourage younger girls to commit to the sport for life instead of falling away from the sport early.
"Even talking to Aidan, he would say that playing in front of 80,000 people is the best feeling in the whole world and I'd say, well I'm never going to get to experience that," she said.
"If young girls saw us treated the same, so many more would get involved and we'd have better teams. They don't think we'll bring in the same money or the same crowd, but you have to put it in front of people."
Despite the demands of playing soccer and Gaelic football at the highest level, the 20-year-old remains fully committed to both, as her schedule can testify.
The second-year student, who lives in a "GAA house", trains nine or 10 times a week. Her housemate are Aisling Sheridan, who plays for Cavan, Sligo's Grainne O'Loughlin and Longford's Michelle Farrell.
"We're very supportive of each other, if we're all lying on the couch, one will say, come on, we're all going to the gym, get up, whereas if we didn't have that push, we mightn't go," she said, adding "there is a healthy competition between us".
Despite her enviable figure, Rowe says she is trying to lose some body fat and is abiding by a strict diet of smoothies and porridge for breakfast, omelettes and salad for lunch and chicken, veg and sweet potatoes for dinner. However, she still allows herself small treats, such as rice cakes and peanut butter and dark chocolate.
Her social life in college is also a lot different than her peers. "After January, I don't have much interest in going out. I just want to get fit get in shape and eat well. It took a while to make my friends understand that sport is my priority and that I love them so much, but I can't be there all the time," she said.
As for men, she says she will always look for someone with an interest in sport. "It doesn't matter if they're not brilliant at it, but it's just so they understand."
Rowe has missed out on opportunities to travel and see the world like other students, but she has been offered an exciting opportunity to complete a masters in Atlanta on a one-year soccer scholarship.
"For me, all the sacrifices are worth it because what I gain from sport will stand to me forever. I have no intentions of slowing down and I know I won't have any regrets, I'm a very ambitious girl and I'm only getting started."
Sunday Indo Sport