True sacrifice from Ireland’s pool of talent

When it comes to appreciating the commitment of elite GAA players, their rugby counterparts are among their biggest admirers.

Recently Leinster’s Eamonn Sheridan compared his preparatory levels with that of his cousin Joe, the Meath footballer, and found they were virtually the same — only Joe had to hold down another day job as well.

“I have so much respect for Joe and GAA players,” he said. “Us rugby players don’t know how they do it.”

Shane Horgan is in an even better position to recognise the effort they each put in. Horgan played minor football for Meath before embarking on one of the great Irish rugby careers. Yet this past six months or so, Horgan has got to know of another group of athletes. As part of his effort to come back from injury and squeeze out another couple of years of a terrific career, Horgan has spent a lot of his time swimming. He’s found it a great and enjoyable way of maintaining his fitness, but what’s really struck him about the sport is the commitment even schoolkids give to it.

Last week, on the eve of the national long course championships, Horgan spoke to the national high performance unit in his new role as an ambassador of Swim Ireland.

“I can’t tell you how much admiration I have for you guys,” he told them. “In rugby we’re lucky that it’s one of the major sports in the country; we’re up there with GAA and soccer and we get a lot of attention. But if it came to rating who works hardest in their sport, I have no doubt that swimming would be up there, and as a result I feel you deserve to be up there.”

One of the swimmers that would have made up Horgan’s audience was Shani Stallard. She’d just turned 18 that day. How did she celebrate that landmark birthday? She was in bed that night at 9pm. Most evenings she’s in bed by 8pm.

Last year her friend Gráinne Murphy was having lunch in a Dublin restaurant with her agent when the agent recognised one of the ‘stars’ of the reality show Fade Street.

Murphy didn’t know of it. When and what channel was it on? Sometime after 10 on RTÉ, she was told. “Haven’t seen it — I’m in bed by then,” said Murphy matter-of-factly, as if her self-determined curfew was as normal as not taking sugar with her tea.

What’s normal for them? Getting up at 4.30 in the morning. Having a slice of toast and cup of tea — “I’m a big fan of my cup of tea,” smiles the affable Stallard — before being at the poolside at the University of Limerick Arena by 5am. For half an hour then they’ll warm up under the watchful eye of coach Ronald Claes before hitting the water for two hours and then finishing with 30 minutes of stretching and injury prevention work.

By 9.30am, Stallard is in the nearby Castletroy College where she’s studying for her Leaving Cert. After school, she’ll get in another hour in the gym, before studying for a couple of hours and having her dinner, over which she’ll get in maybe a recorded episode of Home and Away, the one bit of television she treats herself to. After that, there’s no hour on the net or Facebook. It’s lights out, resting up for that next 5am pool session.

The thing about it is, she doesn’t feel as if she’s missing out on anything much. “I have a lot of friends in the sport while my other close friends don’t have a problem with me when I say I can’t do or make something because I have training. This isn’t for everyone. You really have to want it. But I enjoy pushing myself, seeing all the hard work coming off.”

There have been hard decisions. To get 20 hours in the pool every week, Stallard had to leave her home in Kilkenny to move full-time to Limerick and stagger her Leaving Cert over two years.

London might be an Olympic cycle too soon for her. But you never know. Last weekend she won the national women’s 200m breaststroke final inside the senior European championships qualifying time, meaning she’ll be competing at those games in Hungary in May.

Last month her fellow county man Brian Cody rightly reminded everyone that it’s not so much a sacrifice as a choice young men make to play inter-county GAA, just as Shani Stallard views her lifestyle as a choice.

Think of the effort Stallard is putting in and how little profile she receives, compared to even your middling county player whose “hardship” we’re continuously told is unsustainable.

Pat Gilroy has similarly put the dedication of the county player into perspective, noting that below your Stallards and Murphys, you have hundreds of other teenage swimmers all around the country up at 4.30 every morning to get to the pool without any hullabaloo.

With emerging talents like Murphy and Stallard, maybe our swimmers will gain more recognition.

In the meantime, the rest of us should realise county players have no monopoly in the dedication stakes.

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