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Women in sport: 'We press pause on our lives, sacrificing friends, family and career'

I look forward to the day where words like ‘struggle’ and ‘sacrifice’ are no longer synonymous with a female athlete’s story, writes Ailis Egan.

Ailis Egan Former rugby player

FEMALE ATHLETES HAVE started to make inroads: frequenting newspaper columns on a more regular basis, securing greater TV coverage as well as sponsorship deals and finally breaking into the male dominated arena of sports punditry.

The commercial viability of female sport is becoming increasingly apparent with various competitions capturing the imaginations of audiences around the globe.

Yet words like ‘sacrifice’ and ‘struggle’ pepper questions poised to us by journalists. Language like this suggests that we press pause on our lives, sacrificing friends, family and career in order to juggle a full-time job and life as an athlete.

Well, we do.

My rugby career

I have played rugby for Ireland since 2011. I was capped 46 times, from an inauspicious six nations start ending in broken ribs and a bruised ego to two Six Nations medals and a World Cup semi-final. I had a good innings.

I have played in some unbelievable matches ranging from toppling world champions New Zealand in the 2014 World Cup to some classic Six Nations battles against France and England. Although I debated the decision for some time, I was happy to hang up my boots after our disappointing showing in the World Cup this summer. I needed to press play again.

Leaving the house at 5.30am and getting home at 9pm was the norm. Squeezing in a gym session, one skills or conditioning session, meal preparation and rehab as well as my 9-5 job as a fundraiser for MS Ireland into 24 hours was the norm.

It is a sacrifice that we are all willing to make to have the honour of pulling on the green jersey and representing our country.

Turning points

I have had a few turning points in my life. With the death of my Dad in 2015 I lost my best friend and one of my greatest supporters but also I began to see my sporting life differently.

Two days before my Dad died of a sudden stroke I had arrived home late at night from training. I heard a song on the radio, one of my Dad’s favourites and I thought ‘I must call him tomorrow. I haven’t spoken to him all week’. We were playing England the following weekend and that took priority. I never made that call.

My priorities then started to shift. Now I needed to have time for those I cared about. I met my now fiancée Melissa and I realised I wanted a career and a family of my own. The Celtic Challenge, an insane and awe-inspiring 24-hour plus rowing race from Ireland to Wales, reaffirmed this.

I was manning a support boat in the middle of the Irish Sea. Just me and a guy called Michael in our tiny support rib and I was overcome with a great sense of my own mortality. It was in that moment I realised I wanted to accomplish things outside sport and outside rugby.

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Never having enough time

That’s where Rugby Players Ireland came into the picture. They offer great opportunities to players to look after their own personal development with an eye towards our post playing days. I applied for a scholarship to the Irish Management Institute for a postgraduate diploma in Marketing and Digital Strategy, which seemed to fit with my role in the fundraising and communications team at MS Ireland.

I have pressed play again on my career and after two modules into my course I seem to have pressed fast forward with ideas, innovations and the belief I can enact real change in my organisation.

Amateur athletes are always battling time; never having enough, wishing time could stop or there were more hours in the day. Times are changing. Even in the last few months we have seen Norwegian soccer players reaching a pay deal that matches their male counter parts and the New Zealand women’s rugby team awarded professional contracts.

I am looking forward to the day where female athletes do not have to press pause on their lives, where they can be afforded the time to train, study and make time for family and friends, and where words like ‘struggle’ and ‘sacrifice’ are no longer synonymous with a female athlete’s story.

Ailis Egan is a former Irish, Leinster and Old Belvedere rugby player.

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About the author:

Ailis Egan  / Former rugby player

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