Irish women making the grade in US sport scholarships

Ian O'Riordan profiles some of the Irish women on scholarships in the US

‘We could sure use you guys at Villanova” – fateful words that changed the course of Irish athletics history.

Only now, nearly seven decades after the first Irish athlete took up an American scholarship, it’s not just the guys that are making history but also the girls – and not just in athletics, either.

The “Irish pipeline”, as it was originally known, may have started out as a path for young Irish men to pursue their athletic dreams. Then it eventually spread to young women, and in increasingly impressive numbers. With that they’ve spread into different sports too, particularly soccer, swimming, hockey and golf.

There are currently over 100 young Irish women on American scholarships, across the full variety of sports, and in many cases they’re proving more successful than the young Irish men. They’ve also spread north, into Canada, where Fiona Doyle from Limerick – currently the only Irish swimmer to have secured a qualifying time for year’s Rio Olympics – is completing her four-year stint at the University of Calgary.


Athletics, however, remains the flagship sport of the American scholarship: there are 20 young Irish women distance runners spread out across the US. Significantly, of the 16 male and female Irish athletes in their first year, 10 are female, which means for the first time in the long history of Irish runners going on scholarship in America the women will soon outnumber the men.

Among them is Síofra Cléirigh Büttner from Dublin, in her second year at Villanova University, some 12 miles outside of Philadelphia. This link is significant for several reasons: it was at Villanova, back in 1948, where the Irish pipeline first began, after those words – “we could sure use you guys at Villanova” – were said George Guida.

It’s a story that has been told many times: how sprinter Jimmy Reardon, thrower Cummin Clancy, and miler John Joe Barry got chatting to two American athletes, Guida and Browning Ross, at the 1948 Olympics in London. Guida and Ross were both on scholarship at Villanova, and not long after leaving London, convinced the Irish trio to join them.

Not long after that Ronnie Delany followed the same path, heading out to Villanova in 1954, two years before winning the Olympic 1,500 metres in Melbourne. Delany then paved the way to Villanova for Noel Carroll, Frank Murphy, Eamonn Coghlan, and Marcus O’Sullivan, who is now head coach at his old alma mater.

In 1984, Limerick sprint hurdler Olive Burke became the first Irish woman to take up an American scholarship at Villanova, and three years later, she was joined by Sonia O’Sullivan, who went on to become the most successful Irish woman athlete of all time.

Now, some 67 uninterrupted years later, Cléirigh Büttner is herself following in those long and famous footsteps – and already enjoying some notable success of her own. Earlier this year, while still in her first year, Cléirigh Büttner was part of the Villanova women’s team that won the distance medley relay and the 4x800m at the famous Penn Relays. Just last month she ran for Villanova in the NCAA Cross Country finals, and coached by Marcus O’Sullivan, is helping to ensure the Irish pipeline is still flowing with remarkable success.

Síofra Cléirigh Büttner

Dublin – 2nd year at Villanova University, running track and cross country.

“I knew all about the Villanova Irish tradition, and the overall tradition of success and winning in general that was associated with the university. Villanova also showed the most interest in me, I knew they wanted me, and that was a big influence on my decision. The coaches here often say ‘we do more with less’, and this humble and simple attitude is another thing that attracted me to Villanova.

“I know that all systems have flaws, but in my opinion, it is about which system has the least amount of flaws and ones that you can deal with. I knew that if I was going to commit to making it anywhere, I was going to do it right, and I was going to commit to somewhere where I felt comfortable and where I believed I had the best possible chance of succeeding to my full ability.

“The academic/athletic balance is definitely no stroll in the park, but the resources available to student-athletes are of the highest standards. Villanova is very well renowned academically and the level of education and teaching is high. With this, students are expected to work to their highest capability in order to get a degree from the university. Hard work and focus is needed to sustain this balance but it is this balance between both that keeps my life in order.

“Free time is experienced rarely but the feeling of accomplishment is achieved often. It is this support and exposure to high competition that I view as the main advantages. Unfortunately, we just don’t have the same resources or funding back in Ireland.”

Fiona Doyle

Limerick – 4th year student at the University of Calgary, competing in swimming, specialising in the 100m backstroke, studying Human Kinesiology.

“To say it’s been easy out here would be a complete lie. It does involve a lot of work, but I think in swimming you come well prepared for it, because you’re doing such large volumes of training from such a young age. You just learn to cope. Swimming is also one of those sports where you can’t make a career out of, unfortunately. So you have to put the education first, as much as you might want to put swimming first.

“It’s a struggle sometimes, but the way I see it, if I want to do well in swimming, I need to do well in school too. If I fall behind, I have to miss swimming to catch up. So the best way to balance it is to stay on top of study, which I do, every night, for two or three hours. In some ways the swimming is also beneficial because it limits the time you have to study, so you have to be a lot more focused on the things you need to get then.

“Here, people also have higher academic expectations, partly because in many cases they’re paying a lot more for it. But I’ve been I very lucky with Calgary, and that’s not always the case. You’re leaving home comforts, the security of your family, friends. I’m seven hours behind, Irish time, and if you’re having a bad day you can’t just pop home.

“The big benefit of being here is that it’s allowed me to study what I want, and also we have 35, 40 on the varsity swim team. Everyone is pushing each other, but again it’s not easy. Young Irish swimmers would need to weigh up the pros and cons, because Swim Ireland does offer a lot more support at home now, but it does mean having to travel more for competition.”

Tara Jameson

Wicklow – Graduate student Iona College, New York, running track and cross country, studying Financial Management.

“Iona was the first college that I looked at. I knew it was close to New York, and part of the attraction is that we’re a 30-minute train drive into Grand Central, and that’s nice. Iona is a quiet area, but we’re still close to the city.

“But it’s certainly no holiday. When I tell people I’m in New York they get so jealous, as if it’s a permanent holiday. It’s not like that at all. The training is intense, but doing it with the team it is also a lot of fun. It is hard work, but you enjoy it.

“And overall I would say it was the best decision of my life. It’s been a rollercoaster, because when you are injured, you do spend a lot of time on your own. My senior year it all came together, and you forget about the lows then, and it has been a great experience. It’s opened so many opportunities, and even though it has been difficult at times, I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.

“For the first few years there were always tears at the airport. Now it’s just like, ‘see you later!’ My advice would always be to give it a shot. If you come for a year and you don’t like it you can always come back to Ireland, but the experience here will always stand to you.”

Stephanie Reilly

Wicklow – Providence College, Rhode Island (1997-’01), later ran the 3,000m steeplechase in the 2012 London Olympics, now back at Providence as assistant coach, alongside Ray Treacy.

“I was very aware of Providence due to their incredible success. There were so many great Irish athletes that went to Providence and continued to have great success at the world level and I wanted to be like them and go there too.

“Keeping that connection has always been important for Ray, and he recruits top Irish athletes every year. I was excited to be recruited and delighted to join Providence, being part of a team with like-minded people that were able to balance athletic competition and academic achievement set me up for success when I graduated.

“I think one of the obvious advantages is the opportunity to earn a college degree in a collegiate environment that also exposes you to an incredible depth of athletics and competition that you won’t find in any other collegiate system in the world.

“After graduation, finding a job and starting a family became my priority. Running was always a positive force in my life and I continued to run as my lifestyle allowed. This attitude continued after the birth of our two sons. In 2007, after our second son was born, I started coaching at the collegiate level and fell in love with the career.

“When the position at Providence became available I was delighted Ray asked me to join his staff. I am really looking forward to helping build teams that can win future national titles.”

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics