Ahead of her Olympic debut, Hockey Ireland’s Ayeisha McFerran opens up about her childhood in foster care
She may not have a “normal” upbringing by traditional societal standards, but Ayeisha McFerran hopes to inspire others with her story.
There are many reasons to look up to Hockey Ireland’s Ayeisha McFerran, not least her incredible prowess on the field. One of the country’s star hockey players, she already has several impressive sports accolades under her belt – a 2018 World Cup silver medal amongst them, where she also won Goalkeeper of the Tournament.
Now heading to the Tokyo Olympics as part of the Irish hockey team, they’ll make their debut against South Africa later this month. However, while it’s easy to look at Ayeisha and just see her success, it’s been a long and winding road for the athlete and she doesn’t take anything for granted.
Opening up about her upbringing, McFerran spent the large majority of her childhood in foster care. Speaking to BBC Sport about losing her mother and being split up from her siblings, she admitted that it was“really difficult” to process all of that at such a young age.
“It was coming to the end of mum’s life, but I had no idea that it was going to result in me and my siblings being split up.
“We were all really young, still trying to navigate life as it was, let alone losing your mum. It was really difficult to process anything at that point. My brothers went into care, I went and lived with my aunt and uncle for nine months and my sister was left to herself because she was almost 18. So, we had to figure out our own paths without each other.”
Eventually paired up with a local family in her hometown of Larne, McFerran spoke positively of her new home, describing them as “very understanding” of her situation. “They were just very relaxed about me coming into their home. They just really made me feel very welcome from the get-go and that’s something that many foster kids, I believe, don’t have,” she added.
Dedicating much of her free time to sport, the Ireland goalkeeper counts herself lucky for having that to help her cope. “Over the space of the three years my hockey very much kicked off, I was very fortunate that I had that to turn to and had that as my way to getting out and being free and trying to find out who I was as a person.
“I was travelling up and down to Dublin, up to Randalstown – I got lifts from my school teacher Emma Knox and Ruth Maguire. I would have been lost without them, because if I didn’t have that support network around me, as well as the foster family, I wouldn’t be here.”
While all athletes are passionate about their sport, McFerran is even more so. “My hockey was everything I had. That was my time to be free, to go and find out what I wanted to do, meet people and just essentially feel that I had that normal life”. “My foster parents really did try everything they had to support me.”
“They’ve been a huge part in getting me here and I would be selfish not to acknowledge that they did play a big part in that,” she continued.
“I think that the fact they didn’t hold me back, it’s huge in where I am. You do hear stories of kids not allowed to do things but they allowed me to do it, albeit sometimes I had to figure it out by myself.
“I had to get myself to Jordanstown to go to the gym. If that meant getting up at 5.30 in the morning for the train that’s what it meant, but they always supported me, they never said I couldn’t do anything. I think that’s really, really important, it gave me the freedom to explore and be who I am and who I essentially wanted to be.”
Sharing her story in the hopes of being a role model for others, McFerran thinks that not enough of the positive foster care stories are told. “Not very many people hear the good stories about kids in foster care – you always hear the bad stories,” she noted.
On hard work
Of course, nothing came easy to the athlete and she was quick to remind people of the importance of hard work.
“It takes work, it’s hard and it’s not as easy as people think I make it out to be. I’ve had to work hard to get where I am – not with the support of parents driving me here, there, and everywhere, handing me money out of their back pocket.
“I’ve worked for everything I’ve had and if I can inspire one kid to do that and get out and see something bigger or make that decision to maybe go to university or go after that job they want, especially kids in care, then I really want to do it. I want to be open – if kids ever feel that they want someone to talk to, then I’m here,” she said.
If there’s one thing she really wants to drive home though, it’s to keep chasing your dreams as “they’ll always lead you somewhere”. “It might not be where you want but a dream is always something of hope and if you’ve hope you’re going to go anywhere.” Wise words from an imposing competitor, so be sure to keep an eye out for McFerran when tuning into the action over in Tokyo later this month.
Feature image via @ayeishamcferran