Monday 11 December 2017

Hulgraine hopes Kildare can put their own spin on record day

Mary Hulgraine, Kildare, saves a penalty from Noirin Kirwan, Laois. Photo: Sportsfile
Mary Hulgraine, Kildare, saves a penalty from Noirin Kirwan, Laois. Photo: Sportsfile

Aisling Crowe

September Sundays can still delight, retaining some of summer's glow of warmth and heat. For footballers and camogie stars they are the glory days, when the citadel of Croke Park is their dominion for an afternoon.

Change the record the Ladies' Gaelic Football Association told fans before this afternoon's All-Ireland finals in Croke Park. Not only is it a plea to break the record for attendance at an All-Ireland final, set by the supporters of Laois and Meath back in 2001, it is a statement of intent about ladies football and, perhaps in a wider context, women's sport.

If Cork trigger the minor earthquake that brings ladies football briefly to attention, the women of the teams in the tiers beneath them are a gentle tremor from the tectonic plates Irish sport is built upon.

Kildare return to Croke Park a wiser, better team from the lessons learned in last year's defeat to Waterford in the Intermediate final.

If goalkeeper Mary Hulgraine were a man, her achievements and story would be to the fore of the frenzied build-up to the All-Ireland final. A forward playing in goals. An athletic scholar. A college basketball star. A personal trainer. These details of her sporting and professional life would be known beyond the borders of Kildare, widely disseminated in the media.

That record changes now.

"I'm from Sallins and grew up playing football," she says by way of introduction. "In second year of school, I remember someone asked me to go to basketball training one Saturday morning. It was probably the only day I didn't have football so I went for the crack but I got hooked on basketball. It became my obsession and I focused on it. At a camp somebody told me I was good enough to go to the States and that's when I applied for the scholarship."

Four years in Connecticut playing basketball in front of large crowds, training like a professional with a mandatory rest day in 14, helped her to grow more in that time than she had in her life. Returning to Ireland and football after injury, she accidentally became a goalkeeper when Kildare, lacking a substitute goalkeeper in a game, turned to their forward with the basketball skills in their crisis. She saved two penalties.

The story of how she played this year's Leinster final victory over with a broken foot would be repeatedly discussed on radio shows, her determination marvelled at. It would be pointed to as an example of the finest qualities of the GAA - the selflessness, courage and dedication of the players.

So let's put the record straight.

"I had a mishap a few weeks before the Leinster final," Hulgraine reveals, a little embarrassed that this tale is getting national airing. "I was working out, doing some weight training and when I was adding weights to the bar, I dropped a 20kg plate on my foot. I thought it was alright, it hurt but it was a bit like when you stub your toe and you get that instant, horrendous pain and then it eases off.

"My foot was bruised but I didn't think too much of it. That happened on Monday and when I got up on Wednesday morning, my foot was black and bruised and hurt badly so I knew I was in trouble. I had an X-ray and it showed that my foot was broken."

She shared this knowledge with Kildare manager Alan Barry, who played for Sarsfields and Kildare and enjoyed success with the county's under 21 team. They agreed to keep the information under wraps.

"The intensity in training was good and I didn't want there to be any distractions in the lead-up to the final, so we told nobody else. There is a great chemistry in the team and it's really well balanced between the older souls who keep the team together and the younger girls who bring freshness. We are 25 individuals who bring our own characters into the team and bring it all together," she explains.

Sports media swallows whole with greedy relish stories about how this elite team or other get up at 5.0am on miserable January mornings to attend gruelling training sessions, head to the gym after work and follow religiously the ten commandments (or maybe 100) their team nutritionists proclaim from on high. The sacrifices of the players in pursuit of an All-Ireland medal are lauded.

Perhaps the women are automatically dismissed a little as not working as hard, as not sacrificing as much, as not requiring the same level of dedication as their male counterparts seeking that All-Ireland glory.

Let's change that record.

"We train four nights a week every week, all year. We have been out on the Curragh in the freezing cold and pouring rain in the dark depths of the winter for long fitness sessions but that is the time when champions are made. I think all that work we put into fitness at the start of January really has stood to us. When the semi-final against Sligo went into extra-time, we had the reserves of strength built up."

This is reality for a Kildare footballer playing in front of a potential record crowd of 33,000 this afternoon.

Her interest in the power of exercise to help with mental health or simply improve your mood would be known, she may even be an ambassador for a charity or campaign.

That record needs changing.

"I love helping people to reach their goals and I get so much satisfaction from seeing people achieve. It's amazing, watching somebody do something as simple as completing a box jump for the first time is as fulfilling as helping somebody lose weight or strengthen. I feel nearly like a counsellor in my job and I love helping people with that mental aspect. Sport is 90 per cent about having the right attitude, the mindset of preparing to win. Exercise is so important in helping people feel good and all you need is a 30-minute walk every day. I love walking with my dog on the Curragh, I feel so refreshed and relaxed afterwards."

Her career as a personal trainer, documented on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram alongside recipes and pictures of the food she makes, would attract many multiples of the followers she has right now.

That record can be changed too.

This afternoon some incredible sports women from six counties will expend and exhaust themselves in pursuit of the glory September Sundays in Ireland offer to a very few. If they were men, well you know the story by now.

Change the record.

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