Sunday 21 July 2019

Anna Geary gets real: 'Stop wrapping your kids in cotton wool and telling them they can be anything they want'

An appetite for hard work and a reputation for north Cork straight talk have helped Anna Geary build an impressive media career - and she's only just beginning

Anna Geary pictured at Cork Opera House. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney
Anna Geary pictured at Cork Opera House. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney
Anna with her co-stars in RTE's popular show, Ireland's Fittest Family
Anna Geary winning the camogie All-Ireland in 2014
Anna Geary with fiance Kevin Sexton
Evanne Ni Chuillinn
Jacqui Hurley
Joanne Cantwell
Marie Crowe

Pat Fitzpatrick

'I'd love to present The Late Late Show", says Anna Geary. "Ryan Tubridy watch this space!"

The Late Late is just one of the goals she mentions in the course of a highly entertaining chat in UCC. She recants later and says she'd be willing to co-host with Ryan Tubridy, but I'm not so sure. My guess is she wants the top job all to herself at some stage; my advice is don't bet against her.

It's hard to believe Anna Geary is only 31. She has won more than 20 All-Ireland medals in various camogie formats, including seven senior All-Irelands between Cork and her home club Milford, in the north west of the county. She has featured on Dancing With The Stars, Ireland's Fittest Family, Today with Maura and Daithi, the Six O'Clock Show and more. She has also represented Cork at the Rose of Tralee, worked pitch-side for Eir Sport's coverage of the Allianz League, presented a GAA highlights show, appeared as a regular on The Marty Squad with Marty Morrissey on summer Sundays, and enough other gigs to fill an entire media career.

Before all this, she somehow managed a seven year stint working in the corporate world.

Anna Geary winning the camogie All-Ireland in 2014
Anna Geary winning the camogie All-Ireland in 2014

She won't be beaten for work ethic, something she developed in her camogie days. Her training schedule with Cork during her final year at school, almost gave me a headache. "My mam has a taxi, I'd get home at quarter past four from school, do my homework until half five, drive to Cork for seven o'clock training, two hours training, back into the car, drive home and finish off my homework."

She did that for three days a week during her Leaving Cert year, until April, when she was told to ease off by her mother, who is also a teacher. (Anna didn't pick up her work ethic off the ground.)

So, did it affect her performance in the Leaving? "Sport helped me during that year, I got 500 points, it allowed me to escape from the books," she says emphatically, taking another bite out of her wholemeal chicken wrap with chopped peppers, no mayonnaise. She has just spoken in UCC at the launch of the Gut Check Campaign, run by Alflorex.

Top flight camogie made her competitive, with a little help from her dad. "We had a ball game when we were younger, Hit The Drainpipe. My Dad was very competitive, He wouldn't go easy on us just because we were five our six, there was no such thing as 'letting them win because they're young'. I developed this thing, you earned it, you weren't getting it soft."

Camogie also introduced her to disappointment. When she went into secondary school in Charleville, a lot of her friends from primary school went straight on to the Junior A panel. "They had older sisters on the A panel, the coach must have thought they'd be good too - I was indignant I was put on to the Junior B panel. I was upset, because when you're 12 or 13, your friends were taken away from you, and secondary is hard enough to adapt to."

If you're looking for pivotal moments in Anna Geary's formative years, you'd probably start here. "That winter I was on Junior B, I can still remember Mr Harrington [coach] calling me back after class, telling me to bring my gear for a Junior A Munster Final. For me, this is like 'you've made it big time'."

Anna Geary with fiance Kevin Sexton
Anna Geary with fiance Kevin Sexton

Put your head down, work at it, you'll show them in the end. Anna Geary is pure north Cork. Sports stars from around the city or west Cork - Roy Keane, Ronan O'Gara, Sonia O'Sullivan, the O'Donovan brothers in the rowing - are a bit more coy and calculating when they talk about themselves. But north Cork people are different, they're your classic zero-filter chatty culchies. It's like a take on the vegan joke - how do you know if a north Cork person wants to host the Late Late? They'll tell you.

So it would be wrong to think Anna Geary is a blow-hard, high on her own supply of confidence. She's just being honest about what she wants to do. Just as she's brutally honest about herself, for example, when she admits later that she has an incessant need for people to like her.

Neither does she pull any punches when it comes to her self-image. "I was a different shape to other girls growing up, I was like a ball of muscle, I felt self-conscious because I didn't look like other girls. I loved Sonia [O'Sullivan] and FloJo [Florence Griffith Joyner], but I wished there was somebody that looked like me in the sport world. I'm never going to be skinny, I don't want to be either."

She wants to be a role-model for women who don't fit the short-shorts, skinny model mould. Again, this could be seen as bullshit, given the number of attractive women who want to be role-models for women who don't find themselves attractive. But I don't think Anna Geary could be bothered with bullshit. I believe her, when she starts talking about her motivation for going on Dancing With The Stars. "I wanted to put myself out there and show women you can have a different body shape to someone else, it doesn't mean you are any more or less attractive."

Her move into the limelight beyond camogie arrived when she appeared as Cork Rose in the 2014 Rose of Tralee. There is a video of her on YouTube showing off her camogie skills to some other Roses in Croke Park, wearing a dress, sash and five-inch stilettos. It's very Father Ted - judging by the faces on one or two of the on-looking Roses, this is the moment they realise it's a bit Lovely Girls. I asked Anna if she reckons it looks odd in these hyper-woke times, when you can get in trouble for being the wrong type of feminist.

She greets this with the 'cop yourself on' look you'd get off a grand-aunt, after you told her you're contemplating a sex change. Anna says if she had her time over, the only thing she'd change about that day is she'd show them some better skills. "I'm not parading around in a bikini. And why is 'lovely' a bad thing? I would love my young daughter to be lovely and polite and kind and thoughtful.

Anna with her co-stars in RTE's popular show, Ireland's Fittest Family
Anna with her co-stars in RTE's popular show, Ireland's Fittest Family

"I met 63 other Roses who were fierce ambitious, determined, kind and thoughtful and generous, all the traits that any man or woman should want to have. Ultimately I got to have the best crack for two weeks."

This proved a watershed moment in her career. She had headed into the corporate world after her business degree in University of Limerick, working in HR, recruitment and marketing. Seven years later, she decided she had enough. Why?

"I want to leave behind a legacy. I want to be remembered in a really positive way. Am I making people feel good in my job? I just felt it was a bit too structured, sitting behind a computer all day."

That's Monday morning right there for most of us. But most of us don't pack in our good job and move to Dublin to start a career in the media. "The production team behind Ireland's Fittest Family had asked me to be a coach. Marty Morrissey rang and asked me to go on his Sunday show, so I thought that will be enough to keep me going."

She kept going and then some, working in high profile gigs for RTE, Eir Sport, Virgin Media, the Irish Examiner and more. It's impressive, the way she has slotted into the male-dominated world of sports punditry with an air suggesting she has done it all her life. How did she find that?

"Jacqui [Hurley], Evanne Ni Chuilinn and Joanne Cantwell led the way. I knew I had to be well prepped. A guy could just come in and expect to give his opinion - not all of them, some of them are very well prepped - but others could be 'sure this is just me taking about hurling for an hour'. I felt I had to have my stats and my facts and my figures, to make sure the people at home weren't going, 'don't mind that one'."

Her early morning habit of scrolling through her phone shows she's lost none of her competitive edge. "I'm going, oh my God that person is already up and has been to the gym, I feel so crap about myself because I'm still in bed. I found myself getting anxious like."

She sets high standards for herself, but what about the people around her? I ask her how she reacts, if say, her fiancee Kevin Sexton forgets to take something out of the freezer. She pauses and smiles into the mid-distance, possibly thinking about one of Kev's recent mishaps. "Kev is great," she says slowly, "but he's a bit forgetful."

In fairness to Kev, he didn't forget his lines when he proposed to her recently in Castlemartyr Resort, in east Cork. Her eyes light up as she recalls how they went for a walk to look at the ruin of an old castle near the grounds of the hotel.

"I was going, ah that's lovely and then I turned around he was down on his knee, I said 'what are you doing?' He said his few lines that will stay between us for ever more. I won't lie, the first time I didn't hear a bit of it, I said to him a few hours later, 'do you know that really nice thing you said to me, could you repeat it?!' He said it was the first time in his life he'd seen me speechless."

I'd believe that. She must have mentioned Kev 50 times in our one hour chat, you can tell she's stone mad about him. The wedding is next October, they haven't finalised a venue just yet, but Anna has her heart set on Cork and I wouldn't bet on Dubliner Kev getting a home game for that one.

So what's next in her career? "When I was younger, there were a few of things I wanted to do. I wanted to be a Spice Girl, but I'm not a great singer." (It didn't stop any of them.)

"I wanted to be Sonia O'Sullivan, but my body isn't designed for long distance running. There was the president of Ireland, but after seeing the election and the way people ripped into people, I think it was horrendous, so maybe not." I ask if she's ruling out a run for the Aras, and she replies never say never, before coming to the big ambition.

"The Late Late Show, I always loved the idea of sitting down and being able to pick peoples' brain, find out more about what makes people tick."

That's for the future, so Ryan can relax for a while. She has already moved beyond sport, with an appearance on Brendan O'Connor's Cutting Edge, which she described as tough, because there is no room to sit on the fence. There is also a six week gig on Cork's RedFM, where she is filling in for a presenter on the breakfast-time Saturday show.

A glance at her Instagram feed shows a dizzying schedule, acting as a performance coach for companies, or speaking at events all over the country. There is something evangelical about her as well, a la Oprah, she's not afraid to tell people how they should live their lives.

"I recently told a group of parents in Trinity, stop wrapping your kids in cotton wool and telling them they can be anything they want to be. You need to be upset and cry and be disappointed. I learned that from sport. I got taken off teams when I wasn't playing well."

I normally bristle when someone without kids tells me how I should raise mine. But there is something disarmingly charming about Anna Geary. It doesn't feel like she is just throwing opinions around to see what will stick, I get the sense that she thought about it, asked around for differing views and in the end, she speaks from her heart. That mix of hard work and passion is her calling card, it could take her anywhere.

Before we part, I do that thing Cork people can't resist doing to someone who's moved to Dublin, and ask if herself and Kev would like to live on Leeside. She said she'd love to, but he's based in Dublin, and Cork is just too far away from the bulk of the media work in the capital.

"So, I'm not going for Daithi and Maura's job!"

Not yet, anyway.

Irish Women  setting the pace  in sports media

* Joanne Cantwell

Joanne Cantwell

The former Dublin footballer joined RTE in 2007, where she was a reporter on The Sunday Game Live. She has since worked as presenter, reporter and journalist for the station, helming the rugby programme Against the Head, the RTE Sports Awards and Saturday Sport on RTE Radio 1. Her presenting role on The Saturday Game Live was the launchpad for her next move, as RTE has announced she will anchor The Sunday Game Live next year, now that Michael Lyster has stepped down after 34 years.

* Evanne Ni Chuillinn

Evanne Ni Chuillinn

The Kilkenny native has worked with RTE since 2004, working her way up from sub-editor to a leading role delivering the sports news and covering major events such as the Olympics and live GAA. When Andy Gray was fired from Sky News for lewd remarks to a female colleague, Evanne said she had been at the receiving end of similar jibes in her life, when she had to move on and pretend as if nothing had happened.

* Jacqui Hurley

Jacqui Hurley

Born in Ballinhassig in Cork, Jacqui spent her younger years in Australia before returning home, where she played basketball for Ireland and camogie for Cork (with Anna Geary). She went from Limerick's Live 95FM to RTE, where she became the first female presenter of Sunday Sport at the age of 25. She has since presented Know the Score on RTE television and hosted the coverage for some games during the recent FIFA World Cup in Russia. Jacqui recently spoke about the difficulties of being a mother of two with her career, saying her husband Shane is a single parent at the weekends.

* Marie Crowe

Marie Crowe

She has been a sports journalist for this paper, the Sunday Independent, since 2008. From Sixmilebridge in Clare, she spent six years working as anchor for Setanta Sport (now Eir Sport) and has also worked as a reporter for Sky Sports News, along with making a documentary about Clare hurler Podge Collins, for UTV. She regularly works for RTE. She is on the record as saying she's sick of being asked on radio shows to discuss stories about female athletes, when they don't contact her to talk about stories she has written about men in sport.

Sunday Indo Living

Also in this section