Friday 24 May 2019

Sinéad Kissane: 'Female athletes defy societal perceptions to show what's possible'


"I'm 42, not 92," Diver (p) said. "People seem to think you shouldn't be able to run after you're 40. I think I'm proving them wrong. I'm proud of that." Photo: Ian Walton for Virgin Money London Marathon

Sinéad Kissane

Female athletes have a way of showing up fault-lines in the way some of us think and so it was with Sinéad Diver in her radio interview with Ray D'Arcy the day after she finished seventh in the London Marathon last Sunday.

"I'm 42, not 92," Diver said. "People seem to think you shouldn't be able to run after you're 40. I think I'm proving them wrong. I'm proud of that."

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History and society have given women and age an uneasy relationship. 'A woman should never reveal her age' is a line that gets regurgitated but comes with the message that a woman should somehow be ashamed of her age the older she gets. Maybe it stems from the 'biological clock', who knows? But the age-old view that women should keep their age to themselves feeds into a misguided notion that it's something to be embarrassed about.

That doyen of equality, Oscar Wilde, once wrote: "One should never trust a woman who tells one her real age. A woman who would tell one that would tell one anything."

When it comes to women in sport today, there's still a view held by some that a shelf-life exists with this odd rush to retire women when they reach a certain age. Of course, men in sport also get asked about retirement but there's a different historical context for women.

Cora Staunton used to get questioned constantly about retirement when she played for Mayo.

"People are trying to retire you all the time. I hate it. I'll go when I go," Staunton said in an interview three years ago. "In a way you'd like to say, 'Did you not just see the way I performed? Did you not just see that three people were marking me?' I might be 34 but that to me is a huge compliment that you still have it."

Since her outstanding achievement last weekend, it's rare that Diver has been mentioned without the fact that she's also a 42-year-old mother-of-two. This is part of her amazing story as she only took up running after the birth of her first son at the age of 32.

In the past, I would have questioned commentary that seemed to unnecessarily reference the age of a female athlete or if she was a mother. But setting the same terms for men and women can be a disservice to women at times.

Male athletes would rarely be referenced as a dad but it is different for female athletes who are mothers because of the obvious huge biological changes to their bodies during and post-pregnancy.

"It is 100 per cent relevant," Olympian Lizzie Lee said in an interview two years ago. "My body has grown a person and I'm running with that body so it's incredibly relevant.

"To get your body through pregnancy, to grow a person and then be the sole nutritional need for that person for months and recover and get back to your athletics the way it was. You'll never be the same. Your tool is your body as an athlete so it's completely relevant."

Nineteen days ago, Fionnuala McCormack finished 11th in the Boston Marathon, running a new personal best of 2:30.38 and just missing out on automatic qualification for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Sixteen days before Boston, McCormack finished 18th in the World Cross-Country Championship in Aarhus, Denmark.

That was her first race since giving birth to her daughter, Isla, last October. For the first time since she was 12 or 13, she spent a year out of competitive athletics because of her pregnancy.

There was one moment during the race in Aarhus when she spotted her husband and coach, Alan, holding their daughter in his arms. McCormack smiled to herself and kicked on with the art of running hard.

"I felt like I'd been out of the sport for like a year and with World Cross especially it was a big opportunity to come back and do something I love on a course that looked like it was going to be exciting and tough. That was probably the biggest motivation," McCormack said this week. "It wasn't really anything in relation to how long after I had a baby or anything like that. For me, I wouldn't really want to be defined by my age and by being a mother. I just want to be a world-class athlete."

McCormack returned to light running around six weeks after she gave birth to her daughter. She's wary about not sounding flippant about this because post-natal recovery is different for every woman.

"I remember I was down along the beach and there was a guy doing strides and I was looking at him going, 'Oh my God, will I ever be able to do that again'. I was almost skating - I couldn't move up and down and I felt so uncomfortable. Within a few weeks I was fine but I built it up quite slowly."

There is another reason why McCormack is cautious about talking about being a mother.

"It's not really to do with sport or athletics or anything I suppose. Everyone knows people who've struggled to have kids or would like to but can't. I suppose that's something I'm very aware of.

"Maybe it's that you don't want to upset people or put people under pressure in a way society puts pressure on."

It's a very considerate view. McCormack counts herself "very lucky" that injuries over the years haven't stopped her from running and competing. She plans to do another marathon in the autumn to try and get that qualifying time for next year's Olympics and join a marathon line-up that will include Diver who'll compete for Australia.

It's not what they set out to do but the ripple effect of what these women do is inspiring others, even other top athletes. In response to Diver's "I'm 42 not 92" line this week, Lizzie Lee tweeted: "I'm going to be 39 in a few weeks and some said Dublin was my "swan song" purely because of my age (it was my 2nd fastest mar). I'm with Sinead Diver on this one".

I used to think a female athlete's age wasn't relevant to the story of her performance or talent. But, as Diver said, age is something to be proud of and it also shows other women in that age-group that it's never too late to take up an old hobby or start a new pastime. For women in their 30s, 40s and so on, it's wholly uplifting to see women of the same age defy different boundaries we assumed we had to operate within.

Role models aren't just for kids. For this 40-year-old, they include the women mentioned above who prove age isn't a road-block to what sport can continue to allow us to do.

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