'There's a perception that the physique you might pick up at international level is not attractive'
* Katie Mullan - Irish women's hockey team
Hard work doesn't seem to phase Katie Mullan. The 23-year-old captain of the Irish women's hockey team is also completing a master's in biomedical engineering at UCD and has just finished competing in Hockey World League semi-finals in South Africa.
It's a long way from Coleraine in Co Derry - where Katie grew up - to Johannesberg where she and her team mates battled for a place in the Hockey World Cup in London next year.
But Katie, whose motto is: "Treat every match you play as if it's your last," seems to have always been destined for sporting success whether it was playing camogie for her club Eoghan Rua in Coleraine or hockey for Ireland.
With two older brothers Bernard (29) and Aidan (27) and two younger sisters Brega (20) and Olivia (16) Katie says she spent a large part of her childhood stuck between two goal posts. "Having two big brothers had the biggest impact on me in relation to the type of player I am. They gave me a lot of tough love," she jokes.
At the age of eight Katie started playing Gaelic football and camogie but says she would have put her hand to anything to do with sport growing up. But it was at Dalriada Grammar School in Ballymoney and under the influence of her PE teacher Bridget McKeever, a former hockey international, that Katie found her own talent for hockey.
At 14-years-old Katie went for trials with the Ulster under-16 hockey team but was so crippled with nerves that she didn't even make it past the first stage. Looking back she describes it as a big setback but also an experience that she could draw on. Never again would she let the nerves get the better of her. A year later she went back and made the team. "I knew deep down that I hadn't done myself justice and that encouraged me to go back and try again," says Katie.
She graduated to the Irish under-18 team and, after her A-levels in school, began training with the senior women's team which she said gave her a glimpse into what it would be like to play with the best in the country.
"Playing underage hockey you're always looking at the senior women's team and aspiring to play at that level. There's a recognition that these are the best players and every young kid who plays looks up to them," she says.
Now Katie isn't just part of the team, she's the captain although she describes herself as part of a very strong leadership team and is keen to stress the fact that team sports mean everyone is a captain in their own right.
"My ethos tends to be to let my actions do the talking and leading by example with your effort and commitment. It's easy to talk the talk but you do have to walk the walk," she says of her captaincy.
"That's the thing about team sports; you find a group of people who share the same dream and are willing to give up anything to achieve that. When times are tough, that's when you come together the most. When you achieve success, it's the best. Being able to share that with people who have become your best friends is the best feeling," she says.
"We have all come from very different backgrounds and different parts of the country. We've had our ups and downs. The friendship with team mates is different to the friendships you have in school or in college. When you are in a team, you're all on the same page. When you step out on the hockey pitch you are prepared to do everything for your buddy.
"Those friendships carry on away from the pitch. You spend so much time together that these friendships are friendships for life. If I come into a crisis later in life it will be one of those people who will be getting a phone call. You're never lonely when you're playing team sports. You're always motivated because someone is pushing you to get better. There's that idea of 'you can't let the team down' and everyone has a certain responsibility," says Katie.
She does believe that when it comes to girls participating in sport, things are changing for the better. However, she remembers playing hockey at the age of 15 with girls she describes as "miles better" who no longer play at all.
"There's a perception that women's sport is over competitive. There's also a perception that the physique you might pick up at international level is not attractive. I do think to a certain degree it's down to size zero models in the media. But... it's changing - it's cool now to go to the gym and to have a toned physique. Maybe it was seen as unattractive if girls were sweating but that's changing for the younger generation," says Katie.
"You want as many people to be as fit and active as possible. It doesn't matter what level you play at. There's all these wonderful clubs across the country and it's just about finding your niche and seeing how you can use your skills best. It's about participating really," she says.
* For more see www.hockey.ie
Health & Living