Handball only started out as a way of expending some of her bountiful supply of energy during the camogie off-season, Martina McMahon following her brother Tom to the alley up the road in Cappagh where she first played the sport in the winter months. Soon enough, though, it became a whole lot more than a filler-in on her calendar, the young Limerick girl was smitten. A decade and a half on, her passion for it shows no sign of abating.
It helps, of course, that she’s now one of the greatest handball players in the world.
But until she "tagged along" with Tom all she'd heard about the sport was chat from her mother and grandmother about watching Top Ace on RTÉ back in the 1970s and 1980s, the programme that gave handball the kind of profile it could only dream of now.
Once she began playing it, she was hooked. And, in time, she left behind her inter-county camogie career to focus on it.
“I fell in love with it from day one – and I love it to this day. Handball is my life. There’s just something about it, you’re just watching that ball and chasing it, you’re nearly like a hamster running around the wheel,” she says with a laugh.
These days, though, it can be a battle to squeeze that passion into her daily routine. It was a little easier when she was a student at University of Limerick, but once she graduated in 2017, with a first class degree in biomedical engineering, the more regimented world of work made it a challenge to find enough hours in the day to get out on that court.
It doesn’t make it any easier that driving to her workplace every day involves a four-hour return trip. She’s up soon after 5am, leaving her Newcastle West home in Limerick to head for Ringaskiddy south of Cork city where she works for DePuy Synthes, a manufacturer of orthopaedic products.
“Once the bell rings at work I’m out the door, heading for home. My mother has the dinner on the table, I wolf it down and then it’s straight to training. Then home, bed, up again, repeat that for the five days of the week. It takes a lot of commitment, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
But, as she says herself, “You reap the rewards from what you put in”, and the rewards couldn’t have been much greater in 2018, a year that proved close enough to perfect: three world titles won, as well as all three major domestic crowns across the various handball codes.
“There were times I was going to bed at night and dreaming of a year like that. When you read autobiographies of sports stars that’s what they say, it’s all about your dreams – dream, believe, achieve – that’s basically how it works. And 2018 was definitely a dream year that’ll be hard to ever top again. Yeah, near perfection.”
It was her trip to Minnesota in August for the World Championships that took McMahon to a whole new level. She had travelled there hoping to pick up one title – in the end she collected three after first triumphing in the One-Wall singles and then winning the Four-Wall singles and doubles, the latter with Aisling Reilly of Antrim.
“I wasn’t expecting to win the One-Wall, which is the more popular code internationally, all my training at home would be for the Four-Wall. But I beat Danielle Daskalakis, the top-ranked player in America, in the final, and I suppose there was no stopping me after that. Everything just came together for me.”
When you're at the top all eyes are on you, the hardest thing is definitely staying there
Most of her 2018 successes, at home and abroad, required getting the better of the great Catriona Casey, the Cork woman with whom McMahon has built up a thrilling rivalry. Their St Patrick's Day meeting in last year's All-Ireland singles final was widely regarded by the sport's connoisseurs as the one of the greatest women's matches ever played, McMahon winning 21-20 in the third game of an epic encounter.
“It was a match that will go down in history, I suppose,” she says. “At the end we got a standing ovation from the gallery, it was probably the biggest crowd I ever played in front of. There were a few older lads there in their 50s and 60s, so to see them come down and shake our hands was lovely.”
“It’s become such a rivalry now with Catriona. She’s phenomenal, she has a never-give-up, diehard attitude, like myself. We definitely bring out the best in each other and there’s rarely more than a bounce of a ball between us. People are always interested in rivalries no matter what the sport, so I suppose the one I have with Catriona can only do good for handball and get it more attention.”
You need to start trash-talking each other?
“Exactly, we should do a McGregor on it,” she says, laughing.
Live-streaming of events
She talks about how much the sport has grown since she first started playing, giving much of the credit for that to GAA Handball, its governing body. "They've put in great work promoting it, the men's and ladies' equally. The live-streaming of events has really kicked off and there are initiatives introducing One-Wall as a PE sport to schools, which is brilliant to see. It would be great if we could get back on television again, that would be a huge boost, even just snitches of it. That Top Ace show was on for half an hour every week, my mam and her friends all watched it – if it was on TV before why can't it be brought back?"
Her meetings with Casey alone would be worth tuning in to, Casey getting the better of McMahon at last weekend’s She’s Ace tournament in Mayo in what is likely to be the first of several encounters this year. McMahon is up for the challenge.
“When you’re at the top all eyes are on you, the hardest thing is definitely staying there,” she says. “I know myself I have plenty of weaknesses, there’s probably another 30 per cent I can work on to improve my game. I’m no way the perfect player yet, I’ve a bit to go. You’re in trouble if you think you’re the best you can be. You just have to work harder than ever to iron out those weaknesses, if you want stay at the top that’s what you have to do. And I’m going to try and stay there. I liked the feeling up here.”