Friday 23 February 2018

Handball: Belfast sister act confident bid for world domination in safe hands

Over 2,000 players battle for handball crown at Citywest, says Marie Crowe

Sisters and handballers Sibeal Gallagher and Fiona Shannon have a busy few days ahead.

Along with defending their women's doubles world title they have the singles title to battle for too. Three-times world champion Shannon is hoping to regain her singles crown and Gallagher is planning on challenging her for it.

They spent part of yesterday watching the action at the Citywest hotel, where the World Handball Championships are being held.

A 21-court complex was specifically constructed to host the tournament and more than 2,000 players from 30 countries are competing. All the athletes are staying in the hotel and the matches from the main courts are linked to the televisions in their rooms. The set-up is very different to 2003 when the championships were last in Dublin and when Shannon won her first world title.

"It was held in Croke Park, so there was only one main court," Shannon said. "This meant that there was a lot of travel involved, whereas in Citywest we're getting to see everyone play, from the kids to the older players, and it's just a stroll back to our rooms."

The sisters from Belfast, who have won six GAA Handball 40x20 senior doubles All-Ireland titles, have been playing sport since they were kids. They started with camogie and when it was raining their coach brought them to the handball alley. They stuck with it and it wasn't long before they were dominating nationally. Sean McEntee is their coach; he's trained them since they were teenagers.

They train hard both in the gym and on the court and manage to balance their work and family life too. They have five children between them but so far it hasn't affected their careers.

"I'd had my first baby by the time I won my first world title," said Shannon, who has two kids. "I try to get my sessions in when the kids are at school so that I'm home in the evenings. It's getting a bit harder as they get older because they really notice when I'm not there."

Gallagher returned to the court within six weeks of the birth of each of her three children. They do five sessions on the court a week as well as several fitness sessions and up the intensity depending on what competition is coming up.

"Handball requires a high level of fitness, you are playing all the time, you go from game to game and they can last anything from 20 minutes to over two hours. You have to be prepared and very fit to stay on top of your game," Gallagher said.

They are both in singles action tomorrow, Shannon has a bye into the quarter-final but Gallagher must play Samantha England in the first round. They are on opposite sides of the draw but if all goes to plan they could end up like Venus and Serena Williams and meet in the final.

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