'People would have said 'she's destined for a life behind bars'' - How giving girls the credit they deserve will produce more world champions
Last year, women's sport came into its own, at home and on the world stage. But while interest and success across all fields is on the rise, there is still a long way to go to achieve equality with their male counterparts. In the first part of a week-long series, Michelle Fleming meets some of the formidable sports stars at the top of their game.
"Never give up, because we can all do great things. God has a plan for everyone, even me when he put me in a wheelchair." This is what world record-breaking para powerlifter Britney Arendse tells teenagers she meets who are also living with a disability.
Growing up, Britney loved climbing trees and football but was more interested in popstars than sportstars. Then a cataclysmic life event changed everything. In 2009, Britney was paralysed following a horror road smash, two weeks after making her Holy Communion. She spent weeks on life support and a year at the National Rehabilitation Centre before being told she would never walk again.
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But Britney didn't give up. She discovered sport as a teenager and it changed her life. First, she played wheelchair basketball where a coach spotted she had something special. Now 19, Britney lifted her first weight just two years ago, yet already she is ranked No9 on the para powerlifting world stage, competing at both junior and senior level. Britney believes God put her in a wheelchair, "So I can be a role model for other kids like me".
Britney didn't set out to be a role model. Like the rest of the female sports stars featured here today, her only goal was to push herself to be the best she could possibly be. That hard work has led our Girls in Green to become the best in the world, punching way above their weight in a wide range of sporting disciplines and global competitions.
Last year will go down in history as the year women's sport came into its own, both in this country and on the world stage. Among the many magical moments were Katie Taylor's stunning IBF and WBA world title wins, Kellie Harrington's gold at the AIBA World Championships, and Sanita Puspure powering home to win gold at the World Rowing Championships. And who will ever forget the day that the Green Army descended on London to get behind our women's hockey team at the Lee Valley Stadium - the first Irish team of any gender to make the World Cup Final.
At Croke Park, attendance at the Ladies Gaelic Football Association (LGFA) All-Ireland Final, between Dublin and Cork, broke the 50,000 mark for the first time. As the largest women's sports association in the country, the LGFA's membership roll's explosion from 24,000 in 1999 to 188,000 today tells a remarkable story.
In the Teneo Sport and Sponsorship Index Survey, which gauges Irish people's attitudes to sport, Katie Taylor came out tops again as the most admired sports star - male or female - in Ireland. She is just one of the many female sports stars who is inspiring the next generation of girls to pick up boxing gloves, a hockey stick, a pair of football boots or, in Britney's case, 100kg weights.
"I want to do my best and show young kids they can do anything in life and accomplish anything they dream of too," says Britney, who returned home to Cavan a hero last week after she smashed her own junior world record and won gold at the para powerlifting Eger World Cup in Hungary. She lifted exactly 100kg, taking gold in the Junior Championships and bronze in the Senior competition.
"There are two kids in my school in wheelchairs and I love them to see me doing well. One girl is 14 and we meet up every day and talk, and now she wants to be like me and do great things like I do and see the world. She came to try lifting the bar in my house and really loved it. She has now even said she wants to be better than me so it's working," she laughs, adding: "I should be worried."
Next up for Britney are the World Championships in Kazakhstan in July, where she hopes to rank in the world's top eight and get on track for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. After her Leaving Cert in June, she's taking a year out to train full-time.
The success of trailblazing women with amazing stories like Britney's has brought us, in 2019, to what feels like a tipping point for women's sport. Social media and campaigns such as 20x20 - which is supported by most major national sporting bodies - are playing a huge part in changing perceptions about female sport as something to be taken seriously and supported by everyone. The campaign's goals are to up event attendance, media coverage and female participation in all female sports by 20pc by 2020.
The 20x20 campaign slogan reads, 'If She Can't See It She Can't Be It', yet many of the women featured today grew up at a time when women's sport enjoyed comparably little airtime, with men's sports dominating the sports pages and TV. These promising women simply weren't exposed to female heroes in the same way their male counterparts were. Icons to emulate were few and far between.
So what did they see that kept their eye on the prize, even as vast numbers of their friends fell away as teenagers? Who inspired our sporting heroes at a time when the female drop-out rate remains alarmingly high?
For sprinter Ciara Neville, it was a role model close to home in Limerick who was behind her early success. "Growing up I looked up to Derval O'Rourke but it was my best friend Ellie's mom, Noelle Morrissey, who happened to be the coach down at the running track, who really inspired me," says the 19-year-old.
Ciara is a rising athletics star, having won 60m titles at the National Junior Championships, following her breakout gold run at the 2015 European Youth Olympics. When we spoke earlier this month, Ciara was in Japan, where she was one of the 4 x 100m relay team competing in the IAAF World Relays. The team - which also included Gina Akpe Moses, Patience Jumbo Gula and Rhasidat Adeleke - set a season's best time and finished 10th overall.
"When I was young I played everything but when we went running for a mess about with Noelle, I just got so into it," Ciara says. "By the time I was 14 I decided to focus on athletics. Noelle is still my coach, all these years later. Ellie is still one of my best friends, although she stopped running when we were teenagers."
Has Ciara seen a change in the esteem in which female sports stars are held in recent years? "I think it's improving and amazing days like the hockey team gave us are inspiring loads to stay in sport, but Katie Taylor still doesn't get half the recognition she deserves for what she's achieved."
Unsurprisingly, Katie Taylor is a huge inspiration for fellow boxer Kellie Harrington. However, the reigning lightweight champion of the world says she didn't really have role models growing up. Everything changed the moment she pulled on a pair of boxing gloves at St Corinthians' Boxing Club, across the road from her childhood home in Dublin's inner-city. Boxing changed Kellie's life - and probably saved it. She was kicked out of school at 14. "People back then who looked at me would have said 'she's destined for a life behind bars - she's destined to be dead before she's 25,'" Kellie has said in a previous interview. "I was the worst possible child anyone could be."
At 15 - relatively 'late' in life for taking up any sport - Kellie defied those who told her girls don't box and joined Corinthians. She loved to fight - and she was good at it.
"Growing up, definitely seeing the likes of the footballer Olivia O'Toole and Wes Houlihan who were so well-known around our community in town, they were so inspiring. But just seeing anyone that you knew doing well, in whatever they do, not just in sport, is important for kids," Kellie tells me today. "Before I started boxing, I never had a role model. But once I started to box, then yes - Katie Taylor. Darren Sutherland was amazing. He boxed out of St Saviours in Dorset Street up the road and I came across him in training a few times. When I was sparring in Saviours, he was there.
"When I first met her, Katie was everything I thought she was. She's fantastic and a wonderful role model to anyone."
And now, of course, Kellie is herself inspiring young girls to take up boxing. "It's crazy, I never thought I'd be in this position but now I am and there are so many kids looking up to me," she says. 'The Kellie Effect' has seen more girls than ever sign up to Dublin's boxing clubs. Local coaches have told Kellie some clubs now have more girls than boys. "It's a good position to be in and I believe in using the privilege to be the best role model I can be," she says. "I try to just be myself and be as positive and encouraging as I can, whatever their passions and paths. Some kids who are not into sport just see me as someone achieving something with their life - I tell them if they give something they love 100pc dedication and commitment, there's a great chance they'll be successful.
"I'm proof of that - in 2016 when I got silver [at the World Championships] I never expected that and then I came back and really applied myself and went for it and the rest is history."
Hockey player Katie Mullan certainly made history when she led our underdog women's hockey team to the World Cup Final last year. Growing up in Ballymoney on the north Antrim coast, camogie was her thing and she played in two county senior finals. But she says she would have probably never picked up a hockey stick if it wasn't for her PE teacher at school, Bridget McKeever, then vice-captain of the Ireland hockey squad. Whereas some youngsters idolise Messi or Ronaldo, her sporting hero was much closer to home.
"The year I turned 15, I really got into hockey purely because of Bridget," says Katie, speaking from Hamburg, where she plays professional hockey in the German Bundesliga. "I didn't get picked in the trials for Ulster Under 16 when I was a year young," she recalls. "I was very shy but the next year Bridget took the afternoon off school to bring me to the trial. She stood on the sideline to make sure I produced the goods. It meant so much.
"If it wasn't for Bridget, I wouldn't have known you could play field hockey for your country and travel the world doing it. I used to see her in her Irish gear, or she'd be off school because she was away with the Irish team in South America. It made me think: 'Gosh, there's great opportunities here.' I also played alongside several internationals in my club team so it became a dream I felt I could achieve.
"Bridget really believed in me. She's still a great friend - she was there for the World Cup. She was the role model who shaped my career."
As someone performing at the highest levels of sport, has she experienced any double standards when it comes to the men's and women's games? "Some of the inequality when it comes to facilities for women in sport is crazy. The hockey not so much as both are equally underfunded - but every county board, do they give the same attention to the girls, from changing rooms to physio treatments and coaches?
"There is a shift, and we're making progress in terms of equality and getting to a point where people are changing their views a little bit but there's a long way to go."
A couple of weeks after our chat, Park Developments, one of Ireland's leading property development groups, announced an Irish women's hockey bursary scheme. The shift that Katie speaks of continues apace.
Another sports star who has experienced the gulf between how men's and women's teams are viewed is Fiona Hudson. The Dublin Gaelic star played with the 'Jackies' for their momentous back-to-back triumphs at Croke Park in 2017 and 2018. She is married to fellow GAA star and All-Ireland winner Paul Flynn.
Gaelic's golden couple - who both went to the same secondary school, and played club football at Fingallions in Swords - have always inspired and driven one another. Paul has spoken out about how unfair it was that Dublin's women champs had to fundraise for a team holiday while the lads' exotic getaways are bankrolled by the GAA.
"Gender equality is a buzzword but there has to be real meaning to it that it's not just a tokenistic approach, that there's real backing of women in sport," says Fiona. "The men's game generates revenue but we're not there yet. We need to get out and back ladies - a shift in mindset is needed. The money will come once more of us buy tickets."
Fiona grew up in a large, sports-mad family, and her older brother, Niall, played professional soccer in the UK - so she wasn't short of role models.
"My brothers inspired me, and I was dragged along to matches from the age of four. My parents never differentiated between us and encouraged us in all team sports.
"Nowadays young girls have so many women to look up to like Katie Taylor and Sinéad Goldrick but back in the day we weren't as high profile," says Fiona, who has had to step back from inter-county after surgeries on her back and knee. "I loved Angie McNally the Dublin ladies player but my role models were males in the game so there's been an empowering shift. The exposure now thanks to social media is brilliant because it makes players so accessible."
Cavan's identical golfing twins Leona and Lisa Maguire first captured the golfing world's imagination when they carried the Ryder Cup to the stage in the K Club aged 11. That was the year Lisa was crowned Under 12 World Champion with Leona coming third. A year later they were beating grown women at major Irish golfing tournaments. Their success has continued unabated ever since, although Leona has moved to the top of the field, celebrating her second professional win last weekend.
Both sisters secured sports scholarships at Duke University in North Carolina, where Leona was the only player to win the Annika Award for college player of the year twice. She still holds the world record for weeks as number one amateur in the world, at 135.
Today, the twins play tours together but often travel in different directions for competitions.
"When we were growing up there weren't many female players on the scene - we loved watching Paul McGinley and Padraig Harrington at the Irish Opens with Dad," says Lisa, speaking from their Ballyconnell home between competitions in Dubai and Switzerland. "We were lucky to play tournaments in Europe and the States from age 12 and we saw how popular the sport was with women outside of Ireland. That was eye-opening. We've always been very competitive but we're also each other's biggest supports and we definitely inspire each other," continues Lisa. "Golf is an individual sport but it was great there was two of us, having that support and craic when we were off training and traveling."
Has she seen a rise in interest in the sport back home? "Definitely, now you see more girls out playing but we have to keep promoting it."
Where Lisa and Leona buck the trend in women's sport is in the realms of sponsorship. "We've been very lucky in that myself and Leona have KPMG, Allianz and Davey on board as sponsors - it's an expensive deal, so you really need that financial support to keep the show on the road. It takes the pressure off so that you can focus on golf without worrying about getting from A to B. It's too much pressure to play a shot to pay the bills.
"There aren't the same branding opportunities for women but we've been lucky. Definitely the twin thing helps as it's a bit unique that there's two of us.
"Women are getting a bit more traction but we need to highlight the importance of giving financial support so women don't have to earn money first and train second."
Kelli O'Keeffe is managing director of PR firm Teneo PSG, commissioners of the annual sports and sponsorship index, which honed in on female sport last year. She says there is definitely growing interest in female brand ambassadors - Lidl work with Mayo and Aussie Rules star Sarah Rowe, AIG with Dublin footballer Sinéad Goldrick, Bank of Ireland with rugby international Sene Naoupu and Life Style Sports with soccer star Stephanie Roche. Adidas announced it will pay female soccer ambassadors on the Women's World Cup team this year the same bonus as the men.
But there's a long way to go to catch up with their male counterparts - and this is also reflected globally. In the 2018 Forbes 100 highest paid sports stars' list, no women featured - the first time since 2010 - with tennis players Serena Williams off on maternity, Li Na in retirement and Maria Sharapova's low profile because of her suspension.
Reigning world champion rower Sanita Puspure knows the difference that having a sponsor on board can make. In 2006, she moved to Ireland from Latvia - where she'd enjoyed a competitive rowing career - with her husband. She thought she'd hung up her oars for good, and was embracing a new chapter as a mother, and working as a children's tennis coach. But fate had other ideas. While Sanita was pregnant with her second child, the family set off for a trip to Dublin Zoo. They missed the turn off for the Phoenix Park and ended up at Islandbridge Rowing Club. She was back in the boat five weeks after her second child was born.
In 2011 her husband lost his job at Dublin Airport and Sanita pushed for a move to Ballincollig in Cork, near the National Rowing Centre. She's now on track to qualify for her third Olympics.
'There's a small positive change but there are no queues outside my door," smiles Sanita, who's just been recruited as brand ambassador by Kinetica Sports Nutrition. "If you pitch yourself as a 'world champion' it looks more appealing, but you need the help more getting up to the podium.
"There are so many female athletes struggling. I wish the companies would look more at those coming up behind and see the potential and go on a journey with them. It's a huge strain on athletes paying fees, affording supplements, travelling and training and then having to pay the same bills as working families. It took us years to pay off the credit card debts. It's so demanding, especially with kids on top."
Despite the success of Sanita, and indeed the Olympic medal-winning O'Donovan brothers, being part of a niche sport presents additional challenges when it comes to securing a sponsor. "Rowers don't have 80,000 people watching," says Sanita. "RTÉ covers the World Championships but that's only once a year."
Teneo PSG's Kelli O'Keeffe agrees that getting more bums on seats is crucial for furthering women's sport. Put simply, where the crowds go, the money will follow.
"We weren't surprised that 48pc of the people we surveyed said women's sports don't get enough media coverage, but when you dig down, 41pc said they'd never watched female sport on TV or online. It's too simplistic to blame the media - people need to put their money where their mouth is and support women playing. I was shocked that just 13pc said they'd attended a female event in 2018.
"Yes, we broke the records on All-Ireland Final day but what about the semi-finals and quarter-finals? We've come on a massive journey but we've still a way to go, in both playing, coaching and at a governance level."
Off the pitch, women coaches and referees are also breaking ground as role models, and exploding cultural myths. Limerick's Joy Neville won World Rugby Referee of the Year last year. Camogie All Star Mags D'Arcy is the goalkeeping coach for Wexford's senior men's hurling team, while Lisa Fallon is the first female to coach men's pro-football at Cork City.
Meanwhile, Sport Ireland's Women in Sport policy - led by rugby legends Nora Stapleton and Lynne Cantwell - has allocated €2millon to breaking down barriers to women in sport.
"I learned from an early age women can be coaches and athletes and that changed my course - all kids need is that exposure to throw out stereotypes," says former Olympian Róisín McGettigan, who now works for Olympics Ireland, where she is the director of the Dare To Believe school programme. "Statistics about how many women drop out of sport at a critical time for their development are devastating. We take Olympic hopefuls and bring them into schools. Those encounters change perceptions."
Katie Mullan thinks back on last year in London, when her team's success certainly changed the perception of what an Irish female team can achieve. "We'd never been to a major tournament and running out into the stadium, seeing it all green, and the reception we got, it was crazy," she says. "We joked about how many would come - at a club game you could count spectators on two hands, so all these Irish fans getting behind us lifted us to a whole new level.
"After we won, it went from one extreme to the other - it was crazy - people recognised us on the street. I arrived in Germany two weeks after the World Cup and it was so weird having little German kids coming up asking for a photo.
"We attended a lot of awards dinners before Christmas and it was so special the number of sports people and journalists who knew who we were and came over and congratulated us. If we keep pushing, we won't even have to talk about it."
Kellie Harrington is also in her fair share of selfies these days. "I get a lot of publicity now but women's boxing doesn't. We've European champions under 22s and youths, really good girls who don't get the credit. Brilliant fighters like Yasmin Meredith, Daina Moorehouse, Chloe Gabriel. If we give these girls the credit they deserve, they'd stay in the game longer, and we'd produce many more world champions."
And to anyone out there nursing big dreams, the last word goes to Kellie, who offers up this advice. "People like to compare people, and might compare you to the greats - with good intentions. But I only compare myself to the fighter I was yesterday. I always say, don't try to be the next anyone. Why try to emulate other people? Have role models but strive to be the best version of yourself. Be your own artist."