Core strength: Camogie star turned broadcaster and influencer Anna Geary on how she has taken the lessons she's learned from sport and applied them to winning at life
Anna Geary's 'give it a go' attitude has seen her become an All-Ireland winner, a Fittest Family coach, a Dancing With The Stars finalist and now an Instagram influencer. Here, she talks about finding the courage to try - and the discipline to succeed
On the pitch, she was electric. Her blue eyes, steely. Her hurley, ferocious. She was camogie's Gladiator Girl, her eyes always on the prize. But hold on a minute - is that really the same Gladiator Girl sitting in a beautician's parlour, getting her eyebrows done live on Instagram? And posting a 'self-care' video about changing the bedsheets? And going all Dermot Bannon in the new garden and gym she put in during last year's lockdown?
"Are you a proper 'influencer' now?" I ask Anna Geary over Zoom. She's in her bedroom at home in Kildare, where she lives with her husband, GAA-exec Kevin Sexton. The newlyweds celebrated their first wedding anniversary in lockdown in October with a walk followed by a picnic of takeaway toasties, ice-cream sundaes and a flask of hot tea.
"I'm really not," she protests, in pure sing-song Cork. "There are days I come on Instagram in my onesie, with my hair not washed in five days.
"Yes, we lost a honeymoon [planned for September] due to Covid-19 [travel restrictions] but we gained a back garden."
Anna wears: Bodysuit, Commando, Brown Thomas; Trousers, H&M. Photo: Kip Carroll
And a gym?
"It's a glorified shed really, but it's all we need," smiles 33-year-old Geary.
She's definitely got her Zoom mojo nailed - good lights, a bright yellow-and-black printed blouse and shimmery, Zoom-perfect make-up. Geary scoffs at the compliment, one hand flying up to pull at her blonde hair. "To be honest, this is dry shampoo and I've got my tracksuit bottoms on under the table… I got my lashes and brows done in Naas last week and once that's done, I'm happy enough."
It's this bullshit-free frankness that has garnered Geary almost 90,000 followers on Instagram. "I want to take the gloss off social media - the stuff that makes people feel 'less than' when they look at it," she declares.
"Yes, I am going to look tired and have roots. If I get the face done, I'll go on and show that off too. I want people to leave my page feeling better about themselves. Social media can be a toxic place that has a massive effect on self-esteem - a lot of us feel like that. I have…"
Anna wears: Coat, Poco by Pippa, Top, H&M, Leggings, Spanx, Brown Thomas, Shoes, River Island. Jewellery and watch throughout, Anna's own. Photo: Kip Carroll
Geary reflects: "I'm not an influencer in that sense, but in another way, everyone is an influencer in that they can have an impact on people in a positive or a negative way."
But she is an 'influencer' - in the truest sense of the word, before social media snatched it.
On All-Ireland Final day in 2014, Anna Geary captained her team in a stunning victory at Croke Park against Kilkenny, after a » » jaw-dropping comeback. But social media blew up afterwards, with camogie fans spitting fury that Geary's electric acceptance speech was cut short to go to an ad break.
Six years on, in December 2020 women's sport was making headlines for all the wrong reasons again. The senior ladies' football All-Ireland semi-final clash between Cork and Galway descended into a debacle thanks to a last-minute venue change due to an icy pitch, leaving Galway just a few minutes to warm up and no TV crew on site to broadcast the game as scheduled.
"It's frustrating - think about the pandemonium if the All-Ireland hurling for men didn't come on the TV," says Geary. "We were talking more about the drama and negative headlines instead of the goals and the players - and what a cracker the All-Ireland semi-final was. You can't grow women's sport caught up in these headlines.
"We're making big strides and there's huge growth in audiences, so it absolutely frustrates me when all that intensity, physicality and the spectacle - which gives massive entertainment - comes down to bad headlines and giving out. Let's be calm and talk. Let's set up a steering group with all the bodies, thrash things out and look ahead, spot challenges before they happen. Voice our concerns earlier, rather than complain about problems in hindsight. We all have a role to play - the media too."
Polished influencers spouting off about positivity and authenticity are 10-a-penny on social media nowadays, but Geary is nothing like those annoying types. When she talks about impact, she means it. It's what she had in mind when she announced she was retiring from inter-county camogie at the age of just 27, sending shockwaves through the Rebel County and beyond. Women's sport was just entering a golden age - and Geary was one of its leading ladies. Her trophy cabinet was bursting with more than 20 All-Ireland medals for Cork county and her club at Milford, along with a clutch of All-Star awards. But what drives the champion who has nothing new to win?
So, Geary quit playing for Cork, handed in her notice at her nine-to-five marketing job and enrolled in a life-coaching and performance course. By then, she was also wearing the Cork Rose of Tralee sash.
Canny RTÉ producers spotted her on-screen magnetism and swooped in to sign her up as a coach for Ireland's Fittest Family, - the latest series of which airs on RTÉ One tonight - where her sharp, no-nonsense attitude and feisty coaching style fitted right in. But always one to flip the script, Anna's next move was to swap the sliotar for the glitterball on RTÉ's Dancing With The Stars. She'd never jived or tangoed before, so what motivated her to do it?
"Going on that show really made me face up to my insecurities," Geary remembers. "Tiny outfits, and you're on show for people to judge and criticise. I loved it but let me tell you, it was the outfits - I was like, 'I'm wearing what?'
"I got so many messages from parents of young girls who'd given up sport who saw me and were saying, 'Look at her back muscles, look how strong she looks.'"
Geary's physique, as you can see from our photoshoot today, is stop-you-in-your-tracks admirable.
"I was lucky growing up to learn to look at my body as an instrument rather than an ornament. It wasn't about how I looked in a pair of skinny jeans, it was how powerful I could be with a ball in my hand. But the reality is, when I got older and started going out and getting into tans and heels, my body looked different to my friends. Not a lot of girls had the same size legs as I did, and role models like Sonia O'Sullivan looked nothing like me, but I understood my body needed to look a certain way to win for my team and Cork."
Geary fizzes with an almost evangelical passion when she talks about the benefits of sport. "I really believe sport is more than a game. It saved so many people during the lockdown. It's made me who I am today. It gives us confidence, a » » sense of belonging and the chance of working towards something bigger than ourselves - sure isn't that the recipe for a good life? To me it's about mental health, body confidence, how you speak to yourself in front of a mirror."
She adds: "And it's taught me to cope with setbacks, after failing miserably. I know the comeback should always be better than the setback."
What setbacks has she faced?
"I've been dropped from teams, I've gone for jobs I didn't get. Before I went out on my own, I was working in a great career, but not a great career for me. That was challenging - I felt at times I wasn't as good as I could be or flourishing in my job. Making the decision to leave that corporate world and branch out on my own, at the time I might have probably thought I was a bit of a failure, but the reality, looking back, is it didn't suit my skillset. Everyone fails. Things happen for a reason and your failures are the reason you end up being successful."
Geary says she's "lucky" a lot. But dig a bit deeper and it's clear luck has nothing to do with it.
"My confidence comes from preparation and I'm meticulous with that. That's my way of coping, even doing a Zoom call. Preparation is everything. When I get nervous, I prepare."
She didn't lick her work ethic from a stone, either. Geary grew up on a farm in north Cork where she was smashing windows and drainpipes with the sliotar as soon as she could puck about with her dad, Michael, and her brother, Thomas.
"It was a typical country house. My mam is a retired teacher - I got my work ethic from both of them. My dad works 365 days a year, any weather or hour - it has to get done so get up and get on with it.
"I'd say I got the drive and ambition from Mam. She was always of the mentality whatever you want to do in life you have to be prepared to put in the work and really go for it. She wasn't a dreamer but she always told us to be ambitious, but put in the hard work for it.
"I got my Leaving Cert, got my business degree, got the job - I ticked those boxes but when I told my parents I'm thinking of retiring from Cork and going back to college, the biggest shock for my dad was giving up the game. A lot of parents might have said, 'You're mad,' but my mother encouraged me and said: 'Go for it, if you don't try it, you'll never know. You get one shot at life. Not everything works out, but give it a go'."
It's a lesson that many of us will have included in our New Year's resolutions, after the events of 2020 gave us a fresh perspective.
How did newlywed Geary cope with lockdown? "He cooks and I clean," she grins. "Like a lot of couples, we were used to being apart for 10 hours a day. We danced around each other a bit but it made us realise how lucky we were that we got our house in time. If we were buying this year, we probably wouldn't have got the mortgage. We lost our honeymoon to Covid-19, but we have little to complain about. It's a big smack of reality."
Geary can't wait to get off Zoom. "I love the energy of standing at the top of a room, surveying the audience, making eye contact. You don't get that buzz or engagement looking into a camera lens on a computer."
Does she ever miss the buzz of lining out for her county at Croker? "I think broadcasting is similar to the world of sport. It's never going to replace that feeling of running out on All-Ireland Final day - and nothing ever will - but it's a great substitute. There's no room for mistakes, you've got to keep going, and I love the buzz that comes from that. I get a real kick and a rush right before we're going live - the countdown, five, four, three - it's such an adrenaline rush. I fell into broadcasting after playing camogie and loved that world," she continues. "When Ireland's Fittest Family contacted me I said, 'Just give it a go'. Then I had a chance at doing radio and I gave that a go [she's the co-presenter of Today FM's Pumped Up Kicks]. Then I got the bug and I've been lucky enough to keep going since. My attitude with everything is, 'Why not?'"
Now she's giving social media a go, is there anything she'd draw the line at sharing? "I'd say I'm an open book and I choose to put myself out there and share things, but Kevin hasn't necessarily signed up to that. I wouldn't call him quiet or shy, but I'd never want him to feel someone is talking about him because of me.
"I'm the type of person who shares most things but I'm mindful people around me mightn't be comfortable with that, so if it's to do with kids down the line or a family thing, it's not just about what I want, it's about what they want. It's good to share stories that resonate with people but we're entitled to personal space. If we were to have a family, that would be a whole new challenge."
For the moment, Geary's only family concerns are her teams on Ireland's Fittest Family and RTÉ2 children's show Squad Goals. She also has a documentary, Anna Geary: Back in the Game, coming out this spring, exploring secondary schoolgirls' attitudes to sport. Filming it was "a real eye-opener," she says.
"I've always been really competitive but sport has to be about the enjoyment. In the past I've been guilty of having that mindset of always wanting to win, but the girls reminded me it's so much more than that. Let's define success by how many girls and boys walk back in that gate the next week.
"I've always had a part of me that panicked, whether that's playing Croke Park or going on radio for the first time - a part of me goes, 'God, am I ready for this?'; 'Am I good at this?'; 'Will people like me?' When I talk to younger people, I tell them if you're not nervous about something, you probably shouldn't be doing it.
"My motto is: give it a go. I've failed at a lot but if you don't try, you never know. And if we learned anything from 2020, you really don't know what's coming round the corner."
Ireland's Fittest Family airs on RTÉ One tonight at 6.30pm