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'I know it's 30 years too late but I was just like, 'I can't have it that this is what a seven-year-old thinks'

Jacqui Hurley’s book ‘Girls Play Too: Inspiring Stories of Irish Sportswomen’ has been a huge hit.

“BOYS ARE BETTER because their matches are on TV.”

It was that exact sentence that made Jacqui Hurley really take action. The presenter, broadcaster and now-author first told this story at the launch of RTÉ and TG4′s 2019 Fifa Women’s World Cup coverage last summer, and now, it’s the main inspiration behind her new book, ‘Girls Play Too: Inspiring Stories of Irish Sportswomen.’

lidl-girls-play-too-launch Jacqui Hurley launching her book, 'Girls Play Too: Inspiring Stories of Irish Sportswomen'. Source: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

On a trip to the zoo last year, she overheard her then-five-year-old son, Luke, and his friend, Ivana, arguing. The standard, ‘Girls are better… no, boys are better’ debate was underway, but after Ivana conceded defeat and said that boys are superior, Hurley intervened.

“I heard her say that, and I said, ‘Ivana, why do you think boys are better?’ And she said, ‘Because boys’ matches are on TV,’” she told The42 last year. “I just thought, ‘Jesus, how has society taught a seven-year-old girl that this is what is known?’”

A little over a year on and again, speaking to this publication to launch of ‘Girls Play Too,’ a stunning collection of stories about Ireland’s most accomplished sportswomen, Hurley returns to that moment. And that sentence.

“It just really stayed with me so much,” she says, mapping the books’ journey to the shelf. The Cork woman had been thinking about it for a long time and always felt that it would be lovely to do something along those lines, but after Ivanna’s comment, she knew she had to.

I was just like, ‘I can’t have it that this is what a seven-year-old thinks. Now’s the time for that book, like right now.’ I went home and I started writing.

“That was March 2019, I think, and from the moment I started writing it, I was just like, ‘Right, this is the right book’ because I wished I had this book. I know it’s like 30 years too late… but it just took a hold of me. It’s such a passion project.”

The decision was made that 25 athletes from across all sports would feature within, and every single one of them immediately agreed to the idea and were thrilled to be involved — “really the best part about,” Hurley smiles.

Five female illustrators came on board, also agreeing straight away to collaborate, so the book really showcases female talent across the board. “It just means that there’s more female talent in this book than just the sportspeople as well, which is deadly,” the modest author adds.

From there, it was just about bringing it all together.

Over the moon with the finished product, Hurley notes: “One of the things that I said about 20×20, given the year that we were having, was that I wanted to do something tangible that young girls would have forever.

I’m not going to say it’s going to change the world or change what it means to them, but it was important to me that they would have something in their hand that would feel real, like in this whole movement.”

Indeed, this book now adds to the 20×20 movement, which has been a major platform for progress for women in sport of late.

2020 “should be our year,” Hurley agrees, with a nod to the culmination of all of the work on participation and visibility since the campaign’s launch in 2018.

lidl-girls-play-too-launch With Sarah Rowe and Katie Mullan at the launch. Source: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

“Take the pandemic out of it and I do think there’s huge strides being made, and it just felt to me that this might be something that adds to the wave of movement.

“Listen, I don’t know, I hope that the book is going to be a success. Like I said, I don’t think it’s going to change the game for anybody but I do think what I might do is just normalise it a little bit more at this age group: eight to 12 year olds right now, we’re trying to show them their role models.

“This morning, we were out taking photographs for the book, and it was three young girls who were standing out in the rain, and they were getting autographs off [Irish hockey captain] Katie Mullan. I was like, ‘This is brilliant.’ They came straight over to her and said, ‘We’re going to Lidl tomorrow to buy the book.’

This is exactly why we’re doing it, because you want to show those girls that these role models are visible to them and they’re everywhere.

“Just having something like this to tell them their stories when they were their age, so that they know, ‘Okay, if I want to be Rena Buckley, I need to start training now and I need to do this,’ that they have a pathway, they can see it and it makes sense to them for their age group.”

As the slogan, ‘If she can’t see it, she can’t be it’ stresses, that visibility factor is so important. Role models are key for young girls and boys who want to follow in their sporting footsteps, but it’s necessary for them to realise that it’s not all plain sailing.

With the good, comes the bad, and Hurley felt that was important to outline in the book too, in which stories are told in a fairytale style.

An example she gives from the life of Ireland rugby player and former Gaelic football and basketball star Lindsay Peat: “Her story talks about how she had weight issues.

“She had decided that she wanted to lose weight because she needed to be the best athlete that she could be. And there was a year she lost five stone.

I’m not trying to sugarcoat this for young girls, saying, ‘You can be fabulous from the moment you’re born.’ What was really important to me is that I want them to see the bigger picture here.”

Former Irish rugby captain Fiona Coghlan’s story touches on how the team suffered endless disappointment in the Six Nations — including that infamous overnight train before facing France in 2012 — before tasting success.

“It’s not about trying to paint a picture for people that’s like, ‘This is the ultimate beautiful story, you can be a success story overnight,’” Hurley adds. “It’s actually just telling girls, ‘This is what it took them to succeed, and I hope you’re inspired by it.’

lindsay-peat-with-her-son-barra-after-the-game Lindsay Peat with her son Barra in 2017. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“There’s a balance between that because look, you don’t want to scare kids off either but you do want to show them that this is the reality of what it was like to be a girl for some of these people and hopefully it’ll be a little bit better for you.”

The reaction to ‘Girls Play Too,’ which is on sale in Lidl and Easons, has been nothing short of incredible for Hurley. She admits she’s been “totally overwhelmed,” and she doesn’t mind sharing the fact that she’s had “a few teary days”. 

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Watching Peat’s Instagram story the day before we spoke was a special moment, the Dubliner’s young son Barra delighted that “Mommy’s in a book!” And a message afterwards made Hurley’s day.

“She was like, ‘It’s so amazing, him asking me questions.’ He was like, ‘Mommy, I didn’t know you were good at three sports.’ I was like, ‘Jesus, tell him you’re better at more than three sports!’ Isn’t it amazing that he’s learning, and to see the pride that it’s giving her to be in the book.”

The athletes’ reaction has nearly made her happier than anything else, she concedes, as it’s assured her she’s done their respective stories justice. “It’s so important that they love it as well and that they want to share with all their friends and family.

“The other thing as well,” Hurley adds, “and it is exactly what we want — is so many dads have reached out to me and said, ‘Oh my god, I can’t wait to get this from my daughter.’ I’ve had everyone from Kieran Donaghy to Brian O’Driscoll, key men in the game who have daughters. They’re the ones that you want as well.

We want women in sport to grow but it’s going to take a big community to build this and those Dads are crucial in all of this. I was delighted to see all of them getting on board with it as well. It was lovely.”

A former Irish basketball and Cork camogie star herself, the process of writing, ‘Girls Play Too’ has really helped Hurley closely measure the strides and progression made by women in sport over the past few years.

The changes from the 36-year-old’s playing days are nothing short of astronomical — “it’s like night and day,” she stresses — with the leaps and bounds made since she started her broadcasting career in the mid-2000s pretty massive too.

She notices big differences in simple things like Googling statistics during pre-match research with the database ever-increasing. “Jesus, when I was playing, you’d hardly know who was on the team, never mind anything about them.”

Now, there’s more articles, podcasts, videos and information available. There’s just more data on offer in general for people to learn more about female athletes, which is great.

“Look, it’s not perfect and there’s still a way to go but I do think it’s about seeing it and that visibility piece — there’s a reason why it’s a buzzword, because it’s so crucial. I definitely think that the wheels were in motion for this thing to take off. 

cl Presenting the 2020 Women's Champions League final last weekend alongside Stephanie Roche and Aine O'Gorman. Source: Jacqui Hurley Twitter.

“If you turn on the TV now, the amount of women’s sport that’s on it, and not just on RTÉ,” she adds, referencing BBC and Eurosport. It’s the norm now, with women’s soccer, rugby, hockey, camogie and ladies football all easily available on the regular on Irish TV. 

A far cry from the situation a few years back.

Not only have these comparisons allowed Hurley to look back on her own sporting career and childhood, the period of lockdown also afforded her some time for reflection and taking stock.

While working in RTÉ mostly — though she’s been doing some bits and pieces remotely through Covid-19 pandemic — and her commitments as an adjunct professor in sports journalism in University of Limerick has occupied most of her thoughts, the sport-free period allowed her to look back on her younger years.

And missing it certainly made her realise how much she needs sport in her life.

“Well if I looked back too hard I’d end up with a load of regrets,” Hurley laughs, reflecting on her camogie and international basketball days. “You don’t really know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.

When I was younger, I didn’t like the identity of, ‘Oh, there’s Jacqui Hurley the basketball player,’ or, ‘There’s Jacqui Hurley the camogie player’. I kind of struggled with that. I wanted to be known as, ‘Jacqui Hurley, she’s a bit of craic!’ Athletes have that, where they really struggle with identity. Now, I’m like, ‘Jesus I’d love to be known as that.’

“Now I’m probably known as, ‘Jacqui Hurley, the sports presenter’ I’m a lot more comfortable with it now because I’m a lot better at living in the moment than I was back then, I would say.”

“In the period of reflection I think all of us are probably a bit more grateful for what we have,” she concludes. “One thing that has taught me is how much I need sport in my life because I have missed it more than I know.

“Even just going to the gym, Jesus I really missed that when I didn’t have that during lockdown. My basketball season is hopefully coming back in a couple of weeks, restrictions aside.

“You just realise how much you need it and how much it has shaped you and how important the whole thing is, that’s what I found anyway.”

And that’s what things like, ‘Girls Play Too’ will do for the younger generation, too.

***

Lidl Ireland celebrates the launch of ‘Girls Play Too: Inspiring Stories Of Irish Sportswomen’, the first ever collection of stories about Ireland’s most accomplished sportswomen. The book is available exclusively in all Lidl stores across the island of Ireland from Thursday, 20 August to Sunday, 6 September. 

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Emma Duffy

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