Nowadays when we talk about our sporting heroes, we tend to differentiate less and less between our female and male idols. We’re just a sports-mad nation who support our own and celebrate achievements no matter what.
Last year, when the 20×20 initiative was launched, young girls were asked to name their own sporting heroes and they were all males. However, in the few short months that have followed, the landscape has been ever so slowly changing.
A huge part of that change is the willingness of our female sports stars to not only play their game but to be ambassadors in every aspect of their lives. They put themselves out there, going above and beyond in order to pave a better future for the children that follow them.
One such ambassador for ladies football is Dublin’s All-Ireland winning star, Nicole Owens.
Though she may not see herself in this light, she is a shining embodiment of a sporting role model, demonstrating that through all the ups and downs that come with a life dedicated to football, you can learn to love and appreciate every moment of it.
“The phrase ‘role model’ doesn’t really sit with me well, I find it really odd because for me, the people that I see as role-models are my teammates. I would have grown up with the likes of Sinead Aherne, Niamh McEvoy, they’re on my club team, and then Sinead Goldrick was someone who was just a ferocious player who inspired me, someone who I would have benchmarked myself against.” Owens told Pundit Arena.
“My role models would have been within the team so it’s weird to think of someone looking up to me. The team itself has got a load of coverage so I would hope they would look up to the team as a whole.”
On the pitch, Nicole needs no introduction. She was a key member of the squad that won back to back All Ireland titles. Sport has always been a major part of her life, first picking up a ball at the age of five and playing with the boys’ team until U12 level.
She dedicates as much of her life to her craft as any male player, and like any footballer, it can engulf her. During one such time, it took a year away from the game to realise how much it actually meant to her. That period has allowed her to view Gaelic football as what it is – a sport and one in which there are always disappointments to overcome, but something that must always be enjoyed.
“We’re so lucky that we have life outside of it and at the end of the day, it is just a game so it’s really nice to be able to step back. It’s like a microcosm for life. There’s ups and downs and you can’t control all the variables but it teaches you that things will go wrong and it teaches you some resilience and how to stand up in the face of adversity. Then it is nice to step away and say, ‘it is just a game, this is what I do for fun’.
“When you stop enjoying it, that’s when you need to step away from it. My first year on the team, I was just up from minor and I hadn’t committed myself to it, I wasn’t ready to be there. I ended up going away on Erasmus for a year and I didn’t expect to end up missing football as much as I did and I couldn’t wait to get back. Since then, that love and that enjoyment of playing has been rebirthed.”
The rise in the profile of ladies football has offered her a platform to try and make a difference, not just in sport, but in society. During the making of the ‘Blue Sisters’ documentary, Nicole used the opportunity to spread awareness around the topic of mental health and through her own experience, she continued to chip away at the stigma and widen the door for conversations on the topic. The reaction to the story took her back slightly.
“It’s weird, when I was doing it, I wasn’t thinking about the fact that people would be watching. It seems to have had an impact and I think it’s really important, from my perspective, I didn’t really understand the feelings, I think it was just a lack of education, I just thought it was a part of me.
“I was never able to verbalise my feelings and I hope that this opens a conversation for anyone who’s struggling that they’re able to point out to family, ‘sometimes I feel like this.’ It’s one of those things you have to be really proactive about, ignoring it, which is what I did for years, doesn’t really help.
“It’s good that it’s resonated with so many people and hopefully it started a lot of conversations. I think that the more it’s talked about and people are given ways to speak out it, because I think it was something that wasn’t in the vocabulary of Irish people to talk about. We’d talk about our sore stomach or our sore leg until the cows came home but the fact that we feel really low sometimes, that’s something we weren’t able to talk about.
“I’m noticing that’s changing. Among my friends and even with my girlfriend, we would just say ‘I’m feeling a little bit low’ and the other person is getting better at not just saying ‘why?’ but saying ‘is there anything in particular?’ and understanding that there’s not necessarily a reason for it.
“I find it hilarious that people care about my experience! Obviously with the profile of the team rising and us getting more coverage and recognition, on a personal level, I ended up with a little bit of a platform to talk about these things. People seem to care when I talk about it and that’s probably the most positive thing I can take away outside of the football. It’s really fulfilling.”
As for the sport itself, it was a crutch during a particularly dark period for her. The support from her team and manager, Mick Bohan, was immeasurable and even just by staying active, the 25-year-old finds her mood lifting.
“When I was younger, I never realised how much sport lifted me. My mom would have always said that I would go off to training in a terrible mood and when she’d pick me up, I’d be in a great mood. I never realised how important it was for me but in the last while, I can see the difference. It’s a great way of mediating all those emotions.”
50,141 men, women, boys and girls attended the ladies football finals this year, an increase of almost 4,000 people on the previous year. It is the fastest growing sport in Ireland, we are seeing more and more ladies games preceding their male counterparts and thus, their support is rising. It is a wonderful time to be involved in the sport but Nicole and her teammates won’t be happy until they can pack Croke Park to the rafters.
“I think in the women’s game, the skill level across the board is rising because girls are starting to play younger and younger. That’s where I see it growing. To me, it’s amazing that soon we’re going to have people who only ever played with all girls the whole way up.
“Obviously, the main thing is to keep girls involved. There’s a drop off with teenage girls but hopefully the more positivity they can see and they can see what they can get to if they keep going, hopefully that’ll keep people involved.
“The more coverage as well because I think it’s harder to be emotionally invested in a team if you don’t know the personalities and the landscape. People now understand that there’s teams coming up, the likes of Mayo, Galway and Donegal. All those things will hopefully keep driving it on until we fill Croke Park.”
The St Sylvesters club woman oozes enthusiasm for her sport. It’s not a way of life for her, it’s not all-consuming, it is a passion, outside of her relationships and work. Through the good times and the bad, Gaelic football has been a constant in her life. She is playing alongside her heroes in some of the most thrilling games you will witness.
The sport has been good to her but she is giving so much of herself in return. She has inspired young girls to pick up a football, she has encouraged people that it is OK to speak out if you are struggling and through it all, she has taught people to enjoy, not just the sport, but life itself. She may be reluctant to call herself a role model, but she is one of the most inspiring ones around.