Ireland Women’s Rugby star, Laura Feely, gives a candid account of life as an elite amateur athlete, battling anxiety and maintaining perspective inside and outside “the bubble” of international rugby.

What are the chances of a Black Fern moving to Letterkenny, Co. Donegal to take up coaching young women in rugby? Quite high as it turned out. Teresa Dunn moved from New Zealand to Donegal when I was a kid. She and her husband Reggie were my coaches back then.

Teresa taught me all the fundamentals of being a rugby player. As a young girl, to be coached by someone who had played at the very top level of the game was inspiring. It was a game changer in my life. It set me on the path that I’m still heading down to this day.

As I found out, in women’s rugby, your path is rarely straight forward. In the men’s game, players can get ID’d while still playing Junior Cup, managed and coached all the way through to Academy level and on from there.  It’s rarely that straight forward in women’s rugby. At some point, you need someone to see something in you and take a leap of faith. At least, that’s how it was for me.

I was living in Sligo in first year of college. I was still playing with Ulster and I remember Phillip Doyle aka “Goose”, the Ireland coach at the time, came to one of the sessions in Belfast. A few mornings later I got a phone call – he wanted to see if I could get my own personal trainer in Sligo. He thought I had potential!

The fact that Goose noticed me back then was a huge boost.

I think that was always in my head. ‘If he thinks that I’m okay at this sport then maybe I actually am.’ So, I always believed I was. But I also knew that it’s never plain sailing.  Nothing is guaranteed and there have been some big disappointments and obstacles to deal with.

Here’s a few hard facts:

I’ve been dropped from nearly every team I’ve ever played on.

I was benched for the first four years of playing in the Interpros Series with Ulster and Connacht.

The worst disappointment by far… I wasn’t selected for the Women’s Rugby World Cup squad in 2017.

Laura Feely in action for Connacht against Leinster during the Women's Interprovincial Rugby Series in 2016. ©INPHO/Tommy Dickson

Laura Feely in action for Connacht against Leinster during the Women’s Interprovincial Rugby Series in 2016. ©INPHO/Tommy Dickson

I moved to Galway in 2013, I didn’t know anyone so the 20 girls that were playing for Galwegians at the time were my best friends.

There was a small group of three of us we used to call the Musketeers. Myself, Mary Healy and Mairead Coyne. We were inseparable in those first few years at Galwegians. The two girls made it into Tom Tierney’s squad during his first year as head coach. I was the only one out of that group that wasn’t selected to join the training squad that year.

My way of dealing with that was to isolate myself.

I didn’t want anyone to see that I was disappointed because I didn’t want them to think I was jealous or angry. I was thrilled for my friends but struggled with the fact I wouldn’t be joining them too. So, I used to just shut myself off from all social outings around that time and I started training like crazy. I probably got a little bit addicted to the gym at that time. I lost a lot of weight.

At times it felt like I was punishing myself for not making it. The punishment was the self-imposed isolation, throwing myself into training; the dramatic weight loss… It wasn’t healthy.

It was the following year that I made it into Tom’s Six Nations training squad. That was my first experience of “The Bubble” and just how intense that environment can be. Despite being part of the set up, I wasn’t capped in 2017.

The disappointment of not getting capped led straight back to me punishing myself. More isolation and more strict dieting.

In my head, I needed to be extremely fit, I needed to be in the gym all the time, I needed to watch what I eat. All I was really doing was seeking out “the bubble” – that place where everything is controlled, and you understand what you’re there to do.  Then there’s the real world, outside the bubble, where your friends, family and career exist.  It’s all about finding the balance between the two.

I wasn’t oblivious to the warning signs though, thankfully, I did take action. I was lucky to have access to the kind of advice that would help me to find an answer. To find a healthier balance.  Advice from friends and family started to help once I let them in.

Things got better after that. I started to relax more and enjoy my rugby again. 2018 was my year. Adam Griggs give me my first opportunity in the green Jersey against France during that years Six Nations. A special moment. I slept with my jersey under my pillow the night before.

"The Musketeers" Laura Feely, Mary Healy and Mairead Coyne of Galwegians celebrate winning the Women's All Ireland Cup Final in 2016 at Old Belvedere RFC, Dublin. ©INPHO/Gary Carr

“The Musketeers” Laura Feely, Mary Healy and Mairead Coyne of Galwegians celebrate winning the Women’s All Ireland Cup Final in 2016 at Old Belvedere RFC, Dublin. ©INPHO/Gary Carr

When I’m in the rugby bubble, I’m 100% in it. I can completely compartmentalise the rest of my life and I don’t even think about it.

It’s not until you come out of the bubble that you realise what you’ve neglected over the 10 or so weeks. I really noticed that this year.

I missed loads of social things that I should have gone to – family outings, birthdays, christenings, catching up with friends outside of rugby.  I know rightly my mam’s in the background going “Laura’s away, rugby commitments” and making my excuses for me. My friends are so used to me not being able to be there, sometimes they don’t even bother asking anymore, which is sad.

I don’t know how to explain that feeling of being distant and detached. I don’t even realise I’m doing it at the time. Then camp finishes and you have to try to claw your way back into your social circle and apologise.

I’m apologising but I’m not even sure what I’m apologising for. It’s driven by my anxiety because I want to please all sides, it becomes “Sorry for not being there” … “Sorry for not sharing the moment.”

But ultimately…

My sport is my addiction and I will do anything to achieve at the highest level.

The reality is that what I’ve done in rugby so far is the biggest achievement of my life and I don’t regret anything.

I don’t regret any of the disappointments or any of the decisions I’ve made.

But the anxiety doesn’t go away, the paranoia that I’m failing at real life. That’s why I have to keep looking for the balance.

I remember when I got into the Irish squad I looked up to a lot of the older girls like Ruth O’Reilly, Ailis Egan, Fiona Hayes, Gill Burke and Alison Miller. I was closest with Ruth, and Fiona and they both said the same. They said don’t get too sucked into it, because it’ll eat you alive. The bubble is great but can be toxic to your world outside it if you let it take over, so try not make it your everything.

Other girls told me, “relationships will be sacrificed because of this and you have to be willing to do that.” A lot of the girls struggle with balancing relationships, friendships and rugby, but you just get on with the job. You don’t question it. You continue to be selfish.

When I’m with these 30 girls, all living the same lifestyle, they’re the easiest people to surround myself with and it’s a wonderful place to be. Everyone’s on the same page.

It’s just that when you go outside it, you realise that it wasn’t real life.

My best friend is getting married in September. The Interpro Series runs from the middle of August to the middle of September. Her hen party and wedding day are both on during this time. And typical that both clash with a game day.

People outside of rugby would automatically say “you have to go to the wedding”, but that would never be the case within the rugby world, they would say “you can’t miss the game”. This is one of those four or five best friends who’s wedding I can’t miss – that’s real life. But rugby usually wins. I’m torn.

I made this commitment eleven years ago and the rugby always wins. The bubble is where I’m happy and where I always want to be. But I know that it’s not healthy to just survive off that because it won’t last forever.

Out of nowhere then the panic will hit – “Rugby doesn’t pay me; I should be thinking about my career!”  Then I’ll call my support system, my family. My brothers are great for that. They’ll just say, “Dry your eyes, we didn’t get to play for Ireland.”

This is something that very few people get to do – that’s not lost on me. I’m so honoured to play for Ireland.

Women's Six Nations Championship Round 3, Stadio Lanfranchi, Parma, Italy 23/2/2019 Italy Women vs Ireland Women Ireland's Ciara Griffin, Laura Feely and Emma Hooban during the anthems. ©INPHO/Matteo Ciambelli

Ireland’s Ciara Griffin, Laura Feely and Emma Hooban during the anthems. Women’s Six Nations Championship,  Parma, Italy 23/2/2019 Italy Women vs Ireland Women ©INPHO/Matteo Ciambelli

It’s such a mad cycle of emotions. The lows can be quite low. Rugby makes the anxiety go away. Then I come out of the bubble and everyone disperses and goes back around the country to work. I feel lost. I struggle to explain that I’m not okay.

So, I haven’t got to that point yet where I’ve mastered the balance.

I will keep trying though. Rugby has been my family for the last 10 years and I wouldn’t be who I am without it. It has given me so much.

The body confidence thing definitely affected me when I was a teenager but since starting to play rugby my confidence has gone through the roof.

I was on holiday’s recently spending time with girls who don’t play sport. I noticed early on in the holiday just how body conscious they were at times and how much they look at Instagram bloggers as the ideal. I would definitely see myself as more confident in that regard. Everything seems to be about what people look like on Instagram and the girls are like, “Oh God, I can’t post that, delete that photo.”

It’s not just self-confidence. Its many aspects of life – being able to deal with disappointments and being able to like take criticism and not be offended by it but learn from it.

It teaches you hard lessons and it teaches to be assertive about what you want.

By far, my favourite part of this whole international journey is the children and how excited they are to see you and talk to you.

I will always come back out on the pitch after a game. I met a group from Loughrea when we played against France. I was signing autographs and flags. And this kid, she must have been about five or six she just clung on to my leg with this big hug. You could be Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton, Lindsay Peat, whoever, if you’re in a green jersey they look up to you.

When you get to a certain level you do become a role model no matter what. I remember the first time I met Fiona Coughlan and Lynne Cantwell. I remember the first time I met Gill Burke and Jenny Murphy. I’ll never forget when those girls shook my hand and said hello. It means a lot. So, if I can do that for one or two young people then I’m happy.

Women's Six Nations Championship Round 1, Donnybrook, Dublin 1/2/2019 Ireland Women vs England Women Ireland's Laura Feely and England's Sarah Bern ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Women’s Six Nations Championship Round 1, Donnybrook, Dublin 1/2/2019 Ireland Women vs England Women Ireland’s Laura Feely and England’s Sarah Bern ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

We need to keep driving that idea of female role models.

You see, it’s too easy to give up on sport. You need that inspiration and your support network to stay involved and keep striving to be the best that you can be.

My family gave me that opportunity, especially Mam and Dad.

Oh my God, my parents! I know everyone says this, but my parents would go anywhere and do anything to support me. Never asking questions, never saying “No, we can’t.” It was always, “Yes! We can do that.”

My mam is the motivator, my dad’s the rational voice. They are the ones that help me keep perspective the most.

Mam used to say, “life is full of hurdles Laura, you can’t jump them all at once, but you can tackle each one as they come up as best you can.”

What I know now, that I wish I knew ten years ago, is that the belief you have in yourself at that time is all you need to achieve your dreams and goals. I’d tell ‘18-year-old me’ to be resilient, be patient, never lose that belief in yourself, and enjoy the challenges. Don’t punish yourself for sacrificing other aspects of life, it will all be worth it, because the rugby bubble is going to be the best time of your life.

Laura Feely with her parents, Christine and Frank following her first cap for Ireland in France.

Laura Feely with her parents, Christine and Frank, following her first cap for Ireland against France in the 2018 Six Nations. Credit: Laura Feely

Another thing I’ve learned is that nothing will give you more perspective than when life takes an unexpected twist in an instant.

Last year, Dad had a freak accident off his bike. He broke his neck.

The accident happened on the May bank holiday. My family are big into cycling and Dad had taken the bike out for a spin.

I am rarely home but I was that day. I remember the panic in my mam’s voice when she took the call from my brother. She said, “your dad’s come off the bike and we need to go down and see if he’s OK.” I was thinking, maybe a broken collarbone or some injury that I would be familiar with. Then I saw the ambulance and the panic set in.

Dad was on the ground, talking to the paramedics.  His arm was lying over his face and he was saying, “I can feel my arm, but my arm can’t feel my face.”  He had no feeling from the neck down at all. He was completely paralysed.

Between the five or six of us that were there we put him on the spinal board, and we walked him through the park to the ambulance.

He told us that he’d been cycling through the park, a little dog ran out in front of him and he veered off the main path, hit the root of a tree and went over the handlebars.  It happened in seconds.

There happened to be a young fellow walking by that day, and he had just done a first aid course.  He managed to keep Dad calm and he knew not to let anyone else move him until the paramedics arrived.

By the next day Dad was able to wiggle his toes which was huge because then we knew that there was function there. The left side of the body is a lot slower than the right, but he has made such an improvement. It’s amazing how far he’s come in a year.

He had severed three quarters of the nerves in the spinal cord. So, he is so lucky that it was not a worse outcome.

Seeing Dad on the ground that day… In that moment, I thought our lives were changing forever. In my head, I was giving up rugby, my job, life in Galway and moving home to Donegal to help because I naturally presumed the worst. For the first time in my life rugby was irrelevant, my bubble world was irrelevant. All that mattered was our family getting through this awful situation.

Thankfully, Dad’s physical health and fitness before the accident stood to him. He made quick progress with his rehab in those initial months. I went home a lot more often after it all happened, but my dad being my biggest fan, was never going to let me shy away from my own goals and aspirations. Even a few days after the accident, he was already getting anxious that I was there with him, and not back in Galway training and working.  So, to keep him happy, I went back. He was content in knowing I wasn’t fussing over him. That’s just the way he is.

My parents are the best team in the world. My dad may be carrying the injury, but they got through this past year as a team. Everything from those early days of getting movement back in his limbs, learning to eat and walk again, to 14 months later, getting back on a bike again. My mam was there with him every step of the way supporting him, driving him on. Hard work and determination from both of them. Its nothing short of inspirational.

They are my true idols.

Dad still goes to all the games he can. Long travel can be challenge for him now, due to the nerve damage, so this year he didn’t make it to the game in Italy. But he still made it to the rest of my games, even though it may have been uncomfortable for him. My parents are super proud of me and my rugby keeps my dad going, he loves being around the different squads I play with for Ireland, Connacht and Galwegians. He knows all the girls, he’s like a mascot at this stage!

My dad’s accident has put a lot into perspective. Life can change in an instant. People say that all the time, but it means more to me now than ever before.

I want to enjoy all the wonderful things I have going on in my life, and not feel like I’m failing at certain aspects of it.  I am, after all, extremely lucky. Rugby is, and always will be a huge part of my life. But it’s only a part of my life. Balancing all aspects is the ultimate achievement in my eyes.

As awful as it was, it was a real wake up call to the things that matter and the things that don’t.

It was a reminder of how important it is to enjoy this precious life and the people you love – inside and outside the bubble.

Laura.

July 2019.

 

If you enjoyed Laura’s piece you might like to read Devin Toner’s piece – “My Irish Evolution

The Sports Chronicle brings you stories from the world of sport by the players, the coaches and the unsung heroes, all in their own words.

You can also check out our Podcast. Subscribe today for more.