Thirteen Irish female athletes from across a range of sporting backgrounds spoke to Arthur James O'Dea of OTB Sports about their experiences as elite level sportspeople.
This is the second instalment of a two-part series. You can read the first instalment here.
I. "You can be hungry one day, really warm the next or just mentally wrecked"
Molly Scott: “Menstruation is an absolute minefield.”
Breege Connolly: “When you’re running a marathon in particular, you would rather not have your period on that day. It hasn’t always happened that way for me though, but you just have to build a bridge and get over it, really.”
Claire Mooney: “I still don’t factor it into my training, honestly. I just personally like to run based on how I feel. When I’m in a session I will know how my body feels, so I don’t want to be going into it with a preconceived notion of how the session will go.”
Jessie Barr: “I had a female coach. So, if there was a day during my period where I was just feeling crap, I could explain that to her. It impacts how you feel and how you train, but I would not have had much understanding as an athlete.”
Claire Mooney: “We had a female coach as well so I would have felt comfortable talking to her about it, but it just wasn’t something that was factored in to training intensity.”
Jessie Barr: “If I had a male coach it would have been taboo, I think. It just would have been too embarrassing.”
Molly Scott: "For me, and a lot of the girls I compete against, we suffer with it. I have tried hormonal pills, but they have so many potential side-effects too. I have suffered with using them in the past and I do not want to compromise my mental health for the sake of running a good race. My period has impacted me a lot though, but in certain respects you must run with it and keep going.”
Laura Treacy: “It is definitely something I have had to control. I remember before the first All-Ireland final I played in 2014 I was frantic because it was due that weekend. I would not have been taking anything to monitor it at that point but was lucky enough that it came a few days early. It hits people differently. At this level though, there are options there so you can control it.”
Sarah O’Donovan: “There’s always somebody with some painkillers in the bag. It has always been the kind of thing you work through and inevitably you will feel better after exercising anyway. But if players are still participating by 29, 30-years-old, then they’ve got it mastered I think.”
Kerry O’Flaherty: “Around that time of the month though when you retain fluid and bloat, you don’t feel as confident putting on the crop-top and shorts you need to put on to compete. A lot of the time, unless it is stifling hot, I would opt for a vest in those circumstances to cover my stomach. I really shouldn’t be letting things like that get to me, but I’ve heard comments being made in the past. ‘Oh, she’s put a bit of weight on.’ I’ve never heard them directed at me, but I’ve heard them said.”
Laura Treacy: “I was only in the shop recently and there was a lady in the queue ahead of me. She was maybe 10, 15 years older than I am and she was buying pads. So, in this shop you have your own self-service tills and two regular ones with a man and a woman on each checkout. We are all in this queue anyway when the man calls out for the next customer, but she would not budge. ‘No, no, I’m going to wait for the self-service checkout.’ I could see the embarrassment in her face because she was buying pads. This all comes back to society again, but I could not believe it. She was not that much older than me. When I said to some of the women in work though who would be a bit older than me too, they all understood. ‘Yeah, I would be hiding them under the bread.’ I mean, it is good that I know at my age that it isn’t an issue buying pads from a man.”
Breege Connolly: “I would just hope that girls and coaches are being educated that little bit better now. The fact that there is so much more conversation going on is only a good thing. Of all the reasons to not compete, I would hate to think that menstruating would be one of them. It is important to remember as well that sport and fitness can help to alleviate some symptoms so it's not all negative."
Laura Treacy: “I think it definitely impacts younger girls in sport a bit more. When you get down into the underage teams, there is a lot changing in the lives of those girls. All these hormones are taking over and then their period comes along and you have a lot of girls dropping out.”
Sarah O’Donovan: “It is certainly a minefield and I’m still figuring out how to handle it with the other coaches when I’m dealing with that age-group now.”
Ciara Trant: “Within the Dublin set-up we would have plenty of conversations with our nutritionist and physio team around menstruation. Even our management are open and encouraging that if we are struggling around that time of the month or anything, or if we need anything extra, they’ll support.”
Ailish Considine: “Within the GAA, no. I’ve never been in a situation where it has ever even been asked about. Then again, it is built upon a male structure – and not a very progressive one at that – so what would you expect?”
Ciara Trant: “I’ve never heard it spoken about at club level though. I probably wouldn’t bring it up with club management and would try to manage it myself. I can’t imagine going to my club manager saying that I’m having a hard time today and I might sit out the last 20-minutes to do some skills training. I think, Jesus, he might be a bit shocked.”
Ailish Considine: “Within the AFLW, it has definitely become something you are asked about. But even that took time. I remember one day last year with Adelaide that we were training absolutely terribly. The manager “Doc” (Matthew Clarke) is a really calm guy and would never have an angry word to say. But that day he pulled us in after the second warm-up drill and had a go at us because things were so bad. Now, normally if there’s any criticism like that the girls are back up and enthusiastic to fix things. But the reaction that day was different. ‘We’re trying, but we just can’t.’ Anyway, in the baths after then we are all chatting away and suddenly it becomes clear that X was on her period, Y was on her period, Z was on her period. There were literally about 10 girls in that session on their period. On this one day where “Doc” had felt the need to have a word, you had all these girls so deeply frustrated already, knowing themselves that they were struggling. Funnily enough, we met his wife the next day and kind of told her how he had had to have a go at us and that there were so many of us on our period. But she told us like that he just wouldn’t really have a clue, you know. As a man, even as a woman sometimes, it just can be an oversight. You don’t think about it.”
Ciara Trant: “It is all about education. Two or three years ago, I had no idea of the impact menstruation can have on performance and well-being and up to even last year really with Dublin, it wasn’t really a topic. But look, everyone’s experience varies, and we would never use it as an excuse for poor performance. In terms of injury management though, it is massive, and we know that. Education is vitally important.”
Ailish Considine: “I’m lucky and unlucky, really. I don’t really get a period. When I’m training really intensely, it just stops. I don’t have to worry about then during the season, which is great, but long-term I suppose I am not sure how healthy that is for my body.”
Kerry O’Flaherty: "I really struggle to race well if my cycle starts on race week. It's hard as you don't want to make excuses, but I know myself and a lot of other female athletes struggle with the physiological side effects, and we just can't perform to our best. It is something you can try to control with the pill and contraception implants, but it's not a natural thing to do and it's also pretty trial and error."
Jessie Barr: “A lot of research that is been done within sports science is carried out on men. When you do not have the research on female athletes, you don’t have the knowledge to apply. Social awkwardness plays a part, but if the knowledge and information isn’t easily accessible it is kind of limited to, ‘Well, how do you feel?’ That is not ideal.”
Kerry O’Flaherty: “I was running a race once and was interviewed basically straight after I’d crossed the finish line. I was told that I’d run a good race but hadn’t the week before and this reporter was wondering why. ‘I had my period, and I wasn’t feeling very well.’ The reporter, who was a man, just stopped me. ‘Ah, well, well, we won’t go there.’ I turned it back on him and asked why we can’t go there. ‘I’m not making an excuse. You told me I ran really poorly last week and I’m telling you why. If I was a man telling you that I had a stomach bug, you would let him speak about it.’ Women have had to hide stuff away for a very, very long time and comments like his don’t help. It made me really angry to the point that I just walked off.”
Ciara Trant: “Something great that has been done in Dublin over the last couple of years is that the clubs are moving away from white shorts to navy shorts or whatever. That just suits women better and it is encouraging for younger girls coming through that they won’t have to worry about getting their period during a match or anything like that.”
Molly Scott: “Some people think that you might have cramps and that’s it. But you can be hungry one day, really warm the next or just have a day where you’re mentally wrecked. Ultimately, you just have to get used to it, but at the same time I’d rather have a bit more help and research into it.”
II. "I’m 24 years training now and I’ve never had a changing room"
Caradh O’Donovan: “I think I’m 24 years training now and I’ve never had a changing room. I’ve never trained in a gym with a changing room or a shower. If I make a comment about that, which I do because I can’t just keep my mouth shut, I get the eye-rolls. ‘You’re so difficult, you’re a diva.’ So, they’re subtle things, but I think some people would be surprised by that.”
Jessie Barr: “There were days when I couldn’t make the appointed gym session with my group and I would go to the public gym. I had no problem with that, but I often got the feeling when I walked down to the weights area that people looked at me as if I were lost. This was maybe just before it became common to see women lifting weights, and maybe because I was so slim people thought I looked out of place. Whenever I started though, I would nearly be waiting for a man to come over and say, ‘Do you want some help?’ I cannot tell you how many times I have had a man come over to me and say that. And it was never, ‘Oh, can I help you with that?’ It was always, ‘Do you need a hand?’ It used to drive me mad. I would rather have thrown out my back then have this guy help me with this because he expected me to need the help. That bugged me an awful lot.”
Ciara Trant: “The inequality tends to be with things like access to pitches or dressing rooms. You might arrive down the country to play a league game and they’ll give the women’s team the back dressing-rooms rather than the front dressing-rooms because they’re kept for the men’s teams. At the same time though, there have been massive improvements, probably because of social media and definitely because of the standards that are driven by management and people around us. They never settle for less, so we tend to get what they want. At club level though, the lads will still always get priority. But even when you look at the great Cork Ladies team. They win 11 All-Irelands and 2020 is the first year they play in Páirc Ui Chaoimh.”
Laura Treacy: “We (Cork’s camogie team) played a match against Waterford back in February in Pairc Ui Chaoimh. The week beforehand, Cork’s Ladies Gaelic footballers played their first ever match in Pairc Ui Chaoimh, ever. Some girls who played for their county for years had never played there. A huge deal was made of it. ‘Oh my god, the girls get to play in Pairc Ui Chaoimh. Isn’t this fantastic!’ That was all that was talked about in the build up to the game. I mean, that should not be a wow factor. That should always be happening.”
Caradh O’Donovan: “Someone who has all the facilities isn’t just going to give them away. You have to as a female athlete ask for these things. If you wait around for it to be handed to you, it doesn’t usually work.”
Laura Treacy: “I do remember though that we had to park up by the marina and walk with our gear bags all the way in under the tunnel into Pairc Ui Chaoimh. I am guessing it is about the bones of a kilometre. We were not allowed to park our cars down in Pairc Ui Chaoimh. Now, a lot of us would share lifts so it is not that you had every panel member arriving in their own car. So, little things like that, they would never happen to a men’s team. The likes of Eoin Cadogan is not getting questioned at the gate why he is driving in. That comes from the top level in the country all the way down. Cork GAA do an awful lot for us too. But we should not be absolutely and utterly grateful for it either. They should be a given, you know.”
III. "Women’s bodies are not spoken about in terms of performance, but how they look when performing”
Áine O’Gorman: "When women’s sport is covered at time it can still be very generic."
Ciara Trant: “The media tends to approach female athletes with a story in mind that they just need a line or two to back up. Lyndsey Davey is always asked about being a firefighter. Noelle Healy will be asked to talk about working in a hospital.”
Áine O’Gorman: "It is always great to see the media coming to cover games, don’t get me wrong. But if you take the FAI Cup final for example, I would question how much interest some of the media would have had leading up-to that “big” game and the WNL season so that can be a-bit frustrating."
Sarah O’Donovan: “People see me now on Off The Ball talking about sport with men and being accepted by men to talk about sport. Other girls I know wouldn’t have that confidence to talk about sport and think that’s because they won’t be taken seriously. It can be seen as something trivial for women to talk about. Women are either seen then as career-driven or family-oriented, and there isn’t really a place then to have opinions or an interest in sport that could equal that.”
Jessie Barr: “When it comes to social media then, it is your looks that are still so often primarily considered as a female athlete.”
Kerry O’Flaherty: “It is crazy how even photographers will still try to find this ‘perfect’ photograph and not the one where you aren’t looking so great.”
Molly Scott: “I’ve always thought that whatever way I look is fine, as long as I’m running quickly. Social media is dangerous though because a female athlete’s body changes a lot. People think you need to be looking toned and ripped all the time, but that’s not how it works.”
Kerry O’Flaherty: “I would normally post a couple of photographs of me just after I’ve finished a race. I’d be dehydrated and you can see my six-pack because of that. Then I’ll show myself on a normal day just after I’ve eaten. The body changes. It doesn’t mean you perform any worse. I think people like to see that reality and not just being stuck in the ‘perfection’ of this Instagram bubble.”
Jessie Barr: “It is remarkable to me how if I’m looking for pictures of athletes to put in a presentation or whatever the amount of times you stumble across a picture of a female athlete’s bum. You can end up very conscious of how you look and the scrutiny. Women’s bodies are not spoken about in terms of performance, but how they look when performing.”
Claire Mooney: “Personally, I’ve always enjoyed social media and found it to be a creative outlet. Although I’ve never felt compelled to present a specific image of myself as an athlete, I know of one athlete who was contacted and told that they shouldn’t be going for a night out because they are representing Ireland.”
Linda Djougang: “Whenever people are describing black women, it is almost always their features and never the person that they are. Look at Serena Williams. ‘Oh, she’s so strong. She’s so powerful. Look at her behind and her muscles. She looks like man!’ If you knew black women, you would know of our features, of what we’re capable of. I talk a lot about Serena Williams because when I was growing up, I wanted to be just like her. It is fear that inspires those comments. It is just men who cannot accept it and aren’t educated about women’s bodies. It is just men. They are afraid.”
Kerry O’Flaherty: “When it comes to sponsorship then, and this can be vital in athletics, sexism plays a part when you have companies who are looking for the ‘ideal’ womanly figure in someone who will advertise for them. When they’re going to look at which women they are going to pick, sometimes, I do think they go with looks rather than talent. I know a friend of mine, an athlete in England, spoke out about that before. A lot of girls around her were getting shoe sponsorships but were not close to her talent-wise. She spoke out and said that it didn’t really matter how well you run if you’re not pretty enough you won’t get the opportunities.”
Sarah O’Donovan: “Money is a funny thing too because, to be honest, I wouldn’t say that this Dublin team is the best we have seen in Ladies Gaelic football. But if you have a voice and you use it, as Dublin have with the support of AIG, you can get a lot more respect for your players. I don’t know, for example, if the Cork Ladies football board were fighting for the Cork Ladies footballers to have that visibility when they were on top. As the years went on and the success continued, the girls didn’t really get what they deserved in that regard. It is ultimately about what the county boards are willing to do as much as it is about the public buying into it.”
This is the second instalment of a two-part series. You can read the first instalment here.