Considering she is one of the most recognisable names in Volleyball Ireland circles, listening to the story of Jenny King’s introduction to the sport is fascinating.
With a content and nostalgic tone in her voice, she describes how her friend’s father came across volleyball while in the army and thought it a good way for his children and their friends to burn energy.
It wasn’t long before all of her tight-knit estate started to join in the fun.
“There was nothing, nothing at all. It started from the Community Games and then our estate has a ‘community week, every street had a soccer team and then on the Saturday there would have been races and then there would have been a dinner dance. From that, the adults started to play volleyball.
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“And then it just flourished into this league and we were playing three times a week. Every road in our estate had a team. It was a really community sport and then from that, Artane Volleyball Club was founded.
“There were these old-school posts, the polls were rolled out onto the tarmac in the church grounds, there was a net at the start of the church and we started playing there. Then it progressed to the Artane Beaumont Family Recreation Centre, we played in Craobh Chiarain GAA Club.
“Looking back, there was an emphasis on taking structure away from kids from a sporting point of view that made it really competitive. It was fun, everybody played with everybody and we would play for hours without realising it.”
King’s husband grew up in the same estate and like her, he was drawn to the laid back, community approach to the sport. Neither of them fully grasped how competent at the sport they were until those outside their local bubble began to take notice.
“When the club was founded, by pure fluke, my road’s volleyball team happened to be training one night and just as we were finishing, a club came in after us and the coach asked me if I would be interested in coming and training with them. It turned out that they were a Division 1 team.
“I always underestimated that I was actually quite good, I always thought someone would come along and tell me that I was crap! Eventually, I started playing with a junior regional squad. I remember playing for a Leinster team versus a West squad, basically based around Galway. We were the warm-up act to Ireland and Wales. While I was with the Division 1 team, I still got to play with my friends on the green so it was never mad intense.”
Then King and another promising young player were offered a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the States, organised by the coach of the National Women’s team at the time, so they could look at potential pathways they could take in the sport.
However, considering there was no established route for Irish players and with little advice available, her time across the Atlantic wasn’t everything she hoped for. Nevertheless, it cleared the path for her to join the top ranks upon her return.
“I was offered a scholarship, I’m still the only Irish person to get a scholarship in the US which kind of makes me sad but….
“I didn’t know anything about SATs, the college, what I was supposed to do, what I was supposed to have. They didn’t tell me that I could have done the SATs here. When I went over, I actually wasn’t allowed play. I’m there on a full scholarship, but when you’re registered to play as an international student, the first thing they ask is ‘where’s your SAT scores?’ And I told them I hadn’t a clue what they were on about. This was August and they told me I couldn’t do it till the end of December. It was bizarre. There was no one to ask.
“They smuggled me into different tournaments and that was brilliant but I didn’t stay for the whole term. It was an amazing experience but I came back after a year and I went straight onto the national team.”
King represented her country for 10 years and finished that chapter in her life in a memorable fashion, captaining the first Irish team to play in a European Championships. She takes a breath before describing the feeling of representing her country with emotion creeping into her voice.
“It’s amazing. Even when I was coaching, just standing for the national anthem… The hairs on the back of your neck… It’s just incredible.”
King remains the oldest person to have played for Ireland as in 2014, when she was 43, she agreed to return to the fold for one tournament when Ireland were in need of her leadership abilities and experience. She found herself playing alongside teammates as young as 17.
Still, the Dublin native had no plans to leave the sport behind her once she stepped away from the national team. Bit by bit, she transitioned into coaching. At one point she was playing in the Premier Division with one team while coaching another.
Together with another coach Gianni Massa, she planned the establishments of Centres of Excellence around Ireland so that children could experience the sport the same way she did in her youth, in a relaxed and fun environment with structures or restrictions.
“The idea was we would pick the hotspots where it was strong in schools and we would try to mirror what I had in my community. Take out the stresses and the onus on schools, because you’re relying on a teacher to be so interested that they’ll take on your sport.
“We were trying to make it more of a community effort so we wouldn’t have to rely on one or two. Contact sports are not for everybody but volleyball isn’t (contact) so it has that appeal.”
Despite playing it on the tarmac of her local estate with the whole community and travelling to America and captaining her country, King reveals that some of her favourite memories of volleyball have come from coaching youth teams and seeing young people achieve feats they never thought possible.
To the teams she coaches, King is a mentor, a friend, a leader, a role model, and when she needs to be, a counsellor. And she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Because I’ve been coached by so many coaches, I know what works and what doesn’t. It’s a whole different ball game coaching boys than girls, coaching men and women. Lads are more direct whereas with girls, you have to deal with the emotions, the cliques, some need hand-holding, some just want to get on with it and it’s a life skill.
“I absolutely love coaching the young girls, the U16s, just the joy of seeing their faces when you’re saying ‘you can do this’ and then when they do it, they smile. Building their confidence, that’s been amazing, it’s not all about the volleyball. I feel sometimes like I’m a counsellor, I’m the good cop and Gianni is the bad cop.
“In January last year, we won our first game, we beat Iceland. It’s probably one of my favourite volleyball moments, the girls’ faces, the hours of training, the work that went in… You can’t bottle that. It’s something that’s going to stay with them forever.”