The Big Interview: Louise Galvin is rushing for Rio

Louise Galvin may well be the most versatile sportsperson in Ireland. She has played to an elite standard in three sports. Today, she represents her country in a sport she took up less than two years ago. But no challenge Louise Galvin faces will compare to the tragedy she suffered. No defeat will make her forget how precious life is now...

The Big Interview: Louise Galvin is rushing for Rio

‘Life begins at the end of your comfort zone’ — attributed to Neal Donald Walsh.

Life motto of Alan Feeley, 1985-2013

It’s a different ball that’s been flung at her now. For most of her life when Louise Galvin had been in the thick and thrust of a major sporting event, that ball had been round. She’d been in Croke Park, playing in an All-Ireland senor final, the driving force of the Kerry ladies football team in much the same way her famous namesake and neighbour from Finuge was for the Kerry men’s.

In basketball she’d won multiple national Superleague cups and leagues in the National Basketball Arena in Tallaght with the UL Huskies, as well as standing for the flag there for various Irish teams from underage right up.

Now she’s once more back in green, only the ball that’s been thrown at her is oval.

Though she started her first competitive game of rugby less than 12 months ago, Galvin is already one of the key players of the Irish women’s sevens squad.

This weekend out in UCD they host the World Sevens Series qualifiers, a two-day tournament starting this morning that should be a lot of fun for the couple of thousand that make their way to the bowl and carnival out there, but which for Galvin and her team is a serious step in their bid to qualify for the Olympics next year.

It’s been some change and some journey, from Finuge and football and hoops to suddenly rugby and possibly Rio with it.

But then life — and death — has hurled so much at Louise Galvin.

This rugby thing started with Alan.

They’d known each other well in college, back in the day when she was studying physiotherapy and he was studying PE. Then they’d gone their separate ways until a few summers ago they were brought together again through tag rugby at their alma mater of UL.

She’d been playing it for a few years, as a bit of craic with her friends from work and a way of keeping her sharpness and appetite for the basketball season in the autumn.

As for Alan, he would play and try anything. Sky diving. Scuba diving. Skiing. Bungee jumping. Climb Kilimanjaro. Work for charity in Tanzania. Tag rugby was just another way of exiting his comfort zone and beaming while on the way.

So it was there they met, clicked. Being from Kerry, she was huge into football. Him being from Mayo, so was he. She was a fitness fanatic; so was he. They were both positive, outgoing, fit, fiery, feisty, yet as their professions suggested, hugely caring and serving too; he taught sport and PE in schools, she worked with cystic fibrosis patients. They were kindred spirits, soulmates. What they had was electric, hot, love. Bliss.

She remembers a few of the conversations they had shortly before their lives completely changed. Could life be any better than this? Could they be any happier than this? She’d found someone special, was back playing hoops with a special team and special people, and coming off a really good if not perfect season with Kerry. They’d beaten the great Cork team twice in Munster, lost to them in the All-Ireland semi-final, but were gaining ground.

“I said to him one night, ‘God, things are almost too good!’ And he’d laugh, ‘Don’t be thinking like that!’ Then about a week later he asked me out of the blue did I think something could go wrong. And I said, ‘No! Sure the [All Ireland] semi-final was the bad thing!’ As if that was our quota of misfortune used up. He started laughing at that.”

The second Sunday of November, 2013, Louise Galvin played her first competitive game of rugby. It was for UL Bohs, something again that originated with Alan.

A couple of months earlier the pair of them had watched the Kerry-Dublin All-Ireland semi-final together. Alan was sure it would be Dublin that would win through to play his native Mayo in the final. Louise could only see Kerry prevailing. So they had a bet. If Kerry won and Louise won, Alan would make her lunch every day for the next week. If she and Kerry lost, she’d to go down and train with UL Bohs, just once, and see how it’d go.

“Even that said everything about him,” she says. “He wasn’t looking for something for himself. He was looking for something that would be good for me.” So, because of another late goal from Kevin McManamon, Louise Galvin found herself heading down one midweek evening to her first and possibly last night of full-contact rugby.

Instantly, she loved it; instantly, Alan’s instinct had been right. She thrived in the physicality and novelty and camaraderie of it. Top internationals like Fiona Coghlan and Niamh Briggs and Fiona Hayes were all there but instead of being intimidated she was welcomed. So she went back again. And again. Without advertising it, since basketball season was back up and running too. Rugby was still more of an experiment than a commitment, so her debut wouldn’t be until that Sunday, November 10.

In many ways it went so well. She came on in the second half that day up in Dublin against St Mary’s and ran in two tries in a convincing win.

There’d been a downside to the adventure though. A finger had found itself into her eye. She’d now a black eye. When she went in to work in University Hospital Limerick she was sent down to the eye clinic where they told her that her cornea had been scratched and she was to take the day off and wear an eye patch.

“I rang Alan and told him, ‘Eff you and your rugby! I’ve never taken a sick day in my life and here I am already having just taken up this game!’ He just laughed down the phone.” It also spoiled their workout in the gym that night. Most Monday evenings the pair of them would head down to the UL Arena. This time after dinner she instead took Alan’s huskie Noosa along for a five-mile jog while he headed to the gym with his brother Alan and close friend Dave. Up to then with rugby being just a series of dates rather than a relationship, she’d yet to tell the UL Huskies coaching staff that she was kind of seeing other people as well. How was she going to explain her eye patch to S&C coach Ed Coughlan if he was in the gym?!

“That was my biggest problem that Monday afternoon. That I was off work and figuring out the way to tell the Huskies that I’d been playing rugby.

“Only for that black eye I would have been in the gym with Alan.” A little while after returning with Noosa and feeding him, she popped over to a work colleague’s house, asking how the day had been without her, when her phone rang.

Alan had collapsed with a brain haemorrhage during the very last exercise of his workout. He’d never regain consciousness. In the early hours of the Wednesday morning he’d pass away. He was 28.

The next few months were just a blur for his girlfriend left behind.

“The world stopped. It wasn’t even system overload. It was a system failure.” There was solace in knowing that when Alan lost his own life he would save the livese of five others. Earlier in the year he had been intrigued and inspired by Louise speaking about a cystic fibrosis patient of hers whose life had been transformed upon receiving an organ transplant. He wanted to help. He wanted to sign up. And so that summer of 2013 he got his mother Kathleen to sign his donor card, no one having a notion that it would be called upon so soon.

Afterwards, the transplant doctors would say it was like operating on a Rolls Royce, he was in such physical condition. “It was fantastic,” says Louise, “that he could pass on such a gift to those among the most vulnerable in our society.” That got Louise and Alan’s family and friends thinking. As helpless as they felt that horrible, seemingly interminable winter, maybe there was a way they could raise awareness for organ donations and the benefits of physical exercise while honouring the memory of Alan.

So they established the Alan Feeley Trust. By the following March, she was on the radio with Ryan Tubridy promoting Alan’s Sporting Extravaganza in his alma mater of UL. Within a month there’d been an eight-fold increase in organ donations in Mayo and Limerick, where he’d worked as a PE teacher. When the event took place in August 2014, more than €24,000 had been raised for the Irish Kidney Association. “It was heartbreaking beyond belief, but also a very proud moment for us all.” Sport was the other way she somehow got through. Her fellow UL Huskies were less teammates than a sisterhood and she’ll never forget the support they gave her in that time of need. Their quest for a third consecutive Cup and fourth straight league also gave her a focus, a reason to get out of bed.

“At the start, I struggled badly to summon any desire to train or play,” she’d write in a blog later that season. “Even though I know that’s what Alan would’ve wanted, what the people closest to me wanted to see. But all competitiveness deserted me. Then the first game after Christmas, seven weeks after Alan died, we lost a league game. I played terribly. But for the first time in seven weeks it struck a chord with me that I’d played badly. I was bothered by it. I trained hard that week and played a cup semi-final in Neptune [Stadium] and after the game I realised I had experienced the first semblance of normality since Alan’s passing.” A further fortnight later, UL would face their biggest rivals Glanmire in the Cup final on national TV. The Cork side would shade it, in overtime, in a classic. Prior to Alan’s death, the Huskies had lost only one of their previous 62 competitive games. The rarity and importance of the occasion would normally have devastated Galvin. Instead as she’d watch an ecstatic Gráinne Dwyer go up to collect a Cup Galvin had lifted before, she’d embrace the moment.

“In the past I probably would have burst into tears there on the court, lamenting missed shots, turnovers. Tears don’t flow for sporting losses anymore. I remember standing on the court soaking up the atmosphere and my surroundings.

“I was still raging we’d lost. Yet the overwhelming feeling that I had was just how lucky I was. To have contributed to one of the greatest games ever played in this country, in front of a packed crowd on national TV, to have had my family and friends there, and to be with special teammates and a special coach and know that you were going to go out and drown your sorrows together the same way we’d celebrated winning together.

“It was just a new perspective. For other people it might be only when they’d retire they’d appreciate a moment like that. It just hit me there and then. I realised how fragile life is, how precious moments like that are.”

The Huskies experience is one she’ll especially treasure. It’s where she’d get her first introduction to S&C development, nutritional advice, sport psychology provision. More so, there was the lifelong friendships she’d form with teammates and coach James Weldon.

But the team couldn’t last forever. After five years of travelling up and down from Killarney, Weldon would step down. Rachael Vanderwal would go play pro in Spain. Fiona Lynch retired. Aoife McDermott would move to Dublin. Rachel Clancy and Kathryn Fahy were now focusing more on triathlons. For Galvin it felt time to move on too, especially with no signs of the reestablishment of a senior national team. “Basketball had been a massive part of my life,” she says. “But now I was 27 and realised life was short and that it was now or never if I was to try something new. As Alan used say, life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

Last autumn she returned to UL Bohs for her second-ever game of full rugby. She’d make such a quick impression that by January she’d made it to the last 35 of the national squad for the Six Nations championship. “I still probably didn’t know how to tackle or ruck properly,” she smiles self-deprecatingly, and she wouldn’t make the final cut of 30 but she’d promptly be snapped up by the sevens programme now operating under the remit of the IRFU’s high performance programme that had long had her on their extensive Talent ID radar. With her athleticism skill transferability, she fit the profile and in early March was offered a contract.

It meant leaving Limerick and taking a career break from her job and a Kerry football set-up which she’d loved, but the high-performance athlete in her couldn’t refuse. Now she lives in Dublin, in the same house as three other sevens teammates. She works part-time as a physio, out in Malahide, but essentially she’s a full-time athlete.

She’s thriving in it. In the past she’d have to get up at 6.30am to get a S&C session in before work, and then that evening there’d likely be training with the Huskies or Kerry. Now there’s more time for rest and recovery, less rushed meals. Every workout in the gym is supervised and monitored out of the sevens base in DCU.

Getting used to rugby itself has been the biggest challenge but one she’s been more than up for. While serving her notice at work in Limerick, she contacted an out-half playing with one of the local male AIL Division One clubs and asked him to take her back to basics and go through the mechanism of offloading the ball; where her hands should be, her feet.

For Ed Coughlan, the S&C coach she tried to hide that black eye from, that’s what makes Galvin one of the most supreme athletes in Irish team sport today: her mindset.

“She just has that openness to learn and to challenge herself in areas she’s weak. That’s deliberate practice at work. To have that motivation and that drive that ‘OK, I can’t pass the ball with spin on the move — yet’ and overcoming the urge to work on the stuff you like and are already good at.

“It was the same in basketball. When she’d shoot, there had to be a consequence. So if she missed so many shots, we worked out that she’d have to pay me some money, or else maybe ask the receptionist in French where the car park was. Something that would cause discomfort, something that had a consequence. But she’d get pumped by that. ‘I’m not giving this Cork boy a cent!’

“She could never come up with a reason for not getting better. That’s why for all the athletes I’ve worked with, I describe her as one of the all-time all-times.”

It explains why she’s taken so quickly to the sevens game. She sees the need for constant improvement.

“It’s such a fast game,” she says. “It’s seven-and-a-half minutes each half, but there’s no downtime. The set-pieces are extremely quick. And when you miss a tackle against a good team it’s hard to recover. Then when you’ve one game over, you’re cooling down right away and 50 minutes later you’re back out playing your next game.”

This weekend the rollercoaster and the carnival that is sevens women’s rugby comes to Dublin. It’s all with an eye towards an even bigger sporting carnival in Rio next year: the Olympics.

One qualifying slot remains and to help Ireland secure it at a tournament next summer, they need to be playing in the World Sevens Series. Essentially the World Sevens Series is like Division One in Gaelic football these days. You need to be playing at that level regularly to be properly hardened and competitive in the championship.

This year Ireland have been operating in a series of tournaments that are the equivalent of Division Two and have just missed out on promotion. Dublin this weekend is the last chance to do so. It will be a serious challenge: much more so than the 15s game. Sevens is played widely by countries with little fear of the Six Nations or the three traditional southern hemisphere powers. China, Brazil, Samoa, Japan, Hong Kong, Holland and Mexico and more will brighten UCD today.

But Galvin will have little fear of them either. She’s travelled some distance herself. Always ready to exit the next comfort zone, just like an old friend would want.

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