Women in sport: How to join in, whatever your ability

After a stellar year for Irish sportswomen, why not make 2022 the year you become a fan, or even better, take part yourself

Meath ripped up the playbook in defeating four-time champions Dublin in their first ever senior All-Ireland campaign. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Meath ripped up the playbook in defeating four-time champions Dublin in their first ever senior All-Ireland campaign. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

 
It is Health Season in The Irish Times. In print and online, we will be offering encouragement and inspiration to help us all improve our physical and mental health in 2022. See irishtimes.com/health

Twenty twenty-one was an amazing year for Irish women’s sports, from All-Ireland finals to Olympic gold medals, plus increased recognition and a growth in fan support. At this time of year, many of us are setting ourselves resolutions around getting fit that are often strict and unenjoyable. This year, instead of restricting yourself, why not follow our sportswomen and indulge in something new?

It can be challenging as adults to come back to sport (or to start from scratch), whether as a fan or as a team member. Sometimes it feels exclusionary, like sport is only for those high-performance, elite athletes, not people who want an hour’s exercise each week. Following on from the successes of our sportswomen last year, below we remember some of the highlights, and suggest easy ways for you to get involved both as a fan, and by taking part on an amateur level in 2022.

Gaelic Football

Being a sports fan can be challenging, subjecting yourself to the soaring heights of victory and the cruel, crushing disappointments of defeat. And yet, on days like the final of the 2021 women’s football All-Ireland Senior Championship, it all becomes worth it. Meath ripped up the playbook in defeating four-time champions Dublin in their first ever senior All-Ireland campaign.

The game is for everyone, but after noticing mothers dropping children off to training and not staying, Gaelic4Mothers&Others was born, doing exactly what it says on the tin: it’s for anyone who wants to play women’s Gaelic football in a non-competitive, social, fun environment and has extended to all 32 counties. During pandemic restrictions fitness sessions remained over Zoom, maintaining the fun and social side of the initiative, even through lockdown.
To find your local club, see ladiesgaelic.ie.

Galway ultimately took home the O’Duffy Cup after a thrilling game against Cork. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Galway ultimately took home the O’Duffy Cup after a thrilling game against Cork. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

Camogie

The highs and lows of being a sports fan were embodied in the All-Ireland Senior Camogie final in 2021. Galway ultimately took home the O’Duffy Cup after a thrilling game against Cork, but the game could have gone either way with it being an almost constant tug of war for the lead. For Galway fans, it was the best kind of victory: hard fought and well-deserved. For Cork fans, the worst kind of defeat, they’d come so close, travelled so far, and ended up empty-handed.

For those who want to play locally instead of in Croke Park, the Camogie Association offers many pathways back into the game. One of these is Camán n Chats. Aimed at women over the age of 25, who have either never played camogie before or haven’t played competitively in the last five years, it wants to encourage women to (re)discover the game and have fun on a weekly basis. See camogie.ie for your local club.

The Irish women’s soccer team provide a resilience and self-belief that make the lows of being an Irish soccer fan worth it. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
The Irish women’s soccer team provide a resilience and self-belief that make the lows of being an Irish soccer fan worth it. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Soccer

The Irish women’s soccer team provide a resilience and self-belief that make the lows of being an Irish soccer fan worth it. Starting out the year having failed to qualify for Euro 2022, which would have been their first major tournament, Vera Pauw arranged for matches against higher ranked teams, leading to a seven-match run of defeats for the girls in green. However, the patience, rationale and risk behind the decision paid off with increasingly positive performances when it mattered: the World Cup qualifiers against Sweden, Slovakia and Georgia, finishing out the year with an 11-0 win and a record-breaking number of tickets sold in Tallaght Stadium for the Slovakia game (5,500).

Off the pitch, things have only improved for this team. Captain Katie McCabe, on the senior team since 2014, has gone from being on the team who had to ask the FAI, via a threatened strike, for tracksuits and proper changing rooms to captaining the side to equal pay, in collaboration with men’s captain Seamus Coleman.

Looking forward, Ireland are seeking to gain access to playoffs for World Cup qualification, looking for points in away games in Slovakia, Sweden and Georgia. The women’s national team has a wealth of talent so to miss out on World Cup qualification, when world-class players such as McCabe and O’Sullivan are at their peak, would be remiss.

Social soccer teams vary, depending on the club. The FAI has plans to set up recreational leagues for women over 35; you can register your interest here: fai.ie/recleague, or check out your local club for more information or see fai.ie/domestic/fai-women.

Rugby

Irish rugby fans loyally follow the team, with stars such as Beibhinn Parsons – one of The Irish Times People to Watch in 2022 – but this last year, the fans felt more lows than highs. Their season started with a condensed Six Nations. England, the only professional team, dominated the competition with gaping scoreboards. The crushing blow for Irish fans and the team alike was their not qualifying for the Rugby World Cup, taking place in September 2022. Ireland went into the competition favourites to take the final European playoff spot, but a dismal performance against Spain and a last-minute conversion from Scotland saw those dreams and expectations shattered.

However, the team has a fresh start coming this year with a new captain and a new coach, and with the abundance of talented players, there will be plenty to look forward to in the coming 12 months. The Six Nations has reverted to its original five-match format, as opposed to the Covid-19 version of pool A and B, and has a standalone time in the calendar.

In Ireland, it’s an exciting time for fans as the home matches are in Belfast, Cork and Dublin, moving away from Donnybrook alone as the base.

Women’s rugby is growing year on year and for anyone looking to “give it a try”, there are clubs all across the country whose doors are wide open to new members. There are also “bring-a-friend” days in some clubs, which might help with the first day of school nerves. There’s a useful regional interactive map to help you find your nearest club at irishrugby.ie.

Alternatively, you can try mixed abilities rugby. Unfortunately, this is not yet available nationwide, but it does encompass people of a wide range of physical and intellectual disabilities, so if you’re in the Munster area, it’s worth having a look at joining.

Olympics

For Irish sports fans, after the barren year that was 2020, 2021 became packed with events to watch. This was never more true than with the Tokyo Olympics and the Paralympics: with 116 athletes – including the women’s hockey team and the men’s rugby 7s – represented at the former and 29 at the latter.

Rowers, Aifric Keogh, Eimear Lambe, Fiona Murtagh and Emily Hegarty, delivered bronze medals, Ireland’s first of 2021. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Rowers, Aifric Keogh, Eimear Lambe, Fiona Murtagh and Emily Hegarty, delivered bronze medals, Ireland’s first of 2021. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Water sports

From the swimming pools to the lakes, athletes in both the Olympics and Paralympics were medal-heavy, providing fans with plenty to celebrate. The rowers, Aifric Keogh, Eimear Lambe, Fiona Murtagh and Emily Hegarty, delivered bronze medals, Ireland’s first of 2021. Ellen Keane and Nicola Turner swam to success with a gold and silver medal respectively. (Keane, who first competed in the Paralympics in 2008 at the age of 13 is a veteran of the games, and is now a contestant on Dancing with the Stars Ireland.) Although she returned home without a medal, Sligo swimmer Mona McSharry came eighth in her first Olympic appearance, and has her eyes firmly set on Paris 2024.

Ellen Keane. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games Thursday - Swimming, Tokyo Aquatic Centre, Tokyo, Japan 26/8/2021Women’s 100m Breastroke SB8 FinalIreland's Ellen Keane celebrates winning a gold medalMandatory Credit ©INPHO/Tommy Dickson
Ellen Keane. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Swimming is for everyone. Swim Ireland’s Swim For A Mile initiative to encourage people to return to the pool and become confident life-long swimmers started in 2014. This is a particularly good activity to try, no matter your age or ability. There’s also a half mile (800m) option for those who fear the mile might be too much. If you’re starting from scratch, most clubs and pools around Ireland offer lessons to adults, which might be worth considering. Last year, Swim Ireland declared their commitment to making the pool for everyone, with an updated diversity and inclusion policy, seeking – among other things – to teach teachers and coaches about swimming for those with additional intellectual, physical or mental needs, and vision and hearing impairments.

Ask with your local club or pool what they offer for those with additional needs or beginners. See swimforamile.com for details on getting involved in the initiative.

Women on the Water is a collaboration between Rowing Ireland and Get Going Get Rowing as part of their women in sport programme. The programme is either six or eight weeks depending on the club, and is a weekly session with a tutor. It is looking for women over the age of 18 who want to start rowing. No experience is necessary. Keep an eye on the Rowing Ireland website (rowingireland.ie) and social media for more dates in 2022.

Olympic gold-medal winning boxer Kellie Harrington.Photograph: Alan Betson
Olympic gold-medal winning boxer Kellie Harrington. Photograph: Alan Betson

Boxing

Almost a decade after Katie Taylor’s first appearance at the Olympics, her legacy lives on in Kellie Harrington. En route to an Olympic final, Harrington was positive, grateful and a joy to watch, delivering successive victories, but also some great post-match speeches. Similarly to Taylor in 2012, it felt as though the whole country was behind her.

Most gyms have boxing classes, but nothing can replace the real thing. With approximately 360 clubs affiliated to the Irish Athletic Boxing Association, you are likely to find something in your area. It’s great exercise (and stress relief). See iaba.ie.

Athletics

Ireland has a history of producing stellar athletes and 2021 was no different with the likes of Nadia Power, Ciara Mageean, Phil Healy, Sophie Becker and Fionnuala McCormack making headlines for their impressive runs.

Park Run has been around for quite a while, so it’s likely you’ve heard of it. If not, it’s a free weekly 5km run on Saturday mornings in public parks and open spaces. It’s accessible to anyone and is open to runners, walkers and joggers.

Being a woman in sport is more accessible and open than ever with clubs eager to get women in their doors, with record attendances at matches and coverage in the media. Undoubtedly, Covid-19 threw additional curveballs in an already challenging environment, but as a supporter and a participant of women’s sports, it’s firmly game on for 2022.

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