Basketball is deeply embedded in Marrianna Troy’s DNA.
Her New Jersey-born dad Kelvin is one of Irish basketball’s most cherished adopted sons.
Sports Illustrated ranked him among America’s top five college defenders during a collegiate career that saw him once put manners on Larry Bird, and the fifth-round NBA draftee arrived on these shores in the mid-’80s with a personality that was just as dazzling as his skills in the paint.
He met his Dublin wife Anne through basketball and, from childhood, all four of their kids were hard-wired to the hard-court and Killester BC.
Like the rest of her siblings ‘Mimi’ won schools’ All-Irelands and county titles and played for Ireland at underage (U16) level.
Then her mother died and her hoop joy faded.
Troy says: “It’s funny. We have a court at home but it wasn’t my dad who pushed us to go outside. I think he wanted us to have that work ethic from within.
“My mom was always the one pushing us to play. I was a ‘Billie Barry kid’ when I was younger — one of those dancer/performers — but my mom would say ‘you should do basketball! It’s a great team sport and you get the chance to travel the world.’”
Basketball eventually gave Troy educational opportunities too but when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, she opted to take up only an academic scholarship at Weber State in Utah, knowing that a collegiate sports commitment would compromise her ability to come home whenever necessary.
Her eldest brother was abroad on a two-year mission (the family are Mormons), her older sister Alexandra (who played two years of Division One ball in America) was studying medicine and her younger brother John was still in school so she took on a lot of the responsibility for her mother’s care.
She studied accountancy and played pick-up ball for fun with her college mates while Anne’s health fluctuated.
She had good periods of remission but, by the time Mimi had graduated in 2016, the cancer was still spreading and the prognosis was not good.
Troy says: “She was such a strong woman. She’d never let you believe she was that sick. She was getting radiation on her neck, close to her brain and she’d come home and be out cutting the lawn. She never let anything keep her down. Herself and my dad were matched when it came to that.”
Mimi moved back to Belfast with her boyfriend (now husband) Paul Dick who was playing professionally in Madrid then so his mum Breda (nee Grennell), who was coaching Belfast Rockets, persuaded her to join their Division One side.
With typical candour, Troy says: “I never wanted to play Division 1. I always wanted to play Superleague, that’s how competitive I am. But I knew I was going to be going over to Spain every other week and my mom’s health was deteriorating so I wouldn’t have much time.
“Breda had said ‘you can’t marry my son unless you play for me!’” she says. “So I was kinda playing for fun which was new to me because previously I loved basketball because I was good at it. I loved the adrenalin rush and I needed the competitive fix. That’s probably my dad in me!”
The Rockets reached the cup semi-finals before Christmas 2016 but, over the holiday period, her mum was told it was a matter of months, “and that was it for me. I wasn’t playing anymore because I wanted to spend all my time with her.”
Yet, in the new year, her mother insisted she go to Cork for the semi-finals and, again, woke up on cup final day and asked the daughter at her bedside, “Should you not be in the National Arena by now?’ insisting she depart immediately to Tallaght.
It’s hard to imagine the wretched inner turmoil of playing in a cup final and, literally, checking your mother’s health on your phone at every time-out, but that’s what Troy did that day in 2017 because it was what Anne wanted.
When her warrior mum died two weeks later the warrior spirit in her daughter also dimmed and she hasn’t played competitively since.
Mimi says: “Basketball was always very family orientated for me. My mom and dad travelled all around the country watching us all play. I can’t recall a time when they weren’t there.
“I just associate basketball with my family. Everything about it reminds me of her and I just didn’t want anything more to do with it.”
Killester’s coach Karl Kilbride approached her the following September to return but she still couldn’t stomach it.
“I really missed it, still do. I don’t know anything other than playing basketball. That was my whole identity. I wanted so badly to play but I just couldn’t take the step to do it. It was kind of the end of an era.”
Only now can she admit how much she struggled after her mother’s death, floored by grief for at least a year. “I was just really suffering, physically and mentally. I wasn’t eating and, for the first time in my life, I didn’t want to work out. I didn’t want to feel good. I kinda felt that if I felt good that was me forgetting about my mom,” says Troy.
Her weight dropped three sizes, from an average 147 pounds to 101. Even when she realised she had to turn things around, simply stepping back into a gym was conflicting.
She says: “I thought ‘what’s the point?’ My mom led a really healthy life and she died young.’ I was actually having those kind of thoughts.”
It doesn’t take a psychologist to figure that inner battle and antipathy was also probably interwoven with the fact that her father, a healthy professional athlete, had himself suffered liver failure in the early ‘90s and needed a transplant.
However, eventually Troy refound the joy of exercise.
“It wasn’t easy, I just felt so weak. For the first time in my life I was looking around the gym feeling insecure. Before that I always felt ‘I’m an athlete, I kinda run the show around here’. I wasn’t superior or anything, just very confident in a gym,” she says.
“When I went back I had no confidence. I’d very little weight on the squat rack compared to other girls and felt inferior and insecure.
“But I thought, ‘I’ve got to keep going.’ I kept thinking if I work out and eat well I won’t die young and I need to sustain this habit for life. Having that goal helped and here I am today, still doing it.”
That is why Troy is such a passionate advocate for the new 20x20 campaign, billed No Proving Just Moving — designed to help women form a new and lasting habit of exercising, even if competitive sport is not their thing.
Troy says: “I had followed the 20x20 campaign last year but thought that because I didn’t play a sport anymore I couldn’t be a part of it. Now I can and I want to be part of it to prove to women that being physically active builds confidence and self-esteem and so much more.
“I especially want to show women that it’s not about how you look but about how great exercise makes you feel.
“From a young age, magazines and billboards have images of women with, what for most of us, is an unattainable body. You never see someone that’s like you so it’s really important to show women that it’s not just about one body type. Exercise is about how it’s making you feel and your overall well-being.
“After a month or two of working out, I felt like myself again. Regardless of the muscle I was putting on I was just feeling so much better about myself. I also found I wasn’t procrastinating any more!” she says.
“I had more energy to do things, more of that get-up-and-go attitude that I hadn’t had for a long time. With all the business and hectic schedules of our lives now it can all feel a bit uncontrollable at times, but I realised that one thing you can control is how you treat your body. I realised I had to get back to myself, to what I know.”
These days she exercises four times a week, sometimes five; lifting weights three days and cardio the other two.
“This campaign is targeted for all women, of all abilities, sporty backgrounds or not. It recognises the challenges that women face daily and hopes to inspire them to get out every day and just get moving and enjoying exercise,” Troy says.
Last weekend she joined sister Alex — a doctor on the frontline in Beaumont Hospital throughout this Covid-19 crisis — and friends for an action-packed activity weekend in Westport that included horse-riding, kayaking, and climbing Croagh Patrick.
She is still grieving her mum and hasn’t returned to competitive basketball but exercise, and sharing it with others, is also central in her family’s heritage and has been the key to helping her rediscover her health and her joy.
- As 20x20 partner, Lidl has created an online resource, Lidl Moves, to help women form and track their new exercise habit over a 21-day period. See lidl.ie/20x20