Irish sporting star Sarah Rowe opens up about the decision to move to Australia to play professional sports and how important the support from her family is to her.
When I first got the email about playing in Australia, I thought it was a scam. It was from a guy called George Voyage.
My dad and I were looking at it and I told him that this just couldn’t be real. We decided to email back and forth for the craic and see what happens.
George explained to me that he has a team in Ireland and asked if I’d like to train with them. I had no idea how to play the game – I knew nothing about the sport – but I decided to go, I had nothing to lose by giving it a shot. In part for moral support and in part for the craic, I brought all of my college housemates with me – we had a great time.
George painted a picture for me of what Australia was like and what was to come. As helpful as he was, it was a huge decision. I had to see it for myself rather than take someone’s word for it. I needed back up.
Dad was that back up. He was 100% supportive of my decision to go to Australia.
We flew out to Australia and visited all six clubs, which was a real eye opener. I got a feel for it very quickly and knew which clubs I’d be suited to and which ones I wouldn’t be. That was a great experience because I was able to come home and be sure of my decision after seeing it all with my own eyes. It’s every athlete’s dream to play professionally. Of course, this isn’t the sport I would have chosen. While the amateur aspect is a corner stone of Gaelic Games, I would be amazing to be in a position to play Gaelic Football for a living. So, in many ways, playing professionally in the Women’s AFL was the next best thing.
I’m so grateful and appreciative of what Collingwood did for me and how much they helped me. It’s very much a one club, one voice kind of mentality. There are four teams – VFL boys, the AFL boys, the netballers and us, so there were constantly teams in and out of the gym and on the track. On my days off, when my coach wasn’t in, I would go and train with the men’s coaches and they would take me for two hours and that was such a good help to me. I thought it was really interesting that everyone tapped into everyone else’s avenues and helped each other. I learned a lot about being in a professional environment and what a professional athlete looks like. There’s a marked difference between treating it as a job as opposed to a pastime and that experience was invaluable. When you’re out there and you’re goal focused, your family isn’t around you – it’s essentially you and the football.
I had something I was really focused on every day and I was just so driven to do well – I think that took up most of my time. But all the while, being so far away from my family and friends was obviously very tough for me. I’m extremely close with my family – my two sisters, my mum and my dad. I missed them a lot when I was away, but their support was unbelievable. Dad was part of the family business in Ballina called Rowear, a clothing company specialising in pyjamas! It wasn’t doing that well in Ireland so that they moved to Poland, did some business in London and as it turned out the best market opportunity was to set up in China. Obviously, it was a tough choice to make because it’s so far away. The decision had to be made by my Mum and Dad whether we would all up and move to Shanghai or Hong Kong (which my dad’s two brothers have done with their families) but my dad didn’t want us being uprooted. He wanted us to go to school in Ireland and grow up with Irish culture. Mum decided to stay at home rear us and that Dad would come and go. Dad would end up being over there for about three weeks, home for two weeks and then maybe London for two weeks and then go back to China again. He’d be in China about half of the year and at home as much as possible.
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My dad has shown me what hard work looks like, he travels a lot with work between China/Ireland waking up for work every morning at 4am, but still manages to make it to all my games. He really is my hero ❌Hero your Hero ❌ #20×20 #ambassador A post shared by Sarah Rowe (@sarahrowe123) on
When he’s at home in Ireland, he tries to stay in the time zone in China. He goes to bed at around nine or 10 o’clock and you can hear him going down the stairs and out the door at three in the morning, every morning. He’s meticulous about what he does in business and he lives his life like that.
He’s a sports fanatic. He’s also really involved with the Ballina rugby club and he refereed all around Ireland. He was President of the club for a few years and he’s still really involved.
Dad just sees travelling as a piece of cake at this stage. He came over to Australia, I think it was six times he was over there. He never made a fuss, just arrived. He was there for three of my matches and would have been there for longer only for the fact that my grandad got sick. The flight from China to Australia was something like a 10 hour flight and he just didn’t see it as a big deal.
Family is so important to Dad. I can’t remember being disappointed about him missing anything important in our lives, he does the same for my sisters Lorna and Fiona. He makes it to all my big games and he’d go to every training session if he could.
In Australia it was very much an open playing field, parents could go and watch us train if they wanted, so he was at every single training session when he was over there.
When you’re at home there’s so much more emotion attached to sporting occasions. My parents are there, my cousins are there, all of my friends. In Australia you don’t have the same emotional bond with the crowd. They’re not your people so that comes with a small sense of isolation. You’re on the pitch, just you and the ball.
To know that Dad was in the crowd in Australia meant the world to me. I’d always try to find him. He’d normally position himself in a place where I could see him. He follows me to whatever goal I’m scoring into, so he switches ends at the break just like the teams do. Even when we were in Croke Park he said he’d have to get two tickets for the final, one for each end of the ground.
Everyone told me that I played so much better when he was there. I think it’s just really nice to know that you’ve someone there who’s watching you and is so interested in the game. It was also great that he could understand what it’s like over there – you can to try explain what it’s like to people at home but for him to actually come up to our training sessions and see what the club was like, meet the people around me – that was amazing. If he was over for a week, he would turn up to every training session and get to know everyone around the club. He likes to understand what’s going on in my environment so that he can help to guide me as much as possible.
My dad and I debrief after games all of the time. He is brutally honest with me, which I appreciate. He tells me if I was a two out of ten or a ten out of ten, which is very rare! For example, the week I came back from Australia, I played about ten minutes for Mayo, and I was absolutely brutal. Fair enough, I hadn’t played in eight months and he told me straight up that I was very poor. It was good though – I like when someone’s honest with me. I’m definitely my own worst critic, so I’d be harder on myself then he would ever be.
My parents definitely made it extremely easy for me to pursue sport from a young age. They gave me lifts whenever I needed them – I think the day I turned seventeen and got my license was probably the happiest day of their lives. They would drive me up to Dublin for soccer, drive me down to Limerick for more soccer, then drive me back to Belmullet in Mayo. They would just drive me all over the country. I can never really repay them for that. To know that they backed everything I was doing just made my life so much easier. I can’t even imagine not having that support.
Obviously everyone thinks that their parents are the best but I feel so lucky. I’m blessed with the parents I have. If I could turn out to be half of what they are I’d be a happy woman. The way they live their life is amazing. My mother is an extremely positive person and a complete home bird, wouldn’t like to travel too far. You’d be paying her to get on a flight to China. She’s happy out with her cup of tea in the kitchen, lets us come and go, minds us, and absolutely spoils us. She always puts us first. Mum and Dad are a complete package, when you see them together they’re still as in love as they were the day they met. It was so nice for me as a child growing up to see the love they share. They always put each other first and they always have great craic as well.
You know how there’s always one friend’s house that everyone congregates in? That’s our house. If it’s for a barbecue, if it’s for a movie, whatever it is it’s always our house. It’s just one of those houses that you walk into and you just feel at home straight away. My mother is an absolute rock as well. She lets us away with a certain amount but she needed to be the stricter one when we we’re younger. You’d never want to let Mum or Dad down but Dad could never say no to me. He’s soft as butter. He’s nearly more emotional than Mum is – obviously not in business but in everyday life. Mum always says “you’d swear you didn’t have a mother because all your pictures on Instagram are all of your father” but she won’t get in a picture with me! Dad looks like he’s there all the time but Mum is doing absolutely everything she can for us.
My mum is the best. She was always at the other end of the phone. I used to ring her while I was away and she’d say “You know I’m here if you need anything, but I haven’t a clue what’s going on over there!” She’s a typical Irish mammy. She was just there for moral support as she would tell me. She doesn’t really understand the whole football thing – she doesn’t even understand Gaelic football, never mind the AFL – but she was always a helping hand when I needed it.
My extended family are crazy – they would go to every single game if they could. One of my grandfathers played on the last team to win the All–Ireland in 1951 with Mayo, and my other granddad played with the Mayo Minors in an All-Ireland final. So, both sides of my family are really into GAA, which is great.
My grandfather fell ill the day before my first game in Australia. I had trained so hard, up until that point my only worry was this game and performance nothing else mattered, and then Dad rang me to let me know and that he would understandably be going back to Ireland which mean he wouldn’t be able to come and see my debut. I always consider myself a strong person but being so far away from home that absolute shook me and made me realise that family is really all that matters. I was between two minds as to fly home or not. My family are very close – my granny and grandad have played a huge role in my life along with my parents. My granny greets you at the door with a G&T, or a glass of champagne, a real lady wiser than any women I know. She’s also subject to doing ‘the best rapping gran ‘ at all the Rowe parties! Grandad is the quieter of the two but a rock beneath us all, what they have taught me will never leave me.
Although, I refused to let them go to my games when I was younger. I had this thing – I hated people going to my games. Playing sport at that level was different to everything else in my life and it was always my own thing that I did on the side. I was really focused and didn’t want any external factors to distract me. I would also get quite nervous for games, and as a young kid I was afraid of letting everyone down. My dad was always excluded from that, for some reason. He’s the golden child in our family and was the only one I allowed at the games. As I continued to play, I realised it was actually the biggest part of my life and I needed to open people up to it. Now all of my family are obsessed. My grandad absolutely loves it and he’s always on the phone wondering how I’m getting on. My uncles, aunties, cousins – everyone comes to the games now.
Of course my boyfriend Sean has been an incredible source of support too, when I was over in Australia his perspectives as a professional athlete were invaluable to me and he was always there at the end of the phone. He’s been everything I needed.
My dad, because he travelled so much, obviously had a different perspective. He said, “Go go go! Challenge yourself!” He made it clear that if I didn’t like it, I could come straight home and that there was no pressure on me at all. At that stage, I felt that if I didn’t go, I would always regret it, and so with the support of my family, friends and teammates, my decision was easy. There was a lot of emotion, but ultimately, I knew I was making the right choice.
I wasn’t giving up on my life in Ireland and that was the most important part for me. I was temporarily living a nice Summer life over there, and then came home to a nice Summer life in Ireland. It was the best of both worlds. For how long you could do that, I don’t know.
But for now, I feel like I am surrounded by positive people and experiences – and that’s how Dad always says I should live my life!
If you enjoyed Sarah’s article, you might like to read Aoife Ni Chaiside’s “A Moment To Cherish“.
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