Having represented her country as a teenager at athletics and soccer, Lisa Coohill is now the holder of an All-Ireland medal. Last Thursday evening, the Galway women footballers’ wheeled into Clifden. The local Chamber of Commerce rolled out the red carpet and a throng of people opened out their arms to welcome the first team from the county to win the All-Ireland. The town square heaved and bobbed with a novel and giddy sense of excitement. The players were hoisted on to a gig-rig, speeches were made, flowers were presented and tears were shed. A mini-banquet followed and rooms were provided for the successful footballers in a hotel. All-Ireland winning celebrations of this magnitude normally don’t extend so close to the Atlantic Ocean but this time they had to make a fuss. This was different. This team had one of their own; Lisa Coohill. For years, Galway supported only two clubs and, while that number has now risen to thirty-two across the county, nobody could have imagined a few years ago that a girl from Kingstown in West Connemara could possibly even play for Galway, never mind win an All-Ireland medal.
Paul Gannon, a local man, founded the Gráinne Mhaols club just three years ago to cater for ladies’ football in this vast expanse of rural Ireland. Gannon planted the seeds in a desert, hoped for a small harvest and reaped a bounty. Three years later, the club has one of the largest playing populations in the county. Lisa Coohill, now twenty-one, never had the opportunity that her present underage clubmates have but she still forged a way forward and is the ultimate success story of this Galway team. She played under-12 and under-14 football with the local boys’ team in the Naomh Feichín club until being told that she wasn’t allowed to anymore. When that avenue of opportunity closed off, she trekked down another route. She turned to athletics because distance running came naturally to her. When she was fifteen, Coohill ran in the All-Ireland Schools Intermediate Running Championship and finished sixth without even training. Her PE teacher in Clifden Community School, Paula Smith, spotted the seam of talent and went about mining it. Smith lived in Galway but she stayed back after school to train Coohill. Her protégé soon made her way on to the Irish Schools Athletics team. She ran in successive European Championships in Sweden and Switzerland and carved out a gutsy reputation as a distance runner. The nearest athletics club to her was GCH in Galway City but they were more geared towards track and field while Coohill favoured cross-country running. Even though the Athenry Athletics club was an hour and twenty minutes from her home, she registered with them and her talent took flight. Two years ago, she ran in the World Cross County Championships in Leopardstown.
That achievement was even more pronounced given her other sporting preoccupations at that time. She had just returned to playing Junior B football with Gráinne Mhaols and was representing the Irish ladies’ soccer team at under-19 level. Her soccer career started out as a pastime to fill the vacuum left by gaelic football and ended up at the UEFA Championships in Switzerland. She started off casually with local ladies’ team called Connemara Coasters before progressing to the Galway Ladies team, and was later being spotted at inter-provincial level by scouts for the national side. Coohill was an excellent soccer player but her sporting calendar was becoming relentless. A week after she returned from Switzerland with the soccer side, she was off to Sweden with the Irish cross-county squad.
“ Then the football came along and it just took over”, she says. Although she hadn’t played ladies football between the crucial developmental years of fourteen and eighteen, Coohill joined the Gráinne Mhaols club and came to the notice of the Galway management after starring in the County Junior B League and Championship finals. In January 2003, she was called completely out of the blue and asked to join the Galway Senior ladies’ football squad. The whole panel was made up of players who had won All-Ireland Junior and Minor titles from the previous year and Coohill began the season from a starting block much further back from her teammates. She gobbled up the ground and soon sped past them. By the end of last year, she had won an All Star award.
Her talent always seemed to outpace the normal rate of development but her sporting class is her mark and her master. She proved again last Sunday how important she has become for Galway, covering the entire field with her rangy stride and her intense work rate and scoring two excellent points in the process. Before that final against Dublin, Coohill was the only member of squad who didn’t possess an All-Ireland medal. That’s another achievement ticked off her list. “The big memory I have of the year is how much fun we had at training. That was a huge part of our team” They had four sixteen-year olds starting last Sunday and if Galway ladies’ football continues to gather pace and momentum this team has the potential to write a legacy similar to the current Mayo ladies’ football and Tipperary camogie sides. Coohill hopes the current Galway side can aim that high.
In the meantime the rhythm of her life continues to dance to a fast beat. Tomorrow she returns to GMIT to continue her degree in computing in business studies but she has another exam to face first. Earlier in the year, Coohill helped Gráinne Mhaols to the Junior A Championship in Galway for the first time and today they take on Bornacoola from Leitrim in the Connacht Junior Club Championship semi-final. It might be a million miles from the buzz of Croke Park last Sunday but it’s another challenge and another chance for Lisa Coohill to write a new chapter in her sporting life. “If we could get to the Connacht final and win it, it would do an awful lot for our club,” she says. “It would give the young girls something to look forward to. It would get them thinking that it is possible to play at a national level, something they probably never envisaged. Due to the fact that we are located so far west, everyone has been asking, who are Gráinne Mhaols and where are they from? It’s great that we are now putting ourselves firmly on the map and making a name for ourselves”. They are, thanks in no small part to Lisa Coohill.
Written by Christy O’Connor.
The Sunday Times
October 10th 2004