As footballing pedigrees go, they don’t come much purer than Sarah Rowe’s. The Ballina-born 21-year-old grew up listening to stories told by her grandfather Paddy Jordan – a member of the famous 1951 Mayo All-Ireland winning team.
It may well have been written in the stars that she herself would wear the green and red of Mayo ever since she started playing for Mayo under-12’s when she was 10 years old but it’s taken a lot of hard work, grit and sheer determination to get to the top of her game.
Sarah, who lives in Dublin and is currently studying for a degree in biology and PE at Dublin City University, is not just a serious football player, she also started playing international soccer for Ireland when she was 13. She plays soccer for Shelbourne United in Dublin too. But this summer she’s concentrating her efforts on Gaelic with both her home club of Ballina and with the Mayo ladies football team.
“I’m giving Mayo everything I have this summer,” says Sarah on a break from one of her multiple weekly training sessions. Her training is tapering down given the time of year but she still does three pitch sessions and two gym sessions a week. There could also be a club match thrown in for good measure but for Sarah this is less chaotic than when she’s juggling her soccer training too.
Gaelic football is imprinted deeply in her DNA and her grandfather, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 87, was a huge influence. “My grandad Paddy Jordan was on the team that won the 1951 All Ireland football final and that’s really important to me. I remember him so much when I was younger. He was always so into the football. We were all so proud of him,” says Sarah.
Her love of all things sport happened at a young age and Sarah was running, playing football and anything else she could for as long as she can remember. And she realises this fever she had for sport was different in her than in her friends. “I had to recognise that I was different from my friends. I was addicted to the feeling of progress. I love the feeling of winning after putting in a lot of hard work – I love that feeling of earning it,” she says.
Growing up with two older sisters Lorna (29) and Fiona (24), Sarah says her mum, Grainne, and dad, Alan, didn’t push her but always encouraged her. It’s something she thinks is important for parents to take on board – don’t push too hard.
“I think it’s important for parents to encourage but pushing too hard can push kids off the Richter scale and they don’t stick with it,” says Sarah.
For her, the beauty of playing Gaelic football is that it’s local and people tend to stay with their club for life, allowing strong friendships to develop. The friendships are something that Sarah comes back to again and again, seeing these as one of the best things about playing team sport.
“You make really good friends in the GAA – friends you learn a lot from. Other girls on the team, I think they shape you. Growing up where we did in Mayo, you have the likes of Cora Staunton and Yvonne Byrne. They’ve been around the block and they made me look up to them and copy their game. They don’t let it go to their heads. They just take every training session as it comes. They would never underestimate teams and they have taught us all that. They are successful, genuine people and when you hang around people like that, you become that,” says Sarah.
But Sarah knows too that sometimes the pressures of other things in life can become too much and girls fall away from sport. “There’s those years – about the ages of 15/16 that it’s really crucial. People get really into their academics then and get swayed off track. I would have seen girls who were very good and they gave up. They give up and regret it but they feel it’s gone too far to get back. I would say to girls stick with it because you will get so much out of it as a person. Stick with it through school and college – you’ll make friends for life”.
“I think sport also teaches you better time management. When you’re studying you’re more productive. Being involved in team sports builds your confidence and it builds your friendships,” she says.
“When I was younger I was involved in athletics and gymnastics but I felt they were lonely – I never had the same grá for them. I loved winning with other people. It’s like you’re doing it for each other. I found it much harder with individual sports to motivate myself,” she says.
Sarah is passionate about seeing the women’s game promoted more and the only way to do this, she believes, is through investment. Despite the ongoing success of the Ladies’ Gaelic Football Association’s current advertising campaign, sponsored by Lidl – the retailer has invested €2.5m to date in the women’s game – ladies football is still seen as the poor relation of the men’s game.
As a sportswoman, Sarah is keen to promote the image of the game for other women. And she says in an age of unrealistic body shapes on social media, sports give young women a way of defining themselves that has nothing to do with appearance.
“Young women are looking at picture-perfect images on Instagram. Social media is taking over at the moment. So many of these pictures are fake; they’re perfectly posed and the sooner people realise that the better. Young girls shouldn’t be taken in by them,” says Sarah.
She says sport has added a different dimension to her life; one that doesn’t involve being focused on how she looks.
“I do look at Instagram and I do look at social media but I keep it to a minimum. The main thing is distinguishing between the realism and how fake it can be. It can bring out insecurities,” she says.
“I think it’s important to be happy in yourself and not to compare yourself to other people. You have to remember that there are things about you that are special.
“In sport you learn a lot about yourself and you become more confident. You have to be comfortable in front of groups of people. Being involved in a team – I’ve seen so many different types of people and we all accept each other for who we are. Every single person on the team is important and that gives you a feeling of self-worth. You are part of it and you have that feeling of being happy in your own skin. It’s beyond the whole idea of how you look,” says Sarah.
Despite spending much of her life in training gear, Sarah says she loves getting into a dress and make-up for a night out. She says it’s a running joke with her team mates how she likes to dress up.
To keep in top condition, Sarah says she eats healthily but doesn’t restrict anything. “I try to be consistent. I’d say my diet is good 80pc of the time. I like food and I eat a lot of food and it’s mostly good food. I’ve learned over the years what works. You hear about this diet and that diet but I need to eat a lot of food. It’s fuel for the body especially during the winter,” she says.
“I’d consider myself health conscious. The main thing is to listen to your body and when you’re hungry, eat. That and staying consistent is important.
“The people who starve themselves and restrict the foods they love are the people who end up with bad health. I’d say allow yourself treats and keep it consistent. I know what suits my body. I eat protein with every meal, lots of vegetables, porridge, potatoes and sweet potatoes. I say everything in moderation.”
Sarah doesn’t buy into the whole “clean eating” idea which by its nature labels foods ‘good’ and ‘bad’. “I think everything in moderation is okay. In the last few years it’s got way too complicated.
“When I was younger I ate whatever I wanted. Don’t get me wrong I’ve tried things like not eating as many carbs but I found what works for me is not depriving myself of anything. I would have a drink – a few drinks won’t kill me. If I have a McDonald’s it’s not going to be the end of the world,” she says.
For now being on top of her game is top of the priority list for Sarah. At the moment she’s not focusing on relationships. “I’m taking a step back from all that. It’s nice to be able to focus on myself,” she says.
* For more information on the GAA go to gaa.ie and see the “get involved section”. Also www.lidl.ie/serioussupport
Health & Living
This article appeared on Independent.ie