Mayo star Cora Staunton: 'Find something you enjoy'
Heading for her seventh All-Ireland final this Sunday, Cora Stauton shares her experience on and off the pitch
It's almost a quarter to five on a Wednesday evening when we catch up with Cora Staunton.
She's been in Dublin fulfilling a number of media engagements and is now driving back to Mayo for training with the county's ladies senior football team later in the evening.
Staunton's preparing for her seventh All-Ireland final, when Mayo play Dublin at Croke Park this Sunday, September 24, and a fifth win would bring the curtain down on a glittering inter-county career.
Staunton is 35 years of age and yet, this is her 23rd season lining out at senior level for her county. Yes, you read that right: she was 13 years of age when she made her senior debut in the green and red.
She first experienced football at primary school in Carnacon, where the principal at the time was Arthur Ó Súilleabháin, father of the former Rose of Tralee winner, Aoibhinn.
"There were less than 100 in the school," Staunton recalls.
"Arthur encouraged everybody to play sport. At the time, there were more boys than girls playing sport, but he really encouraged us girls to play. We used to play everything in school, whatever was popular at the time.
"We had a handball alley and there was an awful lot of handball and racketball.
"We had Gaelic football and soccer, indoor soccer in the hall, and I was big into rounders and basketball. Those were the main sports."
Staunton has four brothers and three sisters, and close together in age, people used to think that Cora and her brother David were twins.
The siblings all dabbled in sport, but Cora admits that she was fortunate to get more opportunities.
Her sister, Colette, is a solicitor in Dublin. She was a very good soccer and basketball player, and represented Mayo at underage level, but Cora's father was a farmer and her late mother a housewife.
With just one car, it was difficult to ferry everybody to their various engagements.
But Cora knew from a young age that she had talent. She played with boys' teams at U-8 and U-10 levels, as there were no football teams for girls at those tender ages.
But it wasn't long before Staunton was right in the thick of it, sampling the prestigious Community Games in Mosney.
She went to secondary school in Ballinrobe because there was more sport there.
In Balla, where her older brothers and sisters went, it was just volleyball, but Staunton wanted more.
Her progress was rapid as she played with her school, her club Carnacon, and Mayo in the U-14, U-16, minor and senior grades.
She still kept her hand in with soccer and basketball, but when her mother got sick, Carnacon joint managers Beatrice Casey and Jimmy Corbett looked after her at club level, guiding her through a difficult time.
Staunton was just 15 when her mother passed away and she quit football for a few months.
"I was angry and had enough of it," she explains now. "I was grieving and didn't understand it. She died in July 1998 and that was the only time I gave up sport."
But it wasn't long before Staunton was back in the groove, and the arrival of manager Finbarr Egan in 1999 signalled a glorious spell of senior glory for Mayo, who won four All-Ireland senior crowns in six years - but they haven't won the Brendan Martin Cup since 2003.That's a gap Staunton and Mayo hope to bridge when they tackle the Dubs at Croke Park in the forthcoming All-Ireland decider.
Staunton describes Egan's influence as "massive" and while the pair hadn't spoken for the guts of eight years until recently, they chatted on the phone for an hour and a half.
Staunton never forgot what the likes of Casey, Corbett and Egan did for her. But a big part of her success has been her self-motivation, and if she has any tip for aspiring young players, it's to put the head down and work hard.
"No matter what you do, work hard at it," says the gifted forward.
"I'm lucky to have been given a talent, but there have been plenty of people that were given a talent and never used it.
"They don't put the effort in, but to get any rewards, you have to put the effort in.
"When you put in the effort and work, the rewards will come, whether that's in relationships, business, or sport.
"Life will throw obstacles and curveballs at you and it sometimes worries me that parents mollycoddle their kids a bit too much. They have to find their feet, make mistakes, and when they do make mistakes, they know they're wrong and they'll move on."
Off the field of play, Staunton works as a primary health coordinator with the Mayo Travellers' Support Group.
During the summer months, she's also an athlete mentor with Sky Sports Living For Sport, visiting young people and offering valuable advice.
"The main thing you have to do is find something you enjoy," she stresses.
"It doesn't have to be competitive but find something you enjoy - GAA, soccer, rugby, whatever it is.
"I make sure to tell them that it's not all about competition. Winning is great and all of that and we go training to win and be successful, but it's also about the craic, the camaraderie and the nights out.
"I've seen so many girls that left teams at 15 or 16 years of age and I meet them again when they're in their 20s. They're asking themselves why they gave up because they loved it, but they'll come back and join up again.
"Some of them are very talented and they come back because they love that bond together.
"There have been many girls in our club that dropped out and they'd come to me now and say they wished they stuck at it. I'd say to them 'come back and try it' and numerous girls have come back.
"But to hold the girls, they have to balance life with playing football, with school, with their social lives. It can all be balanced, but there are some sacrifices you have to make."
Staunton's been making those sacrifices since she was in her early teens - for the love of the game, her club, and Mayo.
"I think it's important for parents to encourage kids and let them find something they like, rather than pushing them into things," she adds.
"Let them try five or six things and they'll find themselves.
"When they're older, they'll concentrate on one or two things max, but when you're in primary school and the early years of secondary school, there are loads of things you like.
"Get involved in activities that are good for your physical and mental health, and that will enhance all of your skills.
"Sport also helps you to become streetwise - because you have to learn quickly.
"Some people are most intelligent and might get 600 points in their Leaving Cert, but they'll struggle because they don't have the basic skills to survive in the world.
"From the youngest to the oldest on the Mayo panel, there's probably a 19-year gap but I'm still learning from the younger ones and they're learning from me.
"I was taught so much when I was younger and given some wise words.
"I was looked after in my formative years, by Beatrice, Jimmy, Finbarr and my friends.
"Now, the circle has turned and it's my job to look after them [younger girls] and educate them in the skills they need.
"It could be giving them a lift, throwing them a couple of euros or looking after their food on a night away.
"I'm always watching for them because there was someone doing that for me when I was younger. And their parents trust me fully. There are no worries when girls are gone with me.
"I carried (Carnacon and Mayo team-mate) Doireann Hughes in my car when she was 12 or 13. She's 22 now.
"Her parents fully trust that once she's gone with me, she's safe.
"I'd go on holidays with girls who are 21 or 22, there's a mixture.
"And it doesn't really matter what age you are. Sometimes I'd feel older than I am physically, but sometimes I think I have the mental age of a 22-year-old, because they keep me young.
"We're years apart in age but we have so much in common. We have girls who are 14 on our club team and they're well able to hold a conversation with someone like me, which is a great thing."
* Watch the finals live on Facebook Live, on TG4, the TG4 Player and on www.tg4.ie For more on the LGFA see ladiesgaelic.ie
Health & Living