Sarah Rowe is always smiling. I had the pleasure of living with the Mayo footballer for a year and witnessed it first-hand. She has a cheeky sparkle in her eye, a positive attitude and genuine happiness that is unrivalled. You can’t help but feel cheery when around her. She also has a straight edge. What you see is what you get, and she has no fear of telling it like it is. Her sparkling attitude combined with that quiet toughness are just two of the traits which have held her at the top of her sporting game for the past few years. With so much talk and media attention surrounding women in sport, I was eager to meet her to talk all things sport related and discuss her next career move; a five-month professional contract in Australia with women's AFL team Collingwood.
Like many, Sarah tried her hand at a multitude of different sports growing up, but her focus quickly turned to soccer and GAA. She played for the Irish ladies soccer team until the age of 19 and loved her time doing so, but bubbling underneath was the grá and dedication for her county. Mayo was on the brain. Juggling the effort and time pressures of two high octave sports is challenging, so she made the decision to focus on one; her county. Even now as she gears up for a substantial shift in her day to day life, representing the green and red remains a constant, “Mayo is 100% my priority, getting this opportunity to go over and play professional in whatever sport it may be will be a massive learning curve for me, but I want to learn something that I can bring back to Mayo”.
Australia comes knocking
"I’m doing three to four gym sessions a week, three to four running sessions a week and rehab for my shoulder five days a week"
It was expected that it wouldn’t be long before the Australian scouts came knocking, and after a flying visit to Australia earlier in the year to see what the clubs had to offer, Sarah decided on Collingwood, where she will begin her six-month tenure in November. She’s nervous about leaving family and friends but feels this is the opportune moment to go, “In the next few years in Australia the women's AFL is going to be bigger and there’s going to be more teams involved so it won’t be as accessible to go over and come back to play in the football championship, so for me it’s the right time.” On top of a sizeable time difference and overall culture shock, the difference in physicality and skill between AFL football and its Gaelic counterpart will also need to be tackled, “It’s much more physical. I would describe it as somewhere between football and rugby. my body will be taking a lot more hits”.
On the back of a recent shoulder injury and subsequent surgery, Sarah has had to work tirelessly to get her mobility and fitness to standard before the move, “I’m doing three to four gym sessions a week, three to four running sessions a week and rehab for my shoulder five days a week, even at that it isn’t as much as I will be doing over there, it’s to go over there and not find the transition as hard on my body”.
"More people are taking interest in games and want to sponsor you, but it’s not there yet, and certainly not there for every county yet.”
From my experience of living with female footballers, I have witnessed the time and effort that goes into their sporting lives. These women are just as dedicated as the men. It’s diet, it’s extra gym days, it’s travelling long distance for training sessions twice a week, with Sarah telling me that arriving home to Dublin at 1.30am from training in Mayo midweek is the norm. As new managers and systems from men’s football background were introduced, Rowe realised she must be always switched on, “Basically you wake up in the morning and think what you can do better for Mayo, for me and knowing what other men in Mayo or other counties do we definitely do the exact same.” The commitment, for the love of the game, is huge.
In an interview two years ago Sarah discussed the stark differences in conditions between men’s and women’s GAA. Have conditions improved since? “They've definitely improved a serious amount and that would be thanks to LIDL and TG4 promoting games. More people are taking interest in games and want to sponsor you, but it’s not there yet, and certainly not there for every county yet.” On the area of equality, she believes there is still a difference in the level of respect offered to male and female GAA players but that this gap will shorten as standards continue to improve.
The importance of sport
The arena of sport is particularly important for young girls in the current world climate. A climate where we seem to be revered for appearance but not for achievements, and Rowe is quick to acknowledge this, “Sports gives you a way of defining yourself that does not involve your looks. We are growing up in a world where a lot of social media is fake and it’s to know that what you are seeing on social media isn’t real life. Sports gives you a way of realising you have value and have a purpose and I know it has done loads for my confidence and lots of other girls too. You learn lessons in life that you wouldn't learn anywhere else".
Before our interview ends I ask will she caught by the Australia bug but she replies that her mother wants a start and end date so she can know when she will return home. Even though she will cherish and relish the experience she is a home bird, “I don’t know if I can go there and up and leave my life in Ireland totally, I have a lot of things going on here and I’m not ready to leave permanently yet.”
Uprooting yourself isn’t easy and learning a new skill in a new world will be an unmitigated adjustment, so nerves are to be expected. These nerves are clear to see from her demeanour. But if she keeps that quiet resolve, that sparkle in her eye and keeps smiling, Sarah Rowe will be just fine.