‘You Don’t Train For Fourth Place, You Train To Win’: 4 Irish Sportswomen On What Drives Them

Phil Healy, Ellen Keane, Nicole Owens and Katie Mullan tell us about their lives in sport.


Swimmer Ellen Keane, 23, became Ireland’s youngest ever Paralympian at 13
years of age, and went on to claim a bronze medal in Rio in 2016

“Growing up, there was never anyone like me in the media. I developed really bad insecurity around my arm, my self confidence was gone and I didn’t accept my body at all. That was around the time I was becoming a teenager, when you start to notice society, and how you don’t fit in with it. Swimming was the only place I felt safe, weirdly enough, walking around in a swimsuit with nowhere to hide – and because of that my confidence started to grow.

The 2008 Paralympics was my first major international competition, so I didn’t really know what to expect. At the time it was a whirlwind – now when I look back I’m like, Jesus, that was a bit mad wasn’t it. If I could go back, and not go, I would probably make that happen, because it set my expectations too high going into competitions. I found it hard to motivate myself, because nothing was as big as the Paralympics. And when you’re younger, time seems to go by so much slower, so you don’t really appreciate day in, day out training, whereas now I’m like, “Oh! The four years are nearly up already!

I do doubles every day, but it’s never the same thing. Today I had gym this morning between 8 and 9.30am, I’d go to college for a few hours and go for training again at 5-7 tonight. I usually have the rest of Thursday off, so that’s when I’d get my bits done or fit in seeing my friends. Sundays are for sleeping. I’m so lucky with DIT, they allowed me to split my final year of Culinary Entrepreneurship in two.

It takes a longer time, but you have to take every chance that you have with sport. With education, no matter what, you can always go back, whereas your body is only young once and will only tolerate so much. So that’s why I decided to put sport first rather than my education.

David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

I think it’s important for me to share my story because there are kids who are going through the same thing at the moment – I get messages all the time from people saying they heard my story or my TED Talk, and thanking me for helping. A mam told me that her daughter at two years old was already starting to hide her arm, which is just so heartbreaking. Swimming for me is quite personal, but I’m being put on this platform so I might as well use it to maybe help someone else find their own confidence and become happy in themselves.

I’m a Sky Sports Scholar, which is a huge support with communications and telling my story. And I was really everywhere this summer with that Allianz ad, which helped raise awareness of the European Championships in Dublin. Kids who had never seen someone like them before could come and see what bodies like theirs can do. They don’t necessarily have to do sport, but it does give them hope. It’s just a lovely feeling to be able to do that.

I have World Championships next year in July or August, and that’ll be my first opportunity to qualify for Tokyo 2020. The goal is to come in first or second so I can get that spot for Ireland and know comfortably where I stand with qualification. You don’t train for a fourth place finish, you train for that gold medal, so that’s what I’m going to do.”

Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Nicole Owens, 25, was on the Dublin team that won the All Ireland Senior Championship in 2017

“My parents are from Howth so I would have sailed when I was younger – I loved playing any type of sport as a child and Gaelic happened to be the sport that stuck the most. A lot of the time I’m going straight from work to training, leaving the house at half seven and working all day, then going straight to training and getting home at 10 or 11. You have to think about getting proper nutrition, and really simple things like having your bag ready to go the night before. The struggle is having the time to get organised – you’re coming home from training really late and you have to turn around and go through the whole thing again. You could collapse into bed, but then you’re behind.

For the last maybe five, 10 years there’s been more of a movement towards recognising the mental side of sport. There weren’t sports psychologists for teams, but that whole mindset has changed and people are realising that the mental side of the game is just as important as the physical side. I think mental health in general, and dealing with depression, has been helped by that. When you’re in a team at a high level, it really comes down to small things like composure and belief in yourself. People in the public eye talking about their mental health has helped to remove the stigma that’s historically been there.

Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

The RTE documentary that the Dublin team made last year, Blues Sisters, actually ended up being a platform for me to talk about my mental health. There are lot of great things that came out of that year, and one of the things that I’m most proud of is being able to speak about those things, because for many years I didn’t talk about it. Feeling like I might have an impact, even if it’s on one person, is the driving force for me. Mental health is something I’ve grown into being able to talk about, and while I wouldn’t say I enjoy talking about it, I get a lot of value out of it. It’s helping me, certainly, being more open – even in work, to be honest if I’m not having a good day, and acknowledge how that impacts on everything.”

Katie Mullan, 24, captained the Irish women’s hockey team at the 2018 Women’s Hockey World Cup

“Camogie was my first sport growing up in Coleraine, then I started playing hockey when I was nine. I switched all of my focus to hockey when I was about 17. I had my heart set on getting capped for the Irish senior women’s team at that stage.

[Captaining the team at the World Cup] was such an honour, really. I never envisaged that I’d be running out into my first World Cup as captain, but it was such a privilege, especially as we’re such a close bunch of friends. We didn’t really understand [the response in Ireland] when we were in London at the final because we were in a bit of a bubble, but it was fairly evident when we came home to the reception that we got on Dame Street. That was incredible. The most special part of it all were the people who maybe hadn’t been exposed to much hockey before, but really got behind us and fell in love with the game and our team.

The majority of us have been on a journey together since 2013. When you spend that amount of time training, making the same sacrifices, living very similar lives, it brings you together. at’s what stood to us on the way to the World Cup final, against all the odds.

We train six days a week, sometimes two sessions. You could be in the gym at 6am, working from 9-5, then on the pitch in the evening. You have to bring the right food with you, because it’s so important as an international athlete that you’re fuelling yourself with the right things. You can’t just pick up something, because it might not give you the nutrients you need, so preparing your meals the night before and planning is the biggest thing for all of us. It’s a lot of organisation, because we’re amateur athletes trying to be as professional as possible. The biggest challenge then is that you’re not able to rest and recover as easily as someone who isn’t working.

I completed my Masters in Biomedical Engineering earlier this year, but following the World Cup I moved to Hamburg in Germany to play hockey there. That gave me a really good idea of what it’s like to give yourself that time to recover and rest. When I come home, I go surfing or get in the sea. That’s my release. I throw my phone in a drawer and get out to the sea.”

David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Sprinter Phil Healy, 23, is ‘Ireland’s fastest woman’, setting two new Irish records last year

“I was always winning local sports days in Cork, but it wasn’t until I was about 16 or 17 that I knew I had potential. When I was in Sixth Year, I came fourth in the 100m in the European Junior Championships, and that was the moment I knew I could take this further. I went in not knowing what I could do – I was ranked about 25th coming in, and to come out fourth, that was just a massive boost for me.

To break two long-standing records in a week? It was crazy! You always have records in the back of your mind, and when I was under 23 I broke the 60m national record, but a senior record is very different. It shows the quality that has gone previously in Ireland, athletes who have competed at world class levels, so to get both of them and be tagged as ‘Ireland’s fasted woman’ is a shock.

I’m in WIT doing a part-time Masters in computers, I’ll be finished next year. It keeps me disciplined because I could train full-time if I wanted to, but I like having that distraction. Going home from the track I’d have homework to do, so they balance each other out. I train six days a week, and in those six days there could be nine or ten sessions – so just say today, I had a track session at 10am, and then I have gym straight after it. Some days are double up days, and Saturday is my only rest day. Shane, my coach, has it all planned out, and I just turn up and do the business.

The Olympics is always in the back of your mind. If you ask anyone in sport, that’s always their dream. Once the 2016 Games finished, the new cycle starts. If it was possible to qualify for the Olympics in 2018, I would have qualified for the 50m, 100m and 400m – and knowing that I am able to qualify gives me the confidence that I can take it on.

You always want to do better. I’m never satisfied. I broke the national record, and yes that’s super, but I always want more. That’s because I’m driven in character, but that can be one of your biggest flaws rather than a good thing, because you can put too much pressure on yourself. That’s something I work with my team and my sports psychologist on. You just have to take things as they come and execute in training, and if you do that, the performance will come.”