"I suffered from sports-induced asthma" - My LGFA Life with Waterford's Michelle Ryan

Michelle Ryan – Waterford

Age: 34

Club: Ballymacarbry

Occupation: Secondary School Teacher

County debut: 2001

Notable achievements:

1 Munster senior title, 3 National League titles (Division 1, 2 and 3), 1 Intermediate All-Ireland, 7 Munster intermediate titles, 5 Interprovincial titles, 2017 Munster LGFA Player of the Year, 1 Munster senior club title


Q: Michelle, thanks for chatting to us. How have you found your experience of playing Ladies Football?


A: If I was to sum it up I would say that it has been mentally and emotionally challenging at times but that it has primarily been incredibly fulfilling, enriching and enjoyable. Playing football has taken the number one spot in my life for as long as I can remember and it has hugely shaped the person that I am today. The vast majority of my closest friends are former or current teammates from both my club and other clubs around the county. By playing Ladies Football I have learned a lot about myself and I have applied, and continue to apply, so many of the lessons and skills learned from a sporting context to both my personal and professional lives. There have been plenty of unforgettable memories full of tears and laughter and a fantastic sense of unity with incredible people, but being part of an intercounty panel can also be a huge test of character at times and can bring you to emotional extremes like nothing else.


Q: What was it that sparked your interest in the sport from a young age?


A: My Mam Catherine, my aunts and a lot of my cousins all played football and most people know at this stage that my Dad Michael was a huge influence on me. I became aware of Dad’s involvement, commitment, passion and success from a very young age and it sparked a similar interest in me. I grew up admiring him and the teams he was managing and I was constantly to be found kicking the ball up against the gable end wall at home. I followed him and the Ballymac and Waterford teams everywhere they went. I remember that the trainings were very tough and that Dad was very strict but, to me, the atmosphere and dynamics of the whole set-up were so captivating, and the players were so talented, that I wanted nothing more than to be a part of it and to be as good as they were. Before each training session I gathered the gear together and hopped into the back of Dad’s van, praying that he wouldn’t have to give a lift to many players because if he did there was a chance that I’d have to stay at home! I loved fielding the balls from behind the goals during a shooting drill and always hoped that there was an odd number at training so that maybe I might be called upon to fill in! Matches were my favourite though and still are to this day! I went to every match that I could go to and loved being on the team bus and in the team hotel, experiencing it all first-hand. I still remember getting upset outside Croke Park beside the team bus after their victory in the 1991 All-Ireland because I wasn’t allowed to go back to the team hotel with Dad! Although thinking about it now my parents were probably right – late night All-Ireland celebrations probably weren’t the best place for a 5 year old! During the nineties I learned the names of the all the opposition players and on Sunday nights I even typed up the match reports that Dad had written for the local newspapers and then sat down with him to watch and analyse videos of previous matches. Football simply had a constant presence in our house growing up, there was no escaping it!

Q: How big a thrill was it for you to pull on the Waterford jersey?


A: When I was on my first county panel at U14 level, we won the All-Ireland final for the first time but funnily enough during that season I rarely, if ever, got a jersey! The panel was so big that year that we didn’t have enough jerseys and at that time I just wasn’t good enough to be in realistic contention for a place but I still remember being so excited and thrilled to be part of it and winning an All-Ireland medal in my first year at such a young age just gave me the motivation and encouragement to keep going. With that said, I still remember that playing on underage county teams seriously tested my love of the sport, my ambition and especially my self-confidence at times. Being outside the confines of your local club and having to prove yourself among players that were oftentimes taller, stronger, more skilful and oozing in confidence was sometimes terrifying. By the time I was togging out on the senior panel, the jersey was being put on with a lot of excitement and an eager anticipation of success but also with a very high level of nervousness because I was very aware of the quality of players that were around me at the time. As time passed and I became more experienced I became a lot more comfortable in the Waterford jersey and it became a huge part of my identity. Right up until my last game vs Galway last year, I still putting it on with a huge sense of pride and excitement.


Q: You’re still proudly representing your club, Ballymacarbry. What is the best thing for you about playing Ladies Football?


A: Without a doubt, the best thing about playing Ladies Football has been the friendships that I have made as a result of it and all the shared memories (good, bad and crazy!) that we have all experienced together and constantly remind each other of! Even though a lot of us have retired from intercounty football with Waterford at this stage, we still make an effort to stay in touch and there are plenty of coffees catch-ups, lunch dates and guilt-free socialising to keep us going….all of which have become video chats or online quizzes these days! It’s inevitable that such a bond develops between teammates because these are the people you spend so much time with and go through so much hardship with and also because they’re more than likely free when you’re free so you end up spending a lot of time off the pitch together! There is also a group of 11 of us in the club that have been very close friends for a long time. The age range of the group spans 11 years and even though there are a few sisters thrown into the mix, we all became very close as a group while training with each other up through the ranks of the club. These friendships that were made through my playing with my club and county have strengthened and endured over the years and I’ll always be grateful for these people that are in my life as a result of Ladies Football.

Q: Who was the biggest influence on your career? 


A: As I’ve already mentioned, my Dad has been the biggest influence on me. It was him who sparked an interest in me from a very young age and it was his lead that I took when it came to commitment, passion, preparation, analysing games and using words in the dressing room or in the field. I think that me, my brother Shane and my sisters, Louise and Sinéad, would all admit that as a trainer and manger he has always pushed us all to work hard, never to settle, to keep getting better and to fulfil our potential. In stark contrast Mam has always been our number one supporter in that we could never do any wrong and she could never bring herself to admit that we might have had a bad game or weren’t good enough. It always made for an interesting post-match discussion!! As my siblings, mother, aunts and cousins can all attest to, there is never any preferential treatment when Dad was involved and tough decisions are always made for the good of the team regardless of who is involved. All of that meant that we developed an mental toughness and determination to persistently work hard to be as good as we could be and to achieve. His effectiveness as a manager comes from an insistence of doing the simple things right but with intensity and also from an unwillingness to give up easily. All of these things have become valuable lessons and have shaped my approach to playing.


Q: What are the main challenges that you have faced in your career so far?


A: There have been a few! For the majority of my underage and adult intercounty career I would have struggled with self-confidence and would have been guilty of overthinking and over-analysing things. Big losses, bad personal performances or missing key chances in games would have weighed heavily on me and I would often have been told that I cared too much about it all. When we were knocked out of the championship I always took it very hard but wouldn’t necessarily have expressed it until I got home. I never enjoyed going out straight after a loss and to this day I still don’t!

Physically, one of the most challenging things for me has been training and playing with breathing difficulties. When I was younger I suffered from sports-induced asthma and believe it or not I spent almost my entire adult intercounty career unable to breathe through my nose because of severe inflammation and chronic sinus problems. This hugely affected my immune system in general and made it very difficult and painful to breathe and recover. During tough training sessions and during certain types of weather, I would oftentimes be under such strain that I would have pains across my chest and shoulders and feel very close to having an asthma attack. I mean, pre-season training is hard enough without being able to get any air in!!! It has always been incredibly frustrating but I forced myself to adapt as best I could as it was never something that I wanted to use as an excuse. In fact, Dad was the only manager I’ve had who would have known how difficult it has been. These issues eventually became so troublesome in my day-to-day life that I had an operation to relieve it in November 2017 in the hope that I could say goodbye the endless packets of tissues, nasal sprays and Airwaves chewing gum that had been seeing me through the football seasons up until then. It was a short-lived success however so the Airwaves are back in the gear-bag now!

Mentally, one of the toughest challenges I faced was being dropped from the starting 15 for the 2015 intermediate championship. While I understood that the emphasis that year was based on the collectiveness and importance of the panel as well as the impact from the bench, it was the first year in my career since the early 2000s that I wasn’t on the starting team for championship. Personally it was tough to take for a long time but I wouldn’t allow myself to show it when I was at training or matches because the team came first at the end of the day. As we progressed through the championship it became apparent to me that my role was that of an impact substitute, being regularly brought on after 6-10 mins of the second half in each game. However, I’ve always lived for matches and I’d always choose playing over not playing! This was hurting a lot but at a certain stage I knew that a personal mental adjustment was needed to allow myself to deal with it. During the lead up to the All-Ireland quarter final, semi-final and final I trained as hard as I could each week to put myself back in contention to be in the starting team. I didn’t want to have any regrets and I wanted to be able to say that I had done as much as I could and was playing and training as well as I could be. With that said, I also worked very hard to mentally prepare myself for not starting in those big games and resolved to make as big an impact as I could every time that I came on.

Q: How big a decision was it for you to announce your retirement from inter-county football after such a long career?


A: Well, to be honest, it wasn’t the first time that I had seriously considered it. I had originally finished up the 2016 season fully planning to retire and was looking forward to possibly doing a bit more travelling but a few conversations in early 2017 with the team management and close family and friends as well as a compounding dissatisfaction with not having been available to play our final intercounty match of the 2016 season convinced me to stay playing. I toyed with the idea at the start of 2018 but not for long as I felt happy enough with how I was playing. However, at the start of the 2019 season, I did feel that it would more than likely be my last year. As the year progressed I was physically and mentally tiring no matter how much I tried to ignore it and a back spasm in the warm-up before the quarter final vs Galway was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back. When we were knocked out I did as I’ve always done ; privately dealt with the disappointment as best I could and put the decision on the 2020 season to the back of my mind for a few months and focussed in on the club championship. It was late November by the time that I allowed myself to weigh it up properly and I decided to discuss it with my brother Shane a few weeks later as we would be very similar in our mindset and approaches to sport. We both realised that I knew deep down what my decision was going to be but that I just didn’t want to say it and make it official. It had been the biggest focus of my life for so long, with everything else and my interactions with everyone else revolving around it. I’m not a very openly emotional person but football is probably the one thing that has always been able to provoke an emotional reaction in me and making this decision and announcing it officially was no different. Deep down I knew that it was the right time and I knew that I was very lucky to be calling it myself and to have finished up still playing relatively well. To me it was the best way to finish up.


Q: What are your hopes and aspirations for the rest of your career?


A: Top of the list right now is probably to be healthy and to stay injury-free so to allow me to play club for another while yet! On the pitch, a Munster club title is definitely our main goal. I was playing wing-back on the team that won in 2000 but since then I’ve lost 13 Munster A club finals. We’ve come agonisingly close over the last few years even though it wasn’t to be but we’re still determined to keep pushing to achieve that goal. Other than that, I’m looking forward to enjoying my football with Ballymac for as long as I can. It’s a fantastic club and I love being a part of it. The standards that are set and maintained and the attitude of the players are all comparable to most intercounty setups and you also couldn’t ask for a more fun-loving mix of personalities. There are always plenty of laughs to be had!


Q: Do you have a favourite photograph from your career?


A: There are a few and I’ve shared some of them on my social media at some stage over the last 12 months. My Mam is responsible for most of them because her love for photographs made her the unofficial Ballymac and Waterford LGFA photographer for a long period of time. We are really lucky that she has managed to capture so many memories of us all both on and off the field throughout the years. I have always loved the photo of me as a mascot in Croke Park with Marie Crotty when I was 11 months old and the one of me coming back from a drugs test after the league final in Cusack Park in Ennis in 2002. But the photo of me and my Dad taken by Brendan Moran of Sportsfile last year after the Division 2 League final is my favourite so far. Everyone assumes it’s the one of us looking into the camera but my favourite is actually the one just before we hug. For me it captures the raw emotion, excitement and the significance of the victory as well as the passion that both of us have always had for the sport.


Q: What’s your career highlight?


A: It has to be victory in the 2015 Intermediate All-Ireland final. I’ll never forget the last few minutes of that final and the celebrations on the pitch afterwards. Aileen Wall had just scored our last goal to seal the win and I remember being on the Canal End of the Croke Park pitch while the ball was up the other end and realising that this was actually about to happen. It was all the sweeter when compared to the despair at the same moment in the 2010 and 2012 finals. During the last few minutes if the 2015 final I remember really taking in my surroundings and I will never forget the personal satisfaction and bubbling exhilaration while waiting for the final whistle to be blown. When it eventually did blow, the raw emotion felt by all of the players was clear to be seen. I never get tired of seeing photos or clips from that day. It was also incredibly special to be able to share that experience with my sisters Louise and Sinéad, both of whom had missed out on the 2012 final. We had spent our entire childhood playing football or fighting over football while being mascots for the senior Waterford team and now eventually, we were getting to experience something together that we had been imagining since then.


Q: How big a challenge was it for you, as an inter-county player, to manage the work-life balance?


A: To be honest it was personally never that difficult as I was fully resolved and committed to what I was doing. Thankfully football has never caused much disruption to my job as a teacher and vice versa. The rest of my life has always revolved around training and matches and my friends away from the team can easily and sometimes frustratingly attest to that! I didn’t go on the travels or J1’s that my friends and siblings went on, I preferred my time playing football in college more than the social life and I flew home many times during my off-campus year in France just for matches but I was okay with all of that. Others were more put out by those things than I was! The only minor challenges that arose where when it came to cancelling on friends or family, leaving events early, arriving late and being restricted in certain things. but that’s no different to any other player. In 2015 our management made having a life away from football a little bit easier by scheduling out our entire year from start to finish so that we could plan around trainings and matches. I loved that type of organisation and it made spending time with friends and family much easier to schedule. So from then on rather than assuming I wasn’t available for anything as had been the case in previous years, everyone became well used to me taking out my phone to check my colour-coded football calendar whenever something was suggested. I then became an expert at fitting as much into rest of the calendar as possible! With that said I’m very grateful that my friends and family have always very so understanding, accepting and supportive when it comes to trying to balance everything because you couldn’t keep playing intercounty football for 19 years if that wasn’t the case.


Q: What piece of advice would you offer to up and coming young players?


A: There are two main things that I always advise young players to do. The first is to never give up. It’s based on a piece of valuable advice given to me by a former Waterford captain when I was younger that had a big impact on me. I often tell younger players that I wasn’t good enough to make the first fifteen when I was starting out playing underage football for Waterford and at times it was very disappointing and disheartening but I kept going because I loved it and because I really wanted to be successful. So I would always encourage young players to never give up and to work hard, especially on the days when things are going against them. Not making the team or not playing well shouldn’t be the reason for giving up. Get to know what you’re good at and become even better at it. Keep pushing yourself to improve and to achieve more. Things won’t always go your way but it’s your reaction to things that will more than likely determine your eventual success.


The second thing I encourage younger players to do is to try to fully take in and mentally note the good days especially at the start of your playing career, whether it’s winning a schools championship or winning your first underage or adult county final. The further you get into your career, the more you realise that nothing is guaranteed and when it comes to retirement, the early memories of your playing days and the details of the good days become even more valuable to you.

Q: And who’s given you the best piece of advice during your career?


A: One thing that I’ve never forgotten was a piece of advice given to me by former Waterford captain Siobhán O’Ryan during the celebrations after winning the 1998 All-Ireland final. She told me how she never felt that she was the one of the best players when she was playing underage football but she stuck at it and worked hard because she loved it and because of that she was just after successfully captaining Waterford to their 5th senior title in 8 years. That moment and that piece of advice always stuck with me. At such a young age I could already relate to what she was saying but it reinforced in me a stubbornness and determination to never give up and to keep pushing myself to improve. It was something that kept coming back to me during the tougher days and definitely helped me to keep persevering.

Q: What hobbies do you enjoy?


A: Prior to retirement there wasn’t a lot of time for other hobbies away from football and it’s often the case in our family that if you’re not playing a match yourself then you’re more than likely going to watch a match somewhere else. But GAA and Ladies Football aside, I love eating out and going to the cinema, binging on Netflix, reading (when I have the time!), spending good quality time with friends and watching most sports. I really enjoy being active and I’m always on the go. I have always loved messing around with all sports whether it’s going for a few pucks of the sliotar, trying to get the knack of pitch and putt or getting stuck into staff volleyball and basketball matches. I became very interested in basketball after I was introduced to it in primary school. I continued to play it in secondary school and even went back and played with a team located just outside Clonmel during the football off-season a few years ago which I thoroughly enjoyed. I also enjoy going on hikes or taking off on a road trips and holidays when the schedule allows for it. During this lockdown I have started running regularly (which for those who know me must mean that pigs can actually fly!) but I can’t say that I’ve hit that ‘enjoyable’ phase that everyone keeps telling me about!


Q: You’re hosting a dinner party, and you can invite 5 people. Who’s on the list and what are you rustling up for your guests to eat?


A: I really hate these type of questions! Ok, if I had to choose at the minute it would be Shane Lowry, Donncha O’Callaghan, Mary McAleese, Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh and Michelle Obama but there is easily a list of another 5/6 people that I could include. As long as they were good craic, had interesting stories to tell and could contribute to a good debate then they’d be welcome! As for what I’d rustle up…..well I’m definitely no Nigella in the kitchen as I’m not a huge fan of cooking so I’d probably stick with something foolproof like tapas-style starters and then my chicken, veg and pasta bake!

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