More highlights than lowlights: A year in review with four voices of Irish women’s sport

Malachy Clerkin sits down with Annalise Murphy, Vikki Wall, Marie Crowe and Sarah Keane

Mid-November in a city-centre hotel. The weather hasn’t turned yet so it’s still crisp and dry outside. There’s talk of rising Covid numbers out in the world but it hasn’t got so bad yet that we can’t sit down for lunch.

All in all, it’s entirely pleasant to be here, gathering to talk about women’s sport in 2021. Made all the more pleasant by the company.

We have Annalise Murphy, Olympic silver medallist. We have Vikki Wall, the LGFA Footballer of the Year. We have Marie Crowe, journalist and presenter of Game On on 2FM. And we have Sarah Keane, the CEO of Swim Ireland and president of the Olympic Council of Ireland.

They’ve all been asked to come armed with their highlights and lowlights of the year just gone.


The Rowers

Sarah Keane: This will tell you how disorganised I am – look at my notes. They're a mess.

Malachy Clerkin: Sarah, that's far more organised than the rest of us.

Vikki Wall: Picking highlights and lowlights wasn't that easy. The lowlights were harder to come up with.

Annalise Murphy: Well, I've got some lowlights!

Malachy Clerkin: Yes, well, that's fair to say alright.

Sarah Keane: Yeah, there were a lot of lowlights.

Marie Crowe: I don't have a huge amount of lowlights either. I guess it's the context – there are so many highlights.

Malachy Clerkin: And they say the media are cynical and negative.

Sarah Keane: My first highlight was in the Olympic village. When the rowers won their bronze medal, we lined up to do a line of honour to welcome them back in. I wasn't doing what maybe my predecessor would have done – I just joined the line and it was a really enjoyable experience.

Malachy Clerkin: Those videos were great to watch, every time there was an Irish medal.

Sarah Keane: But the thing that really stood out to me was that Sanita [Puspure] came down to be part of it. Now, Sanita would have been under pressure because she was performing the next day and her event hadn't started well and her couple of months before the games hadn't been wonderful.

But she came down and she hugged them all and she went off then because she had a semi-final to get ready for. I loved seeing it. It was women supporting women. And you don’t always see that. That’s something that is starting to change. Slower than it should be but it is changing. I find that heartening.

Annalise Murphy: She was the one who led the hard-core, hardship training for the rowers. Aifric [Keogh] is in the MBA course with me and the way she talks about what they put themselves through – I'm going to be honest, I don't think I'd like to take up rowing tomorrow!

Sarah Keane: She is also the one who came out a few years ago and said, 'What I need to change about my training is my nutrition – I'm not eating enough'. What a great message for young girls to hear – to be strong, to be at the top of your game, you need to eat more and eat better. She became world champion after that.

Marie Crowe: I think the women supporting women side of it is really interesting. For us growing up, most of us came to sport through our fathers. I think that's changing a bit now. I think you're seeing a lot more mothers being involved in the sport in their kids' lives, boys and girls. And the knock-on effect is that it's more normal. More women means more women.

Sarah Keane: I think when it comes to participation, we might need different language. We might even need another word for sport. We're all sporty people here so it doesn't make any difference to us. But there are lots and lots of people and lots and lots of women who find the idea of sport off-putting. Not everyone is mad competitive. We find that in swimming a lot. Lots of people like to go for a swim but they would never call themselves a swimmer. And if you called them a swimmer, they'd get uncomfortable. They'd think, 'Well I'm not sporty, I'm not good at it, I just like going in for a dip.' Sport is seen as something you have to be good at and that is off-putting for people.

Vikki Wall: That is so true. I have lots of friends who would have played football when we were growing up and who dropped off when we were 16, 17 or whatever. They come back now and they're nearly embarrassed when somebody introduces them as being on the football team. It's like, 'Oh, you play Gaelic?' And they're like, 'Oh no, I'm only on the third team'. There's that automatic reaction, to make it clear that, 'Oh, I'm not good at it.' But sure what does it matter? You're doing it to enjoy yourself.

Annalise Murphy: Sport gives you so many life skills. That's what I've got out of sport above and beyond everything else. I have found so much of life is actually easier because sport has taught me all the really hard lessons already. It has taught me that things aren't going to be easy, that you're going to lose and that you're going to have to be ready for that. Sport gave me confidence that I didn't have when I was young. I was terrified of speaking, being in social situations, all that stuff. Sport forces you to do all that.

Malachy Clerkin: How have the last few months been since Tokyo?

Annalise Murphy: It's not as enjoyable, real life. I don't think I'm ever going to get the same buzz. That's what I'm missing the most. So I'm just trying to find something that's in the middle ground. I'm happy that I'm not going to be feeling those massive highs and massive lows any more. I'm a bit relieved that I'm not going to be feeling them. But I still miss them too.

Kellie Harrington

Malachy Clerkin: Do you watch much of the Olympics, Vikki?

Vikki Wall: I did and I didn't. It was constantly on in the background. There's three of us in the house and we just left the laptop on at all times with the Olympics on. Whatever was on was the topic of conversation every single day. That was one of my highlights. Every time I think about Kellie Harrington, I start to tear up. We had training that morning and you could see loads of us had tired eyes because we got up early to watch the fight. And no one could stop talking about her. As a person, never mind a boxer, she is one of the highlights of the year.

Malachy Clerkin: I was in tears that morning. Unashamedly in tears. What she did was amazing. To lose the first round and come back and win. Amazing.

Sarah Keane: Plus, she had so long to wait. I was there for the first week and she still hadn't fought by the time I left. That alone is so difficult. You're there just waiting all the time.

Annalise Murphy: She was homesick as well. We were texting at the time and she had been away from Dublin for nearly two months.

Sarah Keane: She had seen a lot of her teammates lose as well before she even got into the ring.

Malachy Clerkin: You've got to know her fairly well, Annalise?

Annalise Murphy: Yeah. She is who she is. Down to earth, honest, relatable, good craic. You are in awe of her because of what she's achieved but you're also not because she wouldn't allow you to be.

Marie Crowe: That's it. You just want to go, 'Can I be your pal? Do you want to go to Coppers?'

Annalise Murphy: I met her for the first time at the Irish Times Sportswoman of the Year Awards in 2016 and I just came away going, 'God, this girl is great craic. Just full of the chats.' We've been friends ever since.


Marie Crowe: The relatability factor is huge – and not just with Kellie. When we were growing up, visibility of women in sport was so hit and miss. You had Sonia, you had Catherina McKiernan, you had Derval O'Rourke in later years. But now you have so, so many. You have Kellie, you have Annalise, you have Vikki, you have Rachael Blackmore. You have so many more of them and they're all out there and they're all relatable and we get to hear so much more about them.

Malachy Clerkin: And not just in a sporting context.

Marie Crowe: Exactly. They're out there talking about grief, talking about weight, talking about eating, talking about periods, social media – all the things that go into making a modern athlete tick. It's changing.

Sarah Keane: One of the most powerful moments of the Olympics – and I'm not just saying it because you're here, Annalise – but it was the interviews you and Natalya Coyle gave when you had finished up. Both of you, standing up there, tall and strong, warriors the pair of you and not being afraid to show how heartbroken you were and yet not broken at all. That's a very powerful message to send out.

Malachy Clerkin: I had those down as my lowlights/highlights. Natalya's horse refusing to play ball was the one time in the whole Olympics that I was down on my knees with my head in my hands. But I was so struck in her interview and yours Annalise that both of you made sure to make reference to the athletes coming up behind you.

Annalise Murphy: Well, another reason I am retiring is because I'm terrified of Eve [McMahon, youth champion sailor]. I think should would have murdered me in my sleep if I hadn't retired!

Marie Crowe: On the night of your All-Ireland final, Vikki, I remember Tweeting that the top seven stories on the RTÉ Sport website were women's stories. There was a men's soccer international coming up, England has been playing a big soccer match as well, it was the start of the men's All-Ireland football final week – but even with all that on, the big stories were women's stories.

Malachy Clerkin: That was the weekend of the Solheim Cup and the Meath footballers and Katie Taylor had a big fight as well.

Marie Crowe: That's the one. And so that's just a sign of what the audience was looking for. That's just what people were clicking on. Nobody was being force-fed it.

Rachael Blackmore

Marie Crowe: My highlight is Rachael Blackmore.

Everyone: YES!!

Marie Crowe: I've been reading some great books on women's sport recently and one of them is Game On by Sue Anstiss. In it, she talks about why women's soccer was banned in the early days and it was all this nonsense about how men had decided it would interfere with our reproduction and all that stuff. When really, what it boiled down to was that men didn't want women having a piece of what they had. And I was just thinking of those men, watching Rachael Blackmore win the Grand National. Something like was unthinkable for so many people for so long. What a brilliant two fingers to them.

Vikki Wall: I feel like that happens a lot in sport. Women tend to have to do something amazing to be taken seriously, It happens in women's football a lot. We have a lot of older men in the club who are now obsessed with our team and who come to every match. But it took a momentous event for them to get in on it. And you're almost like, 'We were here all along. Where were you?'

Malachy Clerkin: Katie Taylor was a five-time world champion but she didn't get a stage and a homecoming until she got boxing into the Olympics and then won a gold medal. Rachael Blackmore was leading rider at Cheltenham and won the Grand National – only two other jockeys have done that in the same year in the past four decades.

Sarah Keane: Her success was nothing to with gender at all. It was an incredible sporting success by itself.

Marie Crowe: The great thing about her rise is that she was supported. I'm sure there were other people who might have had potential but she got the opportunities and made the most of them. That's all any sportsperson wants – to be supported enough to get yourself to the place where you can shine.

Malachy Clerkin: Say what you like about Michael O'Leary, it was Gigginstown who really kick-started her ascent. They got Henry De Bromhead to start using her and it all built up from there.

Marie Crowe: And she had paid her dues to get that opportunity. It wasn't like she was 19 or 20 when she got her chance. She's 32, she's been around for a few years, she built herself up all the way along. She has earned every bit of that success.


Malachy Clerkin: Will we talk about our lowlights?

Sarah Keane: Mine was rugby.

Marie Crowe: Mine too.

Malachy Clerkin: Mine three.

Sarah Keane: Even more so after you sent me the transcript of your round-table from 2016.

Malachy Clerkin: Yes! I have some of it here. It had been a great year for women's rugby and we were all glowing about what an example they were to other sports.

Marie Crowe: There was big excitement around then because they were about to host the World Cup here.

Malachy Clerkin: I'll read some of it out. Mary Hannigan said: "The speed of progress in women's rugby is remarkable. It's an example for all women's sport." And also: "The success of the Grand Slam has helped but being under the one umbrella with the IRFU is a big thing and it's something for all the other sports to follow."

Marie Crowe: That's just five years ago.

Sarah Keane: And it was all true at the time. It felt like they were really getting somewhere.

Annalise Murphy: Rugby is really interesting because sevens is an Olympic sport now. So you see it in so many countries that the money that goes into rugby goes into sevens, purely because an Olympic sport is something you can find money for.

Marie Crowe: I was talking to someone the other day about the numbers playing football and camogie and soccer compared to the numbers playing rugby. Rugby is completely lagging behind. They don't seem to see the value in women. How the IRFU cannot see the fact that they are alienating half of the population is mystifying.

Sarah Keane: The really amazing thing is that they can't see the opportunity they have – and it's one they need far more than other sports. A strong and thriving women's game would be such a huge asset to them. Because what is the biggest issue rugby faces? Safety. Once you promote women's rugby, you automatically soften it in the eyes of the public. There are still injuries, of course there are. But the public perception of the game changes.

Marie Crowe: Even on a very basic revenue-raising point, the amount of memberships you would gain if you engaged properly with half the population of the country.

Malachy Clerkin: It's such a great example of how delicate all this is and of how much work has to go into keeping any bit of momentum going. We've been talking here about great successes and the huge strides made in so many different sports. Rugby in Ireland is a killer example of how it can all go away very quickly.

Marie Crowe: I think back then we were blinded by success a bit. I think there was probably a misunderstanding of things, which now in retrospect seem obvious. Like, we can see now that they were hosting the women's World Cup as a dry run for a bid for the men's World Cup. It wasn't for the good of the women's game – as we saw very clearly when the tournament actually happened and we saw how the women representing Ireland were treated.

Vikki Wall: My lowlight was the interpros and Connacht rugby having to change their clothes beside the bins. Shocking.

Marie Crowe: That was the ultimate example of how the fact that it feels like they just treat the women's game with apathy. They're an inconvenience.

Sarah Keane: There are reviews in process so maybe, we'll see.

Marie Crowe: Yeah, but they're not even going to be published. There have been reviews in the past.

Leona and Katie

Marie Crowe: It was such a crammed year for sport. The Olympics were so intense and the Euros were so intense. And the Lions and the GAA championships and everything else. You hardly had time to breathe because there was this sense of having to move onto the next thing before Covid came back to shut it all down.

Annalise Murphy: Leona Maguire as well.

Everyone: YES!!

Annalise Murphy: Burning it up at the Solheim Cup, burning it up on the LPGA Tour.

Sarah Keane: There was great visibility that weekend too at the Solheim. It seemed like everybody was watching it.

Marie Crowe: It was amazing. She had everything you would want as a sportsperson in that scenario. She caught everyone's attention - men, women, children, everyone was talking about her. She was class and she looked like she was having so much fun. She wanted to play the best they had, she wanted to be the one who took them down. And you were watching her going, 'She's ours'.

Malachy Clerkin: I have one other kind of quirky highlight. Katie Taylor bought a speedboat.

Annalise Murphy: Oh!

Vikki Wall: What?

Marie Crowe: Where is it?

Malachy Clerkin: She takes it out on the Connecticut river, near where she lives. I love that.

Sarah Keane: It's so out of character.

Marie Crowe: That's class.

Malachy Clerkin: It's such an un-Katie Taylor thing. And yet her career has got her to the point where she makes an impulse buy of a speedboat. This sport basically didn't exist when she started out. And now she has changed it to such an extent that she is able to live the sort of life where buying a speedboat is no big thing.

Annalise Murphy: Brilliant.