With her spectacles, walking trousers, and sensibly short graying hair, Susie, an Irish Dominican sister in her fifties, is not exactly the image one would conjure when picturing a member of the Trinity Women’s Freshers Rowing Team.
“The girls had quite a laugh at my expense when I signed up,” she said, allowing the lilting cadence of Belfast’s distinctive accent to write the score for her sentences. “But I don’t blame them. I could have been most of their mothers.”
On Monday mornings before our religious history course together, Susie recounts her experiences sharing a boat with 18-year-old women who are fit as fiddles. After her first practice, she recalled the difficulty of getting into a racing shell that seemed determined to run away from her after she committed one foot to the starboard side and left the other on the dock, coaxing her legs into a split. As a coxswain, she claimed to have nearly steered her boat into a bridge on the River Liffey. And the training sessions are grand, but take her a while longer to complete than her teammates, who, like her Monday morning audience, get quite a kick out of this delightful human.
“I’m never going to be a championship rower. But I’m not going to give it up.”
I have come to call upon Susie’s comfort with discomfort as I have embarked on my own Irish athletic adventure. After months of watching YouTube highlights and following competitions, I have finally gotten the chance to try Gaelic Football. I expected my experience and training as an American football player would prepare me for some success on the GAA pitch.
I am, as it turns out, terrible at the sport, which requires much more technical, foot-based skill and knowledge than I anticipated. To their credit, my teammates have been very patient and accommodating of me, their American transplant. Owing to my unusually large size for the sport, they have taken to calling me “Big Man.” Unfortunately for my teammates, “Big Man” cannot kick the ball, even on an open net 7 yards away. “Big Man” does not understand when it is legal or encouraged to make a tackle, and has earned a few rather flagrant penalties that drew outrage from the opposing sideline and chuckles from mine. And “Big Man” is virtually useless at full forward, where he has no sense for the strategy required to set the team up for points.
Despite these challenges, I have been welcomed on the pitch in much the same way I have been welcomed to Ireland: with a big-hearted spirit of inclusion and understanding, with the space to learn and make mistakes as I go about carving my place in this new, temporary home. And through some of the difficulties of transition, in both sport and life, I, like Susie, have committed myself to sticking with it, getting better, and growing from the experience. And I’ve learned to have a few laughs at my own expense along the way.