In Safe Hands – Fiona Shannon enjoys life as Ulster GAA’s new handball development manager

Earlier this month fiona shannon has been appointed as Ulster GAA’s new Head of Handball Development. The game icon says Michael McMullan on his hopes for the new role.

ULSTER GAA has chosen well. In fact, they couldn’t have picked a better candidate to plant new roots in handball over the next three years.

Fiona Shannon from Antrim is a legend of the game, the greatest handball player of all time. A three-time world champion, she holds a record nine All-Ireland medals in singles and 10 All-Ireland medals in doubles, including six alongside her sister Sibeal.

Now in her third week in the newly created role, she speaks enthusiastically about her life inside the pitch and where the game needs to go.

“Handball hasn’t always gotten the attention it deserves and Fiona’s mission will be to help keep the game going at the clubs that are already working hard on it,” Ulster GAA chairman Ciaran McLaughlin said. , about Shannon’s appointment.

The role will also “develop new clubs across the province in a sport that can be played easily and can help children and adults with their agility, balance and coordination,” he continued.

The influx of schools installing “1-Wall” courts in their sports halls and playgrounds has provided a new alternative to lunchtime play.

Getting more kids to play and connecting with the local club are areas of focus.

Referee and coaching programs are also part of the role, along with the establishment of a handball academy and programs for young female athletes.

After a career as a personal trainer, Shannon was excited when the new position was launched.

The Department of Communities, through its ‘Start Here’ grant scheme, provided the funding and a door opened.

SISTER ACT… Fiona and Sibeal won six All-Ireland Doubles titles together

“I’ve always wanted to give a little back,” she said. “It’s really hard to do that while working full time, you were giving bits and pieces.”

It was time for her to go. The time had come.

Handball has been kind to her. While still in primary school and playing camogie for Deidre club in Belfast, Shannon followed in the footsteps of older players to get into handball club St Paul. Initially, they entered the men’s league and the momentum carried it.

“Mary Lindsay picked us up and we started playing, so that’s how I got into the game,” Shannon said of her “on a whim” introduction at age nine. .

Lindsay was the first influence. The 40×20 foot courts would be their weekend haven of excitement and sport. The Friday school bell signaled an arrow towards Shaws Road. And that was it, she was in it for the long haul.

Participation in Féile began and other competitions arose.

“So there was excitement and buzz with it, especially when you started winning a few games,” Shannon recalled. And it followed at school.

“We had a tennis ball and we hit it against the wall at break time and at lunchtime. You did and probably…whatever ball you had, you played with it.

After her first taste of handball at St Paul, something brought her back for a second day, the baby is on her way to becoming the most decorated player in the game.

“It was always fun,” came the main reason Shannon fell in love with the sport.

“And, it was always indoors, so that was another plus. You could play there all year round, whereas the camogie was weather dependent.

The attraction of playing an individual sport, which also had a doubles dimension, was something that appealed to him.

It was his responsibility for a challenge to bring silverware, without relying on the collective contribution of a team.

“Sometimes with the camogie you were on your feet and you couldn’t line up,” Shannon said of days when games were threatened, sometimes minutes before the throw-in.

“I just got addicted (to handball); it was fun and what held me back were the experiences we got from it.

This has helped broaden horizons across Ireland and beyond.

“My first American trip saw me represent Ireland at u-15 or u-17, from there I knew that was what I wanted to do and camogie took a step back – handball was my sport,” admits Shannon.

Eventually it started to get more serious. In the early twenties, camogie was parked.

“Winning an All-Ireland was a great thing and getting the recognition and praise also keeps you going,” she points out.

His All-Ireland titles are among the accolades. Representing Ireland in America was another honor and an “incredible feeling” to savor.

COACH…Sean McEntee had a huge influence on Fiona’s career

After the first example of Mary Lindsay, Shannon salutes the contribution of coach Sean McEntee who has taken everything from his career.

“I became the player I was because I had an amazing coach who made me the best,” she said, after recalling a decorated life of handball.

Three times a week, he coached and cajoled. As far as tournaments go, McEntee transported his players from one end of Ireland to the other, all at his own expense.

“I owe him all my titles,” Shannon added. “He believed in me even when I didn’t and brought out the best in me.

“It’s no coincidence that he also coached my sister Sibeal (Gallagher) and Aisling Reilly – both former All-Ireland and World Champions.”

Of all the peaks in her career, Shannon puts her three successive world titles – 2003, 2006 and 2009 – at the top of the tree.

“It’s held every three years, so it’s hard to maintain that kind of (high) standard at the top for nine years,” she said.

His doubles titles are also well ranked alongside Sibeal. Each medal is coated with memories, reward of the transplant.

When she lost in her quest for a fourth world title, in 2012, it was time to call everyday life into the fast lane. Short of giving birth to his daughters, handball hasn’t become a backseat during an injury-free career.

Now it was time for his family.

“The reason was the time commitment and the kids, they were getting older,” she said of her decision to move away.

“It’s hard to give them time with my sports and they sacrificed a lot with me playing and traveling – that was my main reason.”

Away from playing days, Shannon pointed to the incredible ‘handball family’ that roams around the country.

“I was at the Loughmacrory tournament this weekend and you meet all these people you grew up with,” she said.

“There were kids wiping the pitch when I was playing and now they’re still there, so there’s this camaraderie…I’ve met some amazing people.”

Now on the outside, Shannon is committed to maintaining those relationships as she leads Ulster GAA’s new plans to sell handball to the masses.

She’s a walking billboard for everything the game has to offer. Agility. The rapidity. Hand-eye coordination. Footwork.

“It’s an incredible sport,” she insists. For those who want nothing more than a recreational avenue, it offers the perfect pre-season to keep them tipping. It has so many benefits to keep any camog, pitcher or footballer sharp during the winter.

There are also the stories of famous pitchers hitting a sliotar around the four sides of the fairway to get attention.

“DJ Carey was an amazing pitcher, but he was an amazing handball player and he was playing that in the winter months to keep him ready to go back into the (hurling) season,” Shannon pointed out.

It’s a game for all ages, with an over 80 category, which increases inclusivity.

MY GIRL… Fiona pictured with her daughter Carath Therese after her success at the World Championships in 2003

Going forward, getting more coverage for GAA’s “poor relation” is high on the list or priorities.

Developing and developing the game is central to its mission.

“It’s about coaching and having quality coaches for everyone,” insists Shannon.

The 1-Wall model gives all cash-strapped schools the opportunity to increase attendance at a fraction of the cost of a four-sided field.

He “definitely” sped up growth, with the next challenge getting all the kids to join the nearest handball club.

Like any sport, its strength is in numbers and in having a sufficient number of coaches to ensure that new recruits are not lost to the system.

“It’s the link (to the clubs), but it’s all up to the coaches,” Shannon stressed of another key part of his plans.

“There’s no point sending kids to a club if they don’t have the coaches to take them, so you need to develop quality coaches and volunteers.”

Another consideration is tweaking the seasons, to allow a serious handball career to revolve around the other GAA codes to allow for crossover. This is something to worry about later. For now, participation is essential.

“There are a lot of people who play there in the winter months in pre-season to maintain fitness levels, agility and speed,” Shannon said.

“Whether they play competitively or not doesn’t matter. It’s about getting more people to play it and getting recognition for it.

As a world champion and one of the greatest, Shannon does not play recreational handball. After retiring from the elite level, she tried to play for “a bit of craic”, but a leopard doesn’t change her spots.

It’s all or nothing in the game.

“I have to train and I need an all-Ireland focus, for time and commitment to take away everything else,” she concludes.

“It was all or nothing, so now I can help all the boys and girls across Ulster in any way I can.”

Ulster GAA has the ultimate handball ambassador, a legend.

Anyone interested in getting involved in handball contact Fiona or Darragh Daly (National Handball Development Manager)

darragh.daly.handball@gaa.ie | fiona.shannon.ulster@gaa.ie