Trying period for Collingwood, Mayo and Shelbourne player has become a spell of growth and recalibration
When you spend so much time juggling, it’s important to make the most of the rare moments when the balls aren’t in the air.
Sarah Rowe spends large chunks of her life chasing after an O’Neills, a regular football, or an oval-shaped Sherrin – not forgetting the hours upon hours of preparation to take to the field in the first place – but for the past 12 days she hasn’t been able to stretch her legs beyond the confines of her hotel room in central Melbourne.
The prospect of two weeks of strict quarantine would rattle even the sturdiest of cages in the context of what we have all been through over the past 18 months, but the effervescent Rowe has used this rare window of solitude to reflect and refocus.
“I find the one thing I crave in my life always is time and space,” Rowe tells the Irish Independent from the 20th storey of her four-star detention centre. “I obviously don’t get too much of it. When I don’t have time and space I get confused in the busy life and things start to go wrong.
“As much as I enjoy being busy I love having the time and space, and I get a bit more of it in Australia. Here, I’m accountable to the club and a few friends outside of that. But when I’m in Mayo, I’m accountable to the club, to Mayo, to family, to friends, to Dublin. I don’t get as much time.
“So, for me, this is lovely, it’s a nice time to reflect and see where I’m at and how I can move forward.
“It’s good for me stop as well – I need to do it every now and again.”
That’s not to say the 26-year-old Mayo All-Star nominee won’t skip out of the place on Monday morning as she heads for brunch with three fellow athletes in exile – Aileen Gilroy (Mayo/North Melbourne), Rachel Kearns (Mayo/Geelong) and Aishling Sheridan (Cavan/Collingwood) – who are also enduring two weeks of solitary confinement.
The freedom will be welcome but the restrictions will remain. Brunch will have to be a takeaway option as the city remains in lockdown until vaccine quotas are reached later this month across the wider population in the state of Victoria.
While she is heading into a more agitated environment of 9pm curfews, compulsory outdoor mask-wearing and a 15km travel limit, Rowe, as is her wont, is upbeat about leaving the relative freedoms of Irish society behind and tackling her latest challenge – a fourth season in the AFLW with Collingwood.
When Rowe returns to training on Monday night – the Magpies will be beginning a second full week of pre-season training ahead of the new campaign’s January 6 start date – it will be the third football code she has played at an elite level in just two months.
It was only mid-August when Rowe scored a goal in Mayo’s 1-17 to 2-9 All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Dublin. A quick jaunt to the sunnier and far-removed climes of the Greek and Balearic islands, to help dull the pain and escape the inevitable Croke Park post-mortem, was shortly followed by a return to Women’s National League side Shelbourne, ending a six-year hiatus from the 11-a-side code.
On September 4, the day her signing was announced, Rowe, to her great surprise, was summoned from the bench by boss Noel King at half-time of their FAI Cup quarter-final against Cork City.
Ultimately, it was a Rowe assist that set up Saoirse Noonan’s 79th-minute winner, the 1-0 success booking a last-four clash with Galway United.
Remarkably, despite only playing 45 minutes of soccer in six years, Rowe was then called up by Ireland manager Vera Pauw to train with the national squad the following Wednesday, ahead of their international friendly against Australia.
It was a request that caught Rowe so off guard she couldn’t help but utter a tongue-in-cheek response to the invitation, “you must be really stuck if you’re ringing me!”.
It was a fleeting visit but one she soaked up, catching up with former team-mates and coaches, and picking Pauw’s brain on where she needed to focus her attention for improvement.
Just as she was starting to focus in on Shels’ cup semi-final against Galway United, a +61 number flashed up on her phone. She knew the call was coming, she just had no idea when.
Rowe had only played two games for Shels at that point, but they knew the score too. She could be summoned at any time. Her travel exemption had been approved; she was given 48 hours to pack her bags and say her goodbyes before boarding a flight to Australia.
With all that in mind, it’s no wonder she appreciated the break upon landing in Melbourne – one week to get over the jet lag and another to catch up on life admin before readjusting to life as a semi-professional athlete.
When Rowe is in, she’s all-in. It might be a dangerous approach on the poker tables of Las Vegas, but the tunnel vision marries well with elite sport and its round-the-clock demands.
When she’s with Mayo, all she can see is green and red. Once she joined Shels, Tolka Park became her world. But now, on the other side of the globe, the black-and-white stripes of Collingwood have her full attention, as a player and in her off-field role with the club which sees her mentoring young girls, working with charity partners and attending corporate events, among other duties.
Once the brunch is digested on Monday she will head to her home for the next six months or so, the same Melbourne apartment she lived in last season. But what Rowe is craving more than anything, other than “proper, nice coffee”, is her first walk through the club doors to reacquaint herself with the friendly faces she has warmed to over the past three seasons.
“The thing I’m looking forward to most is walking into Collingwood, I just love that place,” Rowe beams.
“Working in the club, I know the staff quite well. I feel when I’m in there I’m stimulated – I’m always learning. It gives me energy immediately. The relationships I’ve built, I love it.”
Until then, Rowe will continue to blare music every waking hour to create the feeling of company in her hotel room.
However, in truth, between the twice-daily workouts, the social media activity, the hour-long phone calls to her father to discuss her life and the ways of the wider world, the Ballina native hasn’t had a whole lot of time to twiddle her thumbs.
Keeping fit in a hotel room isn’t easy – the first room she was allocated couldn’t even accommodate the bike and free weights the club supplied, leading to the AFL sorting an upgrade – but Rowe knew coming in this time, having completed a similar stint in Perth last January, that quarantine is more a mental challenge than a physical one.
Regular chats with sports psychologists have helped her to build mental fortitude and resilience, as well as fostering her own fascination with human behaviour and the mind directs it.
Rowe is a qualified PE and biology teacher but doesn’t foresee a future career in that field. These times, in rare forays away from sport, Rowe works as a practitioner in hypnotherapy and neuro-linguistic programming.
She has tapped into that knowledge and those techniques over the past 12 days to turn what could have been a trying time into a spell of growth and recalibration.
You suspect Sarah Rowe, Collingwood, Mayo and Shelbourne will ultimately all be the better for it.