Monday 20 November 2017

'Mike's memory is what drives me on' - Westmeath star's touching tribute to late brother

GAA is where my heart is, says former Sevens rugby pro Laura Walsh

Laura Walsh:
Laura Walsh: "I absolutely loved my time playing rugby and being a professional athlete. I don’t regret it at all but I just love Gaelic football" Photo: Sportsfile
Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

If it wasn't for her second big sporting U-turn Laura Walsh would be in Canada today, playing for Ireland in the penultimate round of the World Sevens Series.

The Westmeath Gaelic football star was among a significant number of inter-county GAA stars whom the IRFU recruited in recent years to bolster their burgeoning women's programme.

That Sevens team could yet qualify for this summer's Olympics yet, after two seasons with them, Walsh reversed the trend by walking away last summer - and she has no regrets.

The opportunity completely blind-sided the Glasson native. When she went to the University of Limerick to study PE and science 10 years ago, she already excelled at two sports (basketball and Gaelic football) but gave up the former to concentrate solely on the latter.

That dedication was rewarded with an All-Ireland intermediate medal in 2011 and she was Westmeath GAA all the way, even when teaching took her to Dublin and she had to switch clubs to city side Na Fianna.

Walsh was, ironically, playing for the Glasnevin club in Gaelic football's annual 'All-Ireland Sevens' in Portmarnock in 2013 when she was talent-spotted and quickly approached by the IRFU and didn't anticipate her quick progression.

Within four months the 5ft10in forward had gone from development team to Irish senior squad in a sport she always loved but had never had a chance to play.

The opportunity to train like a professional and represent her country was irresistible.

The IRFU, understandably fearful of injuries, demand exclusivity from their contracted Sevens players, so it meant giving up all GAA.

"It escalated really quickly," Walsh explains. "The closest opportunity I had to play for my country before was basketball trials.

"I felt that if I turned this opportunity down, at my age (then 28), they weren't going to come knocking again"

Switching codes was a huge wrench but she loved the physical challenge and the honour. Rugby Sevens brought her around the globe twice and earned her 10 full caps on top of multiple tournaments, but juggling two workloads eventually defeated her.

Most of the women on Sevens contracts (reportedly €12,000 a year), if not students, work part-time at least to supplement their income.

Walsh's teaching contract did not allow her to do this or take a career break.

The Department of Education paid a sub teacher during her international trips but working full-time on top of training five days a week and all the travelling took its toll.

"It was extremely heavy going," the Cabinteely Community School teacher admits. "Up at seven, teaching until 2-3pm depending on my day, then straight over to DCU. First a gym session, then out for individual skills, followed by a full team session for an hour and a half."

Every third weekend they had intensive camps which involved three sessions a day. Between her demanding daily routine and travelling abroad to train and compete, "life became manic beyond belief".

"The girls who weren't working full-time could get their recovery in but I was going straight into school afterwards," she says.

"I remember getting off the plane after a two-week tour in China and being in school the next day so jet-lagged. I was still on Chinese time!

"It was utter exhaustion trying to keep life balanced. To keep up a full-time job with being a full-time athlete and to be as good as I could be at both just wasn't possible for me. The balance was gone."

So Walsh is not in Canada today but relishing a Lidl NFL Division 2 semi-final against Clare next weekend.

Westmeath welcomed her back with open arms, and not for the first time. In her first year in college she lost her beloved brother Mike to his battle with depression.

They were 'Irish twins' with just a year between them. He was her only sibling and died, by suicide, on his 21st birthday.

Football - the game and her team-mates - got her through the despair.

"Between the college girls and county girls I just felt so minded and so supported through it all. They were so understanding," she says.

"At that time football suddenly turned into so much more than a game for me. It was a place where my mind could rest, where I only had the next drill or the next match to concentrate on. It was such a saviour at that time.

"Being part of those teams still helps me to this day. I still have such a sense of gratitude towards all my teammates, particularly in Westmeath, for pulling me through those harrowing years.

"I absolutely loved my time playing rugby and being a professional athlete. I don't regret it at all but I just love Gaelic football. To me it's where my heart is and will always be."

If any of the above issues affect you, you can contact the Samaritans on their 24-hour helpline on 116 123 (Republic of Ireland) or 08457 90 90 90 (from the UK)

Irish Independent

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