Ireland’s women take centre stage – and medals – across sporting world

From hockey to boxing, soccer to camogie, Ireland’s women are tasting sporting success like never before, writes  Joyce Fegan

Between the women’s senior hockey team making sporting history this year as the only Irish side to make a senior World Cup final in any field sport, and after four teenage girls won silver at the U20 World Championships, there are sports stars shining bright across the board, giving youngsters more role models than ever before.

A stellar sporting year continued yesterday as Cork-based Sanita Puspure, 36, won gold in the women’s single sculls final at the World Championships in Bulgaria.

Hockey, rowing, and athletics aside, there have been many other achievements this year by women in sport, including Modest! Golf agency (owned by pop star Niall Horan) signing its first female golfers — twins Lisa and Leona Maguire, who not only turned professional but also attracted very impressive sponsors.

The last two weekends have showcased the rapid-fire games of women’s football and camogie with the All-Ireland finals and last night saw an entire TV documentary dedicated to a single female athlete — Cora Staunton, the 36-year-old Mayo footballer who went professional by taking up Australian rules football at 35 years of age.

Cora — The Greatest aired on TG4 and was created by a female producer, the Emmy-nominated Shauna Keogh.

Next month, Cora will also become the first female GAA star to release an autobiography.

With barriers being broken in all sports, we take a look at female athletes who are inspiring a nation as well as a new generation.

Hockey: Sarah Torrans

At just 19 years, and having not only played but also scored in a World Cup, Sarah Torrans was the youngest member of Ireland’s senior hockey team in London this summer who claimed silver medals after a historic final.

Playing hockey since the age of seven, Torrans got her first cap for the senior side last autumn and when the World Cup came around this summer, the forward was selected by coach Graham Shaw for the squad.

She’s had a meteoric rise through the underage set-up, making a breakout performance last October when Ireland’s senior team played Scotland in a test game.

Before joining the senior team, the Dubliner had captained the U18s side. She cited this as a “career high” and said her goal was to play in a World Cup — something which came to pass just a year later.

Sarah was a real constant threat up there (in the forwards). When you have that speed, it’s really exciting to see her use it. We feel her skillset and the physicality she has is so suited to international hockey,” said Shaw at the time of her breakout performance in October 2017.

These last two years have been all the more remarkable for Torrans as she had to sit out almost nine months of sport due to a knee injury.

Still a university student and with a World Cup medal already in her trophy cabinet, the sky’s the limit for Torrans. Her advice to younger players?

Never give up. Yesterday’s setbacks are today’s triumphs.

Camogie: Orla Cronin

In 2012, at the tender age of 16, Orla Cronin got the call-up to Cork’s senior camogie team.

Cronin had been playing with her club in Enniskeane and been involved with the county’s minor team.

In 2012, when manager Paudie Murray called her up to his senior side, Cork were defeated in the final by Wexford.

Cronin was listed as one of the substitutes for the final and her player profile in the match programme simply read:

Secondary school student, member of the Cork minor panel.

Fast-forward six years and Cronin is the holder of four All-Ireland senior medals, from 2014, 2015, 2017, and 2018. In each of these finals, she has been both a points scorer and named player of the match.

All of this has been accomplished while playing camogie for UCC, studying for a degree in physiology, and working part-time, though college, in Cork Opera House.

Cronin’s typical training involves two to three sessions a week, one ball alley practice, and either a match or another training session come the weekend.

She has said the most challenging part of her life is juggling the demands of sports, college, and work, but that the best part about being an inter-county player is playing at the highest standard and making friends for life.

The best piece of advice she has ever been given? “Keep your squats low and your standards high.”

Football: Noëlle Healy

At 27 years of age, Dr Noëlle Healy has a degree in medicine and three All Stars under her belt, and there is still plenty more to say about the Dublin footballer and anaesthesiologist.

In last September’s All-Ireland senior football final against Mayo, which saw Dublin win by four goals, the forward performed out of her skin to earn player of the match.

This was all done against record crowds at Croke Park, with 46,286 people in attendance before playing in front of 50,141 in yesterday's win over Cork.

She received All Stars in 2014 and 2016 and last year earned her third, to be named Players’ Player of the Year. In doing so, she became the first Dublin player to win the senior award.

The Castleknock woman has been playing football for more than 14 years, rising up to senior level in 2007 at the age of just 16.

Having played all the way through her degree and placement, football meant Healy would be studying early in the morning and training three nights a week. She has described the juggling of her study, placement, and training as a “delicate balance.”

Her steely determination and remarkable achievements, both on and off the field, can perhaps be traced back to 2002, when her father brought her along to watch Cora Staunton and Mayo lift the All-Ireland title at the expense of Monaghan.

Fifteen years later, Healy found herself on the pitch against Staunton and playing a key role as Dublin reined victorious in 2017’s All-Ireland final.

Healy believes that “if you put the hard work in, you get the rewards”.

Soccer: Leanne Kiernan

At 19, Leanne Kiernan has just signed her first professional contract with West Ham United in London.

Growing up on a pig farm in Cavan, Kiernan made her senior international debut two years ago and rose to fame when she scored a hat-trick for Shelbourne United in the women’s FAI Cup final in 2016.

Now playing in the Women’s Super League, the star has played for Ireland at U17 and U19 levels, scoring nine goals in 10 competitive internationals, before making her senior debut against Wales in 2017.

Making the move to West Ham this summer, the forward described the change as “very different.”

“Every summer, my job used to be at home looking after the pigs, but now things are very different,” she said.

Her new club described her as Ireland’s “brightest prospect”.

“West Ham United Ladies have beaten off the challenge of a host of Europe’s top clubs to sign highly rated Republic of Ireland forward Leanne Kiernan,” read the club’s statement when they signed her this summer.

Kiernan has long been considered Irish football’s brightest prospect, with scouts flocking to Dublin to see her score goals galore for Women’s National League club Shelbourne Ladies.

At home, she was instrumental in Ireland’s qualifying campaign for the 2019 Fifa Women’s World Cup.

She’s been described as both a “teen prodigy” and incredibly modest by former teammates so as role models go, her advice could turn out be priceless.

To younger players, she says: “Train hard and believe in yourself. Believe that you can get to that level and that you can do it.

Rugby: Katie Heffernan

Katie Heffernan has just turned 20, but the college student has been playing rugby with senior sides for two years already. Heffernan was first called up to Ireland’s Women’s Sevens squad in September 2016.

This September, her team won bronze, after taking third place in the Rugby Europe Women’s Sevens Grand Prix Series.

It was 2015 that proved to be Heffernan’s breakout year, when she was picked for the U18 Leinster squad and got her first cap when she lined out for Ireland’s Sevens at U18 level, playing all matches in the tournament and becoming one of the top try scorers for the Irish side.

Then last year, at 19 years of age, the Westmeath player made the squad for the World Women’s Sevens series, where she scored a try in her team’s match against Japan.

All of this led to Heffernan winning a place in this year’s Six Nations side, where we placed joint-third in the spring tournament.

Her career began in her home county of Westmeath where she has been playing for Mullingar RFC. As well as rugby, the business student has been a keen camogie player, where she played with her club St Munna’s from a young age and Westmeath minors and juniors.

The 20-year-old has been described as a “superstar” who is very “easy-going” but has “super speed” and a “cunning” side-step.

Her advice to younger players: “I’d tell her girls of any shape or size can play rugby. I’d tell her about what rugby has to offer and that it is a great game to play.

Athletics: Molly Scott, Gina Akpe-Moses, Ciara Neville, Patience Jumbo-Gula

These four young women made history for Ireland this summer when they won a silver sprint medal at the U20 World Championships.

The 4x100m relay team recorded a run time of 43.90 seconds at the International Association of Athletics

Federations World Championships in Finland in July, also setting a new national relay record.

The result marked the first major outdoor championships relay medal in Irish athletics history and is just the latest success in the blossoming story of underage athletics in Ireland.

Prior to the race, Ireland had won just two medals in the history of the U20 World Championships.

What makes the silver medal even more remarkable is that the team were hit by a last-minute injury, which saw Ciara Neville stepping into the blocks at a late stage to replace an injured Rhasidat Adeleke, who is just 15 years of age.

She ran in the semi-final but halfway through her 100m, felt her hamstring constrict and give way. This was after she had already won 200m gold at the European U18 championships the weekend before.

In a sport of inches and milliseconds, the relay team’s historic victory was made by a perfect storm of talent, one which predicts a very bright and exciting future for Irish athletics.

And while silver is remarkable, the quartet was only a fraction of time behind winners Germany, who crossed the line at 43.82 seconds, 0.8 of a second ahead of the Irish.

Swimming: Mona McSharry

For 18-year-old Mona McSharry, the early mornings paid off. Between breaking national records and making history, the swim star won gold for Ireland in the 2017 World Junior Championships, coming first in the 100m breaststroke.

Her success has been underpinned by a 4.30am wake-up call to stretch and train before school.

McSharry’s swimming career began after a fall into a pool on holidays, with her parents vowing to get her lessons when they returned home to Sligo. Aged eight, Mona joined Marlins Swimming Club in Ballyshannon, Co Donegal.

While she was noted for her focus, it was the combination of winning a tightly contested race a few years later and watching the London Olympics in 2012 that ignited her real passion.

This summer McSharry swam at the European Championships in Edinburgh where she advanced as far as the semi-finals for the 50m breaststroke, but unfortunately did not secure a place in the finals.

As far as resilience goes, the 100m breaststroke world champion has already proven her ability to bounce back, going by her post-swim interview.

She said “you can’t always be on top” but what you can do is “hope” for better. While this season did not end as sweetly for the teenager, McSharry is “so excited” to resume training for 2019 and will “jump back into it”.

Showjumping: Ella Quigley, Charlotte Houston, Katie Power, and Seamus Hughes-Kennedy

The teenager foursome made history this month as the U16 pony showjumping team of three girls and one boy, were crowned World Champions in Belgium.

They ended up sharing a zero scoreline with host country Belgium, with both teams having to compete in a “jump-off” for a clear winner to be declared. That team was Ireland and so the teenagers won the Youth Nations Cup.

The team had been unbeaten throughout the season, taking home victories in Germany and the Netherlands on their way to the final this month.

Irish team manager Gary Marshall said he was “delighted” with the riders, adding that “we have made history winning the first ever Youth Nations Cup final”.

He also thanked the teenagers’ parents, saying it was a “big undertaking to travel to all of these events around Europe”.

The CEO of Horse Sport Ireland, Ronan Murphy, described the young riders as “incredibly consisted” and said they had “cemented their position as the top nation”.

Golf: Leona and Lisa Maguire

After more than a decade of playing stunning golf, and long tipped as ones to watch for the future, Cavan twins Leona and Lisa Maguire, 23, turned professional this summer. They signed with Niall Horan’s management agency, Modest! Golf.

They are the first Irish golfers and first females to sign with the former One Direction bandmate’s agency.

They also signed lucrative sponsorship agreements and join Allianz as golf ambassadors, alongside former Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley. Their other sponsors include Puma Golf, Ping, and KPMG.

Separately they each hold impressive records. Leona holds the record for most weeks at No 1 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking (135 weeks), breaking the mark set by Lydia Ko. She also holds the record for career scoring average in Division I golf at 70.93.

Lisa has 16 amateur titles to her name, including victories at the European Ladies Amateur Championship and Spanish Ladies Amateur in 2011.

The sisters attended Duke University in North Carolina and deferred going professional until after they had finished their studies, despite keen interest from outside parties.

While their careers have grown in tandem, with one winning different trophies to the other, Leona said that having been “best friends for life”, they will each “root” for one another in whatever professional gold may bring.

Boxing: Daina Moorehouse

Heralded as the next Katie Taylor, not just because of her talent but also because she goes to the same school as the Olympic gold medalist attended, Daina Moorhouse is making a big name for herself in the world of boxing.

The 16-year-old started off fifth year at St Kilian’s Community School as a two-time European champion. She beat the Russian Ksenia Becshastnova at the European Youth Championships in Rosetta, Italy, last April to claim gold.

Separate to Europe, the Bray native and Enniskerry Boxing Club member is a six-time Irish champion and has another year to go before she graduates from youth level.

Her ascent through boxing’s ranks has been pretty seamless and in 2017, light-flyweight didn’t lose a single round, let alone a single fight. This could have been down to her regimented routine throughout her third year in school, which included running 8km every morning before school, then attending after-school study for three hours; this was followed by training in her club at 7pm.

In 2017, aged 15, Daina was one of the youngest members of Team Ireland.

She was also selected as team captain for the European Youth Boxing Championships.

All of this has been achieved somewhat by chance, after Daina accidentally fell into boxing, as she used to go along to collect her brother from his training sessions five years ago. She decided to take up the sport and then fell in love with it.

Even if Daina wasn’t aware of her talent from the get-go, her coach Paul O’Toole said others were.

Everyone knew from the first night (of training) she had a spark, she had that footwork. She was always there and never missed training. She’s just an amazing young girl,” he said.

The next big focus will be the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, just two months after she will have finished her Leaving Certificate.

Sailing: Joan Mulloy

Joan Mulloy is aiming to sail single-handedly around the globe, that’s without any assistance whatsoever.

If she achieves this goal, in the Vendée Globe Race 2020, she will be the first ever Irish woman to do so.

The 31-year-old Mayo woman has been sailing since the age of eight, but having studied civil engineering, she got busy working in the oil and gas industry. The desk life was not for her and in 2014, she heard of a few spaces going on a boat that was taking part in the Round Ireland Yacht Race.

Mulloy got her slot and by the time she’d made her way around the island, the skipper asked her to join his professional crew on a 70ft yacht.

There would even be pay, 8% of what she’d earned through her engineering job. Mulloy took it and raced the yacht around Britain, Ireland, the Atlantic, and the Caribbean.

Four years later, the engineer has taken to sailing solo. She is currently racing a 30ft Figaro Benetau.

Mulloy did her first race as a solo professional last March and also brought a boat from the south of Portugal to Galway earlier this year.

She saw only a cargo ship and a fin whale during the voyage. Getting used to her own company will also be part of the training for 2020, as the globe race is 90 days of uninterrupted alone time, a dream for many, but for Mulloy it’s set to become a reality.

Paralympics: Nicole Turner

She may have only recently turned 16, but Nicole Turner has managed to achieve quite a lot already.

Having started out swimming with her local club Laois Marlins, Nicole was called up to the senior Paralympic swimming scene at just 14.

In 2015, she won a silver medal in the youth category at the British International in the 50m butterfly.

She competed in her first major senior international championships at the 2015 Para Swimming World Championships in Glasgow, where she competed in six events and made the final of each one.

Turner represented Ireland again at the 2016 Para Swimming European Open Championships where she swam in six finals, bringing home silver in both the 200m individual medley and the 100m breaststroke, as well as a bronze in the 50m butterfly.

Then at her first Paralympic Games in 2016, Nicole competed in five events, again qualifying for the final in every one.

Nicole was the youngest member of Team Ireland at Rio 2016, and was chosen as flag bearer to lead the team into the closing ceremony.

This has all been achieved after Nicole was born with the rare condition Hypochondroplasia.

Before swimming I was known as ‘the small girl’ from a little town. Now I’m known as a Paralympic swimmer,” she said.

This summer, at the World Para Allianz European Swimming championship she claimed silver in the women’s 50m butterfly.

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