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'It turned my world upside down. Football gave me a focus and it's nearly my therapy'

Westmeath’s Lauralee Walsh on inter-county football, her Ireland rugby stint and how she has used sport to deal with personal tragedy.

NOT MANY PEOPLE can say that they’ve represented their county in Croke Park and donned the Ireland jersey on the world’s biggest stages.

Lidl Ladies Football National League Division 1 & 2 Finals Captains Day Lauralee Walsh. Source: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

If it happens, it’s usually one or the other, not both.

But Westmeath’s Lauralee Walsh can proudly say that she’s one of the few who has ticked both boxes.

Sport has always been a central part of her life. She laughs that as a kid, her parents carted her around to everything and anything from horse riding to gymnastics, hockey to basketball.

“They’d never say no,” she smiles.

Gaelic football was always her number one though.

She made her first appearance for the Westmeath senior side at the age of just 16, and Walsh remembers it as clear as day.

Her Dad brought her to Kinnegad and she was happy out sitting on the bench as she watched Westmeath play Dublin. She was keeping a close eye on one of the greats, Angie McNally, and watching her in awe.

Then, she was summoned to the field of play.

“Go on there and mark her (McNally),” Walsh was told. Of course, she obliged.

“I couldn’t catch her, I spent the time running after her and I think I pulled her jersey a couple of times.

“The referee called me over and he said ‘I’d hate to give you a yellow card on your debut.’ I was like ‘ok, fair enough, lesson learned!’

“I watched Angie McNally run after that but that’s probably one of the earliest memories I have playing on the senior team. Dublin were a force to be reckoned with back then, just as they are now. She was a fabulous player.”

From there, she carved a colourful inter-county career. She’s done it all — she’s won titles, lost finals and truly established her name on the ladies football scene.

In 2013 though, like many ladies footballers do, she made the jump to rugby.

Laura Walsh with Sarah Tierney Walsh starts at full-forward for Westmeath on Sunday. Source: Tom Beary/INPHO

Walsh plays her club football with Glasnevin side Na Fianna, and they were competing at the All-Ireland club sevens tournament in 2013. The Ireland rugby sevens manager was scouting around that day, and a few weeks later Walsh got the phone call.

She admits that while she had followed 15-a-side rugby, she knew very little about sevens.

“I thought ‘do you know what, it’s something to do in the off-season, something that will keep me fit.’ I kind of went into it a little bit naïve of the possibility of where I might go.”

Then came the chance to represent Ireland, and it was an opportunity she couldn’t turn down.

“When Ireland comes knocking, you don’t say no. As hard as it was maybe stepping away from the Gaelic football at the time, that was the stipulation of becoming involved in the sevens, you were solely being developed as a rugby player.

“It was a huge experience, I travelled the world I think twice over in the two years that I played. It just got very hard to manage, working with a full-time job and I guess if I was maybe five or six years younger, you could put the job on the back burner. But it just wasn’t an option for me.

“It was a brilliant experience, I loved every minute of it but I came back to Gaelic football and I’m more rejuvenated that I had that two year break. I’m hungry for it again, which is nice, at this stage of my career, to feel that way about your sport.

“I missed the (Westmeath football) girls, girls you’d see four or five times a week. If you’re not with them, you’re texting them or you’re in the Whatsapp group.

Lidl Ladies Football National League Division 1 & 2 Finals Captains Day Westmeath and Cavan is the first game of a league final double header in Parnell Park on Sunday. Source: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

“It’s that camaraderie that I really missed. We’re a very tight unit in Westmeath, we’re all genuinely very good friends, aside from being teammates. I really missed that aspect.”

The 32-year-old PE and Science teacher was dealt a huge blow at the age of 20. It was a time in her life that she needed her friends more than ever.

Walsh lost her brother, Michael, after a battle with depression. It was just the two children in the family, and there was only a year between them.

Her whole life changed forever.

“It turned my world upside down. At times, your world still does turn upside down when you think of the time that has passed without him.

“During that time, Gaelic football was of the utmost importance to me.

“We buried Michael on the Friday and I played an O’Connor cup qualifier with college the following Wednesday against UCD, and probably the following weekend I was out with Westmeath.

“Just to have your teammates rally around you like that and really look after you, but also football gave me a focus when everything else seemed so upside down.

“I’ll be forever thankful for the presence of sport and my teammates and I think that’s probably why I couldn’t wait to come back from the rugby in one sense. I probably feel like I owe Westmeath so much and I owe the girls so much for looking after me the way they did during that time.

“If I can do that for someone else, if I can look after my teammates in any shape or form, the way they looked after me, I’d only be honoured to do it.”

Walsh first shared her story publicly when the WGPA came to her house to record a video with her for their #BehindThePlayer campaign. It was originally meant to be solely about making the transition back to football from rugby.

“They were coming into my home and I couldn’t not tell our story, as a family,” she recalls.

Source: Women's GPA/YouTube

She speaks openly about it now, but of course, the pain is still there.

It’s evident that sport has been a huge release for Walsh, originally from the Garrycastle club in Athlone.

Football, and her teammates, have helped her through over the years, and have been key factors as to how she’s dealt with personal tragedy.

“I described it as nearly my therapy. You can be stuck in your head thinking about things over and over and over again but when you go out on the field, the only thing that matters is the next pass or the next play.

“Everything else that’s going on in your life is completely external to that moment in time. And it’s a lovely release, I suppose. It really is, a great release.

“Sport is so important. Even being physically active is so important for the mind and the body, aside from anything else.”

Her parents have obviously been her rock throughout her life, and playing career, and have supported her both on and off the pitch through good and bad times. And Sunday will be no different.

Westmeath are preparing for battle with old foes Cavan, as they face off in Parnell Park for the Lidl Ladies National League Division 2 crown.

Walsh laughs that you’ll hear her mother shouting in the crowd, but without them she wouldn’t be there.

“They’ve been hugely influential in my own sporting career. They brought me to everything as a youngster. Their weekends were spent carting me from one thing to the next.

“As parents go, they’ve just been brilliant. I couldn’t ask for two better. It’s gone to the stage now where they’re two really good friends, I really enjoy spending time with my parents, they’re gas, not when they’re shouting at you on the field! But they are proud of me, but I’m proud of them as well.”

Renee Murphy and Laura Walsh Walsh in action in Croke Park against Cavan back in 2011. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Both Walsh and her side are really relishing the Breffni challenge on Sunday.

The neighbouring counties met twice in Croke Park back in 2011 as their All-Ireland intermediate final was forced to a replay, and the rivalry hasn’t left since.

Walsh lined out on both occasions, and the Midlanders took the title home to the Lake County, edging the second clash by just one point.

“We seem to have mammoth battles against Cavan any time we come up against them. There’s history with the two teams since 2011, and huge respect, because we know each other so well.

“I just remember the pace of the game [in 2011] was absolutely unbelievable. I remember watching it back a couple of weeks later, the replay in particular, the pace of that game I thought was absolutely excellent.

“It’s going to be a tale of the two forward lines. Cavan are potent up front, you give Aisling Doonan a sniff of it and that’s all she needs. Forwards are going to have to take their chances and the backs are going to have to be watertight.”

Named at full-forward herself, Walsh has been pivotal to the rise of Westmeath ladies football over the past few years.

A core group within the panel have helped steer Westmeath in the right direction.

As well as winning the All-Ireland intermediate title in 2011, they also won the Division 4 league that April. They followed it up with a Division 3 title the following year.

They were beaten by this year’s top flight finalists Donegal in last May’s Division 2 league final, and were denied of the title by Galway back in 2014.

Galway and Donegal both contested this year’s Division 1 league semi-final, so despite Westmeath not having won the title, they’ve been very much there or thereabouts.

This is the year though that Walsh hopes her side can finally get over the line, and also secure promotion to the top flight.

Lidl Ladies Football National League Division 1 & 2 Finals Captains Day She captains Westmeath on Sunday. Source: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

“We’d love to see ourselves as a Division 1 team and test ourselves against the likes of Dublin, Cork, Galway and Mayo on a regular basis.

“We went out last year into a Leinster final and were annihilated by Dublin. It’s because you’re not playing that calibre week in, week out that you would be so we’d love to get ourselves up there and try to establish ourselves as a Division 1 team.

“We’re hoping any lessons we’ve learned in previous years, we can put to the fore on Sunday, but Cavan are going to be no easy task.”

Of course, representing her county means a lot to Walsh, and she stresses that it’s a huge honour to do so.

This year, she’s also been named as captain, and it’s something she sees that adds an extra layer.

“Putting on your county jersey any day of the week is a hugely proud moment but it is a lovely honour to be captain, especially at this stage of my career.

“I thought maybe it had passed me by a little bit. It does mean a huge amount and I do take it very seriously and try to lead by example as much as I can, especially any of the underage in the county who might be looking or watching and hoping that one day, they might play.

“It’s a huge honour.”

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