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'I had Joshua when I was 22. For a lot of girls, that could have ended their sporting career'

Donegal and Western Bulldogs star Katy Herron is set to make her AFLW debut tomorrow. Here, she reflects on her journey both on and off the field.

Katy Herron with her son, Joshua, at training with the Western Bulldogs.
Katy Herron with her son, Joshua, at training with the Western Bulldogs.
Image: Katy Herron Instagram/Western Bulldogs.

KATY HERRON’S LIFE has changed drastically over the past few months. 

From the farm in Glenfin and her beloved Gaelic football, to the sun, sand and sea of Melbourne, and of course, her adopted sport of Australian Rules.

And she’s done it all alongside her number one, her seven-year-old son Joshua.

The Donegal star is in line to make her competitive Australian Football League Women’s [AFLW] debut overnight, as her Western Bulldogs side face St Kilda in their 2020 opener.

“It’s something I never thought could work out for me,” the 30-year-old told The42 last June shortly after putting pen to paper. Later in the summer, it still didn’t feel real as she sat in the Croke Park Hotel counting down the days until pre-season. 

Dates had yet to be finalised, and plans fully locked down, but excitement levels were most certainly building by the second.

“A big adventure,” she beamed at the time. “There was so much build-up, and then I just couldn’t think about it when county was on. You have a wee bit more time to try and organise yourself now. It will come flying in, I’m really excited.

Obviously you don’t want your county to go out and it was very disappointing, but having something to look forward to in the winter months is very exciting. I can’t wait to travel.

However devastated she was after Donegal’s championship exit, Herron was busy adjusting to the oval ball at the time, pulling team-mate and GWS Giants star Yvonne Bonner for a few tips and tricks when she was home for a few days, and watching some of the men’s AFL games closely.

Anything that would help her learn more about the rules and skills of her new sport.

That’s all paid off, evidently, with Herron catching the eye throughout the Bulldogs’ pre-season. She’s well and truly settled in now, and has found her feet alongside Tipperary midfielder Aisling McCarthy, though at the time, she was still trying to suss plenty of things out with the help of CrossCoders.

One thing of huge comfort was the number of other Irish people out there, and how herself and Joshua would never feel too far from home among the 17 other ladies football-turned-AFLW stars. 

“Ach it will be nice,” she noted, “even a lot of the Donegal girls were out there travelling last year and they were based in Melbourne. I’d say we won’t be too far from home in that way.”

She had offers of spare beds and couches from numerous people in the ex-Pat community after joining an Irish Families in Melbourne Facebook group, while her mother was stressing about the shops here running out of summer clothes.

But herself and Joshua are now happily settled in their new home Down Under after heading out in late October.

He’s the main man,” Herron smiled. “He’s very excited about it. He’s telling everyone he’s going on holidays for 70 days!

“I’m really looking forward to seeing how he adapts. Obviously I don’t want him missing too much school but listen, he’s only young and he won’t miss too much. He’s buzzing about it now.”

A secondary school teacher by trade, Herron has been teaching her son in every sense of the word on their big adventure, and it’s something she’s keen to do throughout life. She’s passionate about sharing her story to help others, and that’s why she got involved with the the Lidl #SeriousSupport Schools Programme over the past few months.

Before she jetted off to Australia, she was one of 10 athlete mentors — current or former elite level footballers — who went into schools across the country to help encourage teenage girls to stay in sport.

Research undertaken by Lidl shows that by the age of 13, one in two girls drop out of sport, and girls are three times more likely to give up sport than boys. 

When I went to college I actually stopped playing Gaelic for a couple of years,” Herron recalls, as she reflects on her own journey, “I played soccer for a while.

“But it seems to be such a big thing now at a younger age, that girls are dropping out for various reasons. I’m hoping that this programme will highlight the impact that it has in a positive way, and how it can help kids in their personal lives to get through different challenges that they face.

“I don’t think they realise how powerful sport can be in dealing with stuff like that, and in taking their mind off things. Hopefully we can inspire them and show the paths we’ve come from.”

katy-herron Lining out for Donegal in 2018. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

I’m looking forward to sharing my story because in my life, I obviously had Joshua when I was 22,” she adds. “For a lot of girls, that could have ended their sporting career. They could have made that decision and just given up on anything they wanted to do.

“That does happen quite commonly, so I’m looking forward to actually sharing that and showing girls that there’s always another path.”

A few years ago, she herself couldn’t see that just as clearly however. 

God I have to stop everything, was Herron’s immediate thought when she learned she was pregnant. She had been starring for Donegal ladies, and for her club, Glenfin, week in, week out — all the while balancing her studies — but things looked set to change.

“I think it was actually the fact that I thought I had this opportunity and then it was gone,” she recalls. “I thought that I had given up that myself and that hurt the most, that through my decisions I had given up all my dreams. That was something I really didn’t want to happen.”

She pauses, her smile widens, and her next sentence says it all.

To be fair, if I didn’t have Joshua, I probably wouldn’t be the player I am today.

Her mind switches back to life pre-Joshua momentarily, before delving deeper into how his arrival was the best thing that every happened to her.

“It was such a big thing. I was distraught and everyone… it was quite a disappointing time for me. But you work through it all and you set your mind at it, that you’re going to get through it.

“I went back and I graduated with my class and finished my teaching practice, and that’s all part of my story, and [I'm telling it] for kids to realise that there is a brighter future in the end of it. It doesn’t have to be doom and gloom, it’s how you look at it.

It’s all about changing your mindset and being positive, and there will be light at the end of the tunnel.

That’s exactly what she did in getting back to football.

After getting over her initial fears, she just attacked it head on.

katy joshua Katy and Joshua. Source: Western Bulldogs.

“It took a lot of courage for me to get back, get training,” she concedes. “I probably went back too soon. I was just so eager to get back on the field.

“I had only gotten my jersey and then I gave it away, and I wanted to earn it back again. I worked really hard at that and did a lot of training outside of county in my own time. I just really wanted to keep that dream alive, be it play in Croke Park or just get back on the county team, that’s something I needed in my life.

The support I got from my family at the time was brilliant. It still is. Without them I wouldn’t be playing, but that was a massive part of my life and it has shaped my life now. 

While she acknowledges that others may not be in the same situation with such a supportive family, she encourages people to lean on their respective support systems whether that be friends, teachers or other mentors to help them through life.

“For me, it was my family and my friends and when I went back to football, the support I got from the girls,” Herron continues. “I just wanted to drive to be better.

“My Dad would have been a big inspiration for me football-wise and he always wanted me to do the best I could. I felt I had let him down in a sense, so I really wanted to get back and show him.”

Then there’s a giggle.

To be fair, one of the girls actually says, ‘You’re far better since you had the baby!’ It gave me that determination to try harder and try and get back in better shape than I had ever been, which I did do. To be fair, she was right.

“That’s what it is, it’s just something so small that I thought I lost that part of my life and I was so determined then to get it back and work harder than I ever had, and juggle everything. And I’ve loved it, I’ve loved every minute.”

Mapping her journey and telling her story, complete with every exhilarating high and each gut-wrenching low, in front of her athlete mentor peers was quite daunting on training days, but listening to others’ in exchange was heartwarming. 

She learned quite a lot from them, too.

katy-herron At the CrossCoders AFLW camp last May. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“We had to tell our stories in front of each other and that was lovely to see because playing against ones from other counties, you think that everything goes great for them and nobody has any other troubles in their life, or any problems.

It was lovely to get that insight into other players. Nobody’s ever had it easy. People might look up to us and think that everything’s come so easy to us but there’s a lot of hard work behind that and there’s a lot of challenges we’ve all overcome to get where we are.

“It will be nice to tell the kids that, for them to know that we’re just normal people that worked hard and got over these things. And they can do it as well if they stick at it.”

She remembers it herself: watching the all-conquering Cork ladies football team as they won All-Ireland title after All-Ireland title in Croke Park, thinking things couldn’t be better for them. 

“People were probably like, ‘That’s so easy for them, they just go out and win every year’ but a lot of them have probably come through so many different things in their personal lives. And football probably brought them closer together.

“It’s small things like that that make such a big difference in kids’ lives: staying involved in sports and even keeping them away from the peer pressures, and there’s a lot of societal change nowadays that is really having an impact on kids’ lives.

Hopefully we can try and direct them in a positive way in that light, and have an impact on their lives.

One thing’s clear with every word Herron utters: she can never be thankful enough for sport. And for what it, and ladies football in particular, has given her.

It was always an outlet.

“Even the gym, any kind of training or being in the outdoors, in that space yourself, it’s a great release from anything,” she nods. “Be it something minor or major, it doesn’t matter because everyone’s going to go through different troubles and everyone’s going to think it’s the biggest thing in their lives at the minute.

“To have sport then as a release… every football team now is like a family. You see them more than everybody else, so to have that outlet and to go and spend that time with your friends or even go to the pitch yourself and have that time alone, it just clears your mind. It’s a safe place for you when you’re involved in it.

serioussupport-schools-programme-launch At the Lidl #SeriousSupport programme launch. Source: David Fitzgerald/SPORTSFILE

“It’s a massive part of my life, and I probably wouldn’t be where I am career-wise without it. I’ve brought the skills I’ve learned from football into every teaching interview I’ve went into. When you’re explaining the skills, you realise you’ve learned them on the field.”

As our conversation winds down, Herron has one point to hammer home. 

Persistence and perseverance are two words that spring to mind as she speaks, and that sums up her journey to date best.

 ”Just because you don’t get it the first time around doesn’t mean you can’t make it another way,” she stresses. “There’s no straight path in life and if you’re determined enough to stick at it, you’ll get there in the end.

It’s having the confidence in yourself to do that and that’s obviously a stumbling block for a lot of kids these days: confidence.

“Kids are going to go through different things that they’ll feel will affect them in that they can’t go on, but for me, if I didn’t have sport I don’t know how well I would have coped. To know that I had something to build for again, and a dream that I was trying to reach again, was a big part in how I came back and that has shaped my life for the better.

“Now I have both… the best of both worlds,” Herron concludes with a nod to a very special someone. Her main man, Joshua. And her smile, at that moment, couldn’t have been any wider.

- Originally published at 07.30

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Emma Duffy

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