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'We have this intrinsic idea of masculinity. Talking about mental well-being or sexuality is stigmatised'

Dublin star Nicole Owens delves deeper into her story, and explores how and why the GAA is a heteronormative environment for men but being openly gay is accepted in the women’s game.

BACK IN NOVEMBER 2017, Nicole Owens first shared her story.

Nicole Owens Dublin star forward Nicole Owens. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

A documentary called Blues Sisters aired on RTÉ which captured the hearts of the nation. It charted Dublin’s path to All-Ireland success as they finally got over the line after three failed attempts and heartbreaking final defeats in a row.

About 13 minutes in, Owens appears on the screen. Confident and self-assured, or so it seems, she first speaks about the sense of camaraderie on the team, the bonds and how nothing compares to football.

Two team-mates then echo her sentiments, and share a few words on the highs and lows, the ups and downs, the journey that they’re all on together to achieve a common goal.

Then it cuts back to a much less confident and self-assured Owens. Visibly upset, her eyes filled with tears as she opened up about her battle with depression and how it was something she had struggled with for as long as she’d played with Dublin.

***

It’s March 2019, and a very different Nicole Owens settles into her seat in a Temple Bar hotel. Well, different in appearance anyway. Maybe she seemed confident and self-assured when she first appeared on our television screens 16 months previous. But truth be told, she wasn’t. She is now.

She’s spoken candidly about her mental health and sexuality many times since: from interviews with this publication and elsewhere, to podcasts and public speeches.

It’s far from the first topic of conversation, there’s plenty on the agenda to discuss. But the main thing is that Owens is in good place, and all is going well both on and off the field. 

With another All-Ireland crown in their cabinet, Dublin were back in league action and finding their rhythm once again. The 26-year-old was eager to talk all things football.

That weekend’s win, the league itself and how tough it is, blooding new players and giving up-and-coming talent their deserved run. That’s where she started out, sure.

Cork in the league five or six years ago, she recalls. 2012 it would have been. Feeling old now, she laughs.

“That was my first year, then I had a year off and this is my sixth year straight or something now,” the St Sylvester’s star explains, each and every campaign since flashing before her eyes.

“I came in just in time for a quarter-final loss and then three All-Ireland final losses. Good timing,” she jokes.

NO FEE VHI WOMENS MINI MARATHON LAUNCH JB14 Owens is a Vhi Women's Mini Marathon ambassador.

All is good now though, she agrees with a smile. The time really has flown. She still feels like she’s just in the door, but no, she’s one of the more experienced players at this stage. One of the more established members of the team, one of the real leaders. Both on and off the pitch.

The dark days, the three decider defeats in a row to Cork in 2014, 2015 and 2016, how that’s all a blur. Then, finally reaching the Holy Grail in 2017 and following that up with a sweet, sweet victory over the old enemy last September: it’s all discussed at length.

As she speaks about the game, her enthusiasm shines through more and more. She’s delighted to be to the fore, blazing a trail and leading the charge as ladies football breaks more and more new ground.

Sheer enjoyment. It brings her back to her childhood. She’s always loved it.

Well, loved it more than anything else.

Those endless days as the only girl in the nursery age-group in St Sylvester’s have lived right through with Owens. They’re to the forefront despite all else.

She was the type that played every sport going as a kid. She did cross country in school, played plenty of basketball and soccer too. She had a particularly soft spot for the latter, actually, and balanced it with her Gaelic football until she was 17 or 18.

She wasn’t half bad at it either.

“I had trials for the Ireland U17s,” she remembers. “I went away with them at one point for a training weekend but I didn’t make the team for what would have been the European qualifiers or something at that stage. Then, U19 trials were coming up…”

She was having none of it though. As a vulnerable teenager, not making the cut surely knocked her confidence and played some part in her decision-making when it came down to choosing one or the other.

“It was a tough one. I dunno maybe if I was fair. I kind of backed GAA more maybe, I probably enjoyed it more. I think there’s a great sense of community and the groups of people that I knew through GAA, I just had a closer affinity to.

“That’s obviously a big factor because you’re going to be spending four, five days a week with people, you want to get on with them really well.”

The people, the friendship, the camaraderie; those are the things that really matter on a team. And she’s learned that, more than anything, through the years. Silverware is great and all, but it’s about much more than that.

Nicole Owens celebrates after the game Celebrating the 2018 final win. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“If you’re looking out for everyone off the pitch and on the pitch, you do form a special bond,” Owens continues. “You spend a lot of time with people. You’re seeing everyone’s ups and everyone’s downs.

“It’s hard to find it outside of sport, that sort of sisterhood I suppose.”

Well, that sisterhood was most definitely evident in Blues Sisters in November 2017. And telling her story, well, that was part of the bigger picture, so it had to be done.

“As we were going on our journey to the All-Ireland, I was going through that journey,” she explains. “Mick [Bohan] and the team in general would have been a huge part of that.

“When he broached it: would I feel comfortable talking about it in a documentary? I felt I was being true to myself to talk about it. That was such a big factor for me that year.

“It got a brilliant reception and it impacted a lot of people and that’s, I suppose, the point of it: to be honest and give people an insight into what does go on. The same way as when we watch Match of the Day or whatever, you’re looking at this one moment in time and not the fact that these people have lives outside of it.

“You can’t just compart parts of your life. Often, you bring whatever worries you have to training so it’s a massive part of it obviously.”

The reaction and the response has been something else. But not only has sharing her story helped others, it’s helped her first and foremost. 

Last November, she penned an eloquent and touching piece entitled ‘Silence Is Not The Answer’ for The Sports Chronicle and that, she says, was a huge experience in itself.

A refreshingly honest and deeply personal in-depth read, it was therapeutic to put pen to paper herself, and bash everything out in her own words.

While it was an extremely difficult period in her life, she’s gotten more and more comfortable in her own skin looking back on the depressive episodes.

Talking helped her deal with it, after all. And she’s gotten better at it with time.

“It’s kind of funny looking back. Obviously, touch wood…”

She leans forward to place her hand on the table before realising it’s not wood, it’s glass, but that doesn’t matter.

“…I’m in a much better place now, but I’m very cognisant of the fact that it’s one of those things that is always going to be there to manage. Talking about it helps me but I think talking about it in general is just so important. 

nicole2 Owens speaking on the Blues Sisters documentary. Source: RTÉ Player.

“Doing things like that, bringing it to the fore, continuing the conversation and being more pro-active about it is just so important. With the article especially, anyone who was reading that might have identified with those feelings.”

That was a big thing for her: she couldn’t verbalise those feelings, she didn’t understand what she was going through as she came to terms with her sexuality. 

She’s not religious but she prayed every night that the homosexuality, and that those feelings, would go away. Perhaps had she seen other people express and verbalise those feelings, she’d have understood more.

“Maybe had I been able to say, ‘Ok this is what it is, this is what I’m feeling like,’ that might have helped. It would have given me some sort of framework to deal with it.

“Whereas for me it was like, ‘This is just part of me and I have to just hide it away’.”

There were very few open about suffering with depression, and basically no openly gay athletes, back then. No examples for her to follow. And for a sports-mad teenager, that was difficult.

Thankfully, now there are more.

“I suppose it’s sort of a conversation that has been happening the last five or 10 years, it’s really been prevalent,” she says. “Maybe the stigma has been somewhat removed.

“In the past, sportspeople didn’t want to talk about it because of the preconception that it may be seen as being weak.

“GAA players are now talking about issues they have: the likes of Cathal McCarron talking about gambling and mental issues… young boys look up to him. With Dublin, there’s a lot of young girls looking up to us as a team.

“It’s important that people have a bit of perspective as well and they understand that not everything’s going to go right. And people, maybe at the moment they’re succeeding but they’re having or have had some hard times. That that resonates with them almost.”

While she mentioned recently-retired Tyrone defender Cathal McCarron, she agrees that female sportspeople are more open. Men don’t want to let down a wall or be seen as weak, for one. But there’s more to it than that, she feels.

“I think an element of it is that men’s football seems to have this level of sledging that we just don’t have in women’s football, thank God,” she notes, adding that she’s never experienced anything along those lines herself.

“Whereas the men, it does get very personal. People don’t want to have a chink in their armour because then maybe people are going to go at it… I don’t know, maybe they’re politically correct in their sledging,” she grins to lighten the mood.

Cathal McCarron dejected after the game She mentions Tyrone footballer Cathal McCarron. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

But then she’s serious again.

“It’s been in and out of the men’s game: getting a weakness to try and get a rise out of someone. I’d say that’s a factor. 

“In general, it’s changing very gradually but we still have this intrinsic idea of masculinity and as far as that’s something, talking about your mental well-being or sexuality is probably still stigmatised.”

Then though, she references David Burke’s acceptance speech on the steps of the Hogan Stand after Galway won the All-Ireland in 2017 — and his touching nod to his former team-mate Niall Donohue, who died by suicide.

“That was brilliant. At the peak of sport and masculinity, introducing that as part of the conversation was so important.”

She takes encouragement now that over the past few years, several ladies Gaelic games players have been open about their sexuality. Cork legend Valerie Mulcahy was the first to do so four years ago, and that led to more and more.

On the men’s side, things have been different. Yes, Donal Óg Cusack is regarded as the first openly gay elite Irish sportsman after he came out in 2009 — while his brother Conor also spoke out in 2014.

There is no actively inter-county playing openly gay GAA player out there right now, and that’s a worry.

It really is fear, she believes. And that fear is supported by the fact that inter-county referee David Gough has been targeted with homophobic abuse from the stands at Croke Park.

“I think so. Obviously I can’t speak for everyone’s intentions if people don’t want to talk about it, but I think it probably is fear. Unfortunately it’s really damaging for young guys growing up in that culture.

“It’s very… GAA still is quite a heteronormative environment for men, I would say. It’s something that’s kind of accepted as part of the women’s game. 

“If you look at sport in general, with the exception of the likes of Tom Daley and there was a gay MLS player in America (Robbie Rogers, while Colin Martin came out in 2018) and Donal Óg came out after he stopped — but there’s no current, active player who is out. That’s probably really damaging.”

Nicole Owens signs a jersey Signing the jersey of a young fan. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Does she think we’ll see it?

“I think there’s probably a reason why it’s not [seen]… it’s impossible that there’s no well-known gay male athlete out there. It’s just impossible.

“I don’t know if it’s a case of agents telling them to keep it on the down low… I obviously don’t have any insight into that but it’s probably easier to not talk about it.”

So basically, no, not in the near future anyway.

Thankfully, that fear of being targeted or sledged on the pitch was never something that crossed Owens’ mind. She didn’t see the fact that she was open about her sexuality as a weakness that could be used against her by the opposition.

It just never occurred to her.

“I never thought that it would be used against me in a game situation,” she continues. “Like we’ve alluded to, it’s a lot more accepted in the female game.

“I was more worried that my team-mates would look at me differently or see me differently because of it. That just hasn’t happened, it was just unfounded worries.”

“That’s been the side of it I didn’t expect at all,” she smiles when the positive reaction comes up once again. Everything that’s come off sharing her story has been nothing but brilliant — especially considering the amount of young girls that have reached out.

“Even through Instagram and things like that. If it helps people now to even start a conversation, helps them think about how they would phrase it or verbalise it to someone who’s close to them, it’s a good start.

“Often admitting it to yourself is the first step and then you can deal with it and deal with the feelings you’re having around it.”

Owens is happy to have that in the past now. She’s in a good place and all is going well, she smiles as she reaches forward to ‘touch wood’ again. Busy both on and off the field, in work and in football.

She recently started a new job at digital news organisation Storyful, and her happiness in the role shines through as she explains it. And another new job she’s landed is an ambassador role for the VHI Women’s Mini Marathon. 

NO FEE VHI WOMENS MINI MARATHON LAUNCH JB1 Owens is part of the 2019 Vhi squad.

Again, the enthusiasm radiates as she speaks about it. Perhaps a fitting way to round off an interesting and in-depth chat is on that note.

“For me, part of my journey has been exercise being so important for me, for my mental well-being,” she concludes. “When I was younger and I didn’t really know how to verbalise it, I’d just go for a walk or go for a run.

“I’d go to training in an awful mood and by the time I was finished training, I’d be in a great mood. It’s always been really important for me, and well, there’s a load of studies done that show exercise can have the same effect as a mild anti-depressant. If anything, that can help.

“I’d encourage people to get involved in it. It’s very social, it’s not competitive — it’s more being involved in getting out, doing some exercise and feeling really good off it.”

Feeling really good, that’s what Nicole Owens is now.

And at the end of the day, that’s the main thing in life.

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About the author:

Emma Duffy

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