Champion rower Ailish Sheehan dies days after freak fall

Ailish Sheehan, after winning her medal. Picture: Declan Hehir

One of Ireland’s brightest future hopes in world rowing, has died six days after sustaining critical head injuries in a fall, only hours after winning a bronze medal at the FISU World University Rowing Championships, in Poznan, Poland.

Ailish Sheehan, 23, from Kildimo, Co Limerick, suffered catastrophic injuries after she slipped and fell while out celebrating her victory with friends.

Last Sunday, Ailish and the rest of her teammates, Rebecca Edwards, Annie Withers, and Gillian Cooper, came third for Great Britain in the Women’s Senior Coxed Fours. Having secured dual citizenship, the rising sports star had rowed for both Ireland and England.

Irish Olympian Sinead Jennings, a former teammate of Ailish, described the Limerick athlete as “one of the most talented I’ve ever met”.

“It’s absolutely awful. I rowed with Ailish in 2013 when we won the senior [pairs] together. She is an amazing girl. She was so bright and so full of life and energetic,” she said.

“I think we are all in shock — we can’t believe it has happened really. She had such a future ahead of her. She was such a lovely girl. To think she was just out celebrating, as anybody would be, after winning the bronze medal. It just shouldn’t have happened.”

Via its website, the British Universities & Colleges Sport (BUCS) stated it is “deeply saddened to report the death of Ailish Sheehan... a postgraduate student at Goldsmiths, University of London, representing the University of London Boat Club”.

Vince Mayne, BUCS chief executive, added: “On behalf of everyone at BUCS, I wish to extend our condolences to the family and friends of Ailish and our thoughts are with them at this difficult time.”

A close friend of the Sheehan family said: “Everyone is in shock. She was so bubbly, so full of life, so determined.”

Ms Sheehan’s family, including her parents John and Catherine, and sisters Niamh and Aine, had been keeping a vigil for the last six days at her hospital bedside.

Ailish had been a member of St Michael’s Rowing a Club, Limerick; Dooneen Athletics Club, Co Limerick, and most recently with University of London Rowing Club.

Phil Roche, Dooneen Club president, described her as “an all rounder”.

Her father John, a native of Bandon, is well known in both athletic and GAA circles, having played minor hurling with Cork and St Mary’s in London in the 1970s. He previously trained the Limerick senior hurling squad, and was a PE teacher at St Clements secondary school, Limerick. He is also a trainer with Kildimo GAA Club. Ailish’s mother Catherine is a nurse, and her sister Niamh recently qualified as a speech therapist.

It is the second major tragedy to strike the family. John’s brother Jim was left paralysed following a crash about 20 years ago, which claimed the life of his wife — Catherine’s sister.

Family friends and neighbours in Bruff — where the Sheehans raised their three daughters and their nephew, Conor — said they were “devastated”.

The grief-stricken community had earlier in the week held a prayer and meditation service in the local park .

“It’s so sad. She had packed so much into her 23 years. She achieved so much. Most of us wouldn’t reach the heights she did in our lifetime,” a family friend said.

Another former neighbour described Ailish as been “full of life, and full of go and full of craic”. “She was always very competitive — she had to be, to get on the rowing team and to win her bronze medal,” they added.

Ailish’s devastated family are preparing arrangements to repatriate her body back home where she will be laid to rest in the coming days.


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