Sunday 22 October 2017

'Looking back I would have hated me... It's taken me a long time to curb my inner demons'

Lindsay Peat. Photo: Sportsfile
Lindsay Peat. Photo: Sportsfile
Marie Crowe

Marie Crowe

Eight years ago, on a hot summer's day, I sat down with Lindsay Peat outside Anderson's Creperie in Drumondra. We did our best to ignore the smell of the sweet pancakes and melted chocolate as we sipped black coffees in the sunshine. Peat was preparing for an All-Ireland football final against Cork so treats were off limits.

We talked about how professional training and preparation had become and the differences between her first love, basketball, and her new love, Gaelic football. She was polite and entertaining but clearly a little nervous as interviews were not commonplace.

At that stage in her life she was in her late 20s, she was a basketball international and a year away from winning an All-Ireland football title with Dublin.

But she hadn't yet entertained the thought of picking up a rugby ball. She wasn't married and her son Barra hadn't come along. It was a different time and Peat was, in ways, a very different person.

This time we met in Peat's home, Barra was in bed and her wife Claire was catching up on work and checking her other half's turkey burgers were cooked properly. There's a Rugby World Cup just around the corner and Peat is a key player.

Her attention to preparation hasn't changed - we drank coffee and I had biscuits. She had an appointment with her nutritionist Marcus Shortall the next morning so, just as in 2009, the treats were off limits.

It's obvious Peat is in her happy place at home. She is relaxed and full of chat, happy to talk about anything including the difficult time she went through when she left her teenage years behind and struggled to find herself. She has always been unquestionably talented at all sports but has had issues with her temperament.

"I'm pondering here, as an older version of myself," she laughs. "Looking back I would have hated me. I was so difficult. I just wanted to win, I wanted to be better, I wanted to raise the bar but I couldn't channel it in the right ways.

Ireland rugby star Lindsay Peat enjoys some rare free time with her son Barra
Ireland rugby star Lindsay Peat enjoys some rare free time with her son Barra

In team sport you have to remember there are others around you and I didn't see that for a long time. I used to get angry on the court, the opposition knew. It's taken me a long time to curb my inner demons. I've been on such a journey with basketball and it's helped me grow as a person but I made mistakes along the way."

Peat had to go through a lot of tough experiences on and off the court before coming out the other side and growing into the athlete and person she is today. In her early 20s she struggled with her weight, one summer she decided to opt out of Gaelic football. At the same time she moved out of home, changing her habits in the process. Her new apartment was close to a convenience store and that became a regular haunt. Frozen pizzas and ready meals were standard fare.

"I went back to basketball and everyone's face dropped when they saw me. It was like I went on a J1 and ate and drank for the summer. We did fitness tests and I was at the bottom, I was quick but I couldn't maintain it. I was well overweight and they referred me to a nutritionist. I worked hard and lost weight.

"I had a tendency to get angry back then but as I got older I was starting to realise how my behaviour had been affecting everyone else. People knew that if they got me out of the game that it was good for them. I was the nucleus but before that I didn't see how me being gone would affect the team.

"When I lost the weight and got fit that was the first time I noticed the people who were usually trying to rise me on the court were saying 'fair play, you look well.' I started to look at things differently and I slowly started to change.

"There was definitely a good person in there but the negatives outweighed the positives at times. I really sold myself short by not being able to control that side of me. The positive thing was I was fully invested in what I did but the emotion overran the rational thought process.

"I always did feel really good when I played sport and that was the bigger picture for me. Sport brings out my confidence, happiness and belief; it brings out the hulk within me. I have been uncontrollable at times but it worked out in the end because people like Mark Ingle never gave up on me. Maeve Coleman too, she gave me my first start in an Irish jersey. She really took a chance on me, yes I got fit, yes I'd lost weight but there was still a question mark over me, I knew people were thinking 'what's she going to be like?'

"When you are in an Ireland jersey and people are looking at you and you are representing your country, you have to choose to do the right thing. I learned to take a breath, count to ten."

Peat still carries a picture of herself from those days in her wallet, a constant reminder not to slip into bad habits. Although a lot of her behaviour on the court came from being ultra-competitive, she was also struggling to come to terms with her sexuality and find her place in life.

"You grow up and you are in a secondary school and you are told what to do and what is expected of you when you're an adult. I knew I was an athlete but who I was outside of that I wasn't sure.

It's hugely different now, I know at the time I was beating myself up. You know that feeling in the pit your stomach that won't go away, you are carrying this guilt. I was basically lying to people, I was lying to myself and I am a terrible liar. To me I was carrying around this big fat lie and that compounded everything.

Lindsay with her young son Barra Photos: Sportsfile/Inpho
Lindsay with her young son Barra Photos: Sportsfile/Inpho

"Looking back, things that were really minimal became more stressful because I wasn't dealing with them. But,lucky for me, sport brought me really good friends; Sarah Kelly from DCU is one. I eventually talked to someone and to say 'I think I'm gay' was a really big relief and then I told my mam and dad and that was hard, even though they are liberal it was still hard.

"Once I told everyone the feeling in the pit of my stomach left. I always say with me what you see is what you get and I've felt stronger since I said it. It was the one chink in my armour. I remember saying I hated lesbians and it was probably because I hated myself. But I was wearing clad shirts, woolly jumpers and boys shoes; I was dressed like a tomboy. I was trying to mask it when really I probably had a sticker on me.

"It was ridiculous, at the same time I was such a tomboy but now I'm more comfortable with my feminine self too."

Peat met her wife Claire through work at the HSE. They got married in 2014 just as she was finishing her PE degree in DCU. On the week the marriage referendum was passed they found out that Claire was pregnant with Barra. He arrived early - at 29 weeks - and it was a tough time for him at first but he is thriving now.

The mention of Claire raises a big smile followed by a detailed account of all that she does to ensure that Peat can give everything to playing for Ireland. She encouraged her to pursue the sport and the opportunities that it brings. That support, along with help from both sets of grandparents, enables Peat to follow her dreams.

The relaxed atmosphere in their home reflects just how in tune the couple are with each other but the big chalk board sitting on the wall in the kitchen filled with notes and lists shows just how demanding it can be.

In order to be as prepared as she can be, Peat has cut work down to two days a week. Her employers have been very supportive, and when she told them she had made the squad and would be staying off for a while longer there was no issue. Of course this brings financial pressures but it's a World Cup in a green jersey on home soil - in other words, a once in a lifetime opportunity.

And Peat is intent on making the most of it. In many ways she can't believe she is on the verge of representing Ireland in a Rugby World Cup. She has only been playing the game for two years. It all started when Dundalk FC's strength and conditioning coach Graham Byrne, who was working with DCU Mercy at the time, suggested she give rugby a go.

So she joined Railway Union and three league games later she was standing on the sideline in the Stoop about to make her debut for Ireland against world champions England.

"I'd only done one camp; I'd only been playing rugby for about eight weeks. It was lashing rain and I remember Tom Tierney called me to get ready to go on. I felt this overwhelming sense of responsibility. I didn't want to let the girls down. I came on at six and I was just trying to figure out things as I went along."

But clearly Tierney and Co saw something in her, although she started as a flanker she is now a loosehead prop. There is no question Peat is a gifted athlete but she has that edge too and the ability to work hard and give sport her all. She was a two-year project ahead of the World Cup and now her side are reaping the rewards, but there has been a lot to learn along the way.

"It's like a game of chess; one wrong move can have a huge impact on the game. The breakdown is hugely technical and just when you feel you are getting somewhere, something happens where nothing goes right and it's like being back at the beginning. Football and basketball are so different, they are so repetitive. In rugby there are so many different elements. In the first half of the Scotland game in the Six Nations I had loads of carries then in the second-half I had none.

"That is just the nature of the game. You are doing something else, you are clearing out or you are trying to latch on to someone. There are so many different facets to it and although that frustrates me it's the part I love about it most too."

She must be doing something right as she was named player of the year earlier this year and has been widely touted as one of the players to watch in the World Cup. On Wednesday, Ireland take on Australia in their first pool game. It will be another step in Peat's journey.

"You have to dream of winning, if you don't have a dream you have nothing to play towards." Peat is proof of that.

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