A true leg­end

Al­ways push­ing bound­aries, Cora Staunton is now the first fe­male GAA star to re­lease an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. Jan­ice But­ler talks to the Mayo leg­end about deal­ing with dif­fi­cult times in her life and how they made her the per­son she is to­day

RTÉ Guide - - Interview -

Mayo Gaelic foot­ball leg­end Cora Staunton is awe­some and I mean that in the true sense of the word. To be hon­est, I didn’t know a huge amount about her be­fore read­ing her au­to­bi­og­ra­phy and then meet­ing her in per­son, but when I did, I found some­one who is im­pres­sive and awe-in­spir­ing. She’s hum­ble with it too – too hum­ble con­sid­er­ing her achieve­ments. Sur­pris­ingly per­haps, she’s also a lit­tle shy, al­though not nearly as shy as she once was, she tells me, but more about that later. With her au­to­bi­og­ra­phy Game Changer just pub­lished, she has been up and down be­tween Dublin and Mayo a lot re­cently, but it doesn’t faze her: “You man­age, you just get used to driv­ing,” she says.

A sports trailblazer, Cora was called up for the Mayo se­nior team at just 13 years of age. She con­tin­ues to be a woman of rsts – the rst fe­male Gaelic player to re­lease an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy.

She says the re­sponse has been over­whelm­ing. “ e phone has been hop­ping. Lots of par­ents are con­tact­ing me to say that their daugh­ters or sons are read­ing the book and how much they love it. You’ve peo­ple get­ting in touch that you’d never have heard from be­fore.”

In the book, Cora maps her re­mark­able rise to be­come the high­est-scor­ing for­ward in the his­tory of women’s foot­ball; play­ing for her club Car­na­con; her di cult child­hood, dur­ing which her mother died; and her re­cent move to Syd­ney to play Aussie Rules foot­ball.

She says she was ap­proached a few times be­fore about writ­ing her story but be­ing such a pri­vate per­son she was hes­i­tant to com­mit. Now how­ever, she felt was the right time to put pen to pa­per, with ghost writer Mary White. “I would be a very quiet, pri­vate per­son so when it was rst men­tioned I didn’t want to do it, but then the sub­ject was broached again. I de­cided to do it on the con­di­tion that it would be hon­est and it would hope­fully in­spire young boys and girls com­ing up in sport. I’ve re­alised over the last few years that when you’re a role model it’s im­por­tant that young peo­ple can read or hear your story so they have some­one to re­late to.”

e most di cult sec­tion in the book, for Cora, was writ­ing about the death of her mother Mary, who died from can­cer a er a three-year bat­tle with the ill­ness when Cora was only 16. Of course, it had a mas­sive im­pact on the fam­ily of eight chil­dren and it was one of the big rea­sons why Cora im­mersed her­self so much in sport.

“Writ­ing this book was the rst time I would have spo­ken about a lot of things from my child­hood, es­pe­cially my Mum’s death. I wouldn’t have ever sat around talk­ing about that with my broth­ers or sis­ters or friends,” she ad­mits.

“In ru­ral Ire­land, 20 years ago, when some­thing like that hap­pened you just got on with it, that’s the way it was. I found the rst few ses­sions re­ally hard with my ghost writer Mary. I was ex­hausted by the end of them. You’re talk­ing about emo­tions and feel­ings from years ago and I found that di cult but at the same time when you do talk about these things, you feel bet­ter a er­wards. I never went to a coun­sel­lor a er Mum died but I imag­ine this is what it feels like.”

Does she feel those ex­pe­ri­ences made her the per­son she is to­day? “Yes, with­out a shadow of doubt it did. I’m well able for the knocks and rough and tum­ble of life now, but I think that also comes from the fact that I come from a very big fam­ily. We didn’t have a lot grow­ing up. ere were eight of us in the space of 11 years; you had to ght for ev­ery­thing and I was in be­tween all boys so you had to be tough.”

She men­tions in the book that she was ‘born stub­born, ar­riv­ing 4 weeks pre­ma­ture on De­cem­ber 13, 1981’. She laughs when I men­tion this, say­ing; “I’m quite blunt and some­times that can bite you in the ass but it’s just the way I’ve al­ways been.

“I think I get those traits from my mother. I think I’m like her in many ways. See­ing her bat­tling can­cer for three years prob­a­bly made me a lit­tle bit an­gry and sport was my re­lease from that anger. I was strug­gling with school and strug­gling with her be­ing sick and all that made me who I am to­day.”

Her day job is health pro­mo­tion work with the Trav­eller com­mu­nity and she com­bines that with train­ing six times a week and school ap­pear­ances to give talks to the next gen­er­a­tion of sports stars. For some­one who used to be crip­pled with shy­ness, she now reg­u­larly holds the at­ten­tion of rooms of 400+ stu­dents. “You know you’re do­ing some­thing right when you can achieve that,” she laughs. “Peo­ple ex­pect you to be re­ally out­spo­ken as a sportsper­son, but no one gives you those tools, so it’s taken me quite a long time to be con dent speak­ing in front of peo­ple. You ma­ture and you de­velop over time. Life can be tough and it’s im­por­tant that young peo­ple know that when the tough stu comes your way, there’s ways of deal­ing with it.”

On a re­cent ap­pear­ance on e Late Late Show, Cora con rmed that a er four All Ire­land wins, her time with the Mayo team had come to an end, fol­low­ing a walk-out by ten play­ers (in­clud­ing Cora) and two man­agers in mid-July. A state­ment was re­leased at the time de­scrib­ing an at­mos­phere at train­ing ses­sions that they found in­tol­er­a­ble and “an un­safe en­vi­ron­ment”. e row has split pub­lic opin­ion about the GAA’s in­vest­ment in women’s games and le a mess in its wake. Sadly, it’s all Cora has been asked about in the last few months, which she de­scribes as “di cult”. “I’m 36 years of age and prob­a­bly since I was 30, I’ve been asked when I was go­ing to re­tire. If I had played out the whole of this year with Mayo I prob­a­bly wouldn’t have been com­ing back next year any­how. It’s dis­ap­point­ing it ended the way it did but I’m lucky that I’ve had 24 years play­ing with Mayo – you can’t just look at it in a snap­shot”, she says, adding: “ e thing that dis­ap­points me most is there are girls who’ve walked away from the Mayo team who are very young. It’s hugely im­por­tant that they get to have a long ca­reer and play for their county again. I’m sure in time they will; the county needs them.” For the mo­ment, Cora will con­tinue to play with her club Car­na­con, prob­a­bly un­til the sea­son ends in De­cem­ber (un­less they’re knocked out be­fore that) and then she’s pack­ing her bags for Syd­ney once again, where she will play with the Gi­ants a er be­ing the rst in­ter­na­tional player to be signed to an AFL women’s list last year. I did men­tion this woman in awe­some right? She says she loves Aus­tralia, loves the pace of life, loves that she can just fo­cus on train­ing and even a er all these years, loves that she can still try and im­prove her­self. “It’s an ad­dic­tion, as sports­peo­ple we have an ad­dic­tion and a drive to make your­self bet­ter. You just don’t know any­thing else.”

I’ve re­alised over the last few years that when you’re a role model it’s im­por­tant that young peo­ple can read or hear your story so they have some­one to re­late to

Cora lin­ing out for Mayo

Con rma­tion time... Cora hold­ing the U14 All-Ire­land Cup, 1994

Cora in ac­tion for Syd­ney West­ern Gi­ants and strapped up af­ter break­ing her nose (in­set)

Game Changerby Cora Staunton is in book­shops now

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