Earlier this month Fiona Shannon was appointed as Ulster GAA’s new Handball Development Officer. The icon of the game told Michael McMullan about her hopes for the new role.
ULSTER GAA chose well. In fact, they couldn’t have picked a better candidate to plant new roots for handball over the next three years.
Antrim’s Fiona Shannon is a legend of the game, the greatest female handballer ever. A three-time world champion, she is the holder of a record nine All-Ireland singles’ medals and 10 All-Ireland medals in doubles, with six alongside her sister Sibeal.
Now in her third week in the newly-created role, she speaks with enthusiasm about her life inside the court and direction the game needs to take.
“Handball hasn’t always received the focus that it deserves and Fiona’s remit will be to help sustain the game in the clubs that are already working hard at it,” outlines Ulster GAA President Ciaran McLaughlin of Shannon’s appointment.
The role will also “develop new clubs across the province in a sport that can be easily played, and can assist children and adults with their agility, balance and co-ordination,” he continued.
The influx of schools putting up “1-Wall” courts in their sports halls and playgrounds has offered a new alternative to lunch-time play.
Getting more kids playing and establishing a like to the local club are among the areas of focus.
Referee and coach programmes are also part of the role, as well as setting up a handball academy and programmes for young female athletes.
After a career as a personal trainer, Shannon was enthused when the new post was floated.
The Department for Communities, through their “Start Here” grants scheme provided the funding and a door opened.
“I have always wanted to give a bit back,” she said. “It is really difficult to do that while working full time, you were giving bits in dribs and drabs.”
It was her time to go for it. The timing was right.
Handball has been kind to her. While still at primary school and playing camogie for the Deidre club in Belfast, Shannon followed in the footsteps of the older players to throw their lot in with St Paul’s handball club. Initially, they entered the men’s league and momentum carried it along.
“Mary Lindsay took us on and we started playing, so that’s how I got into it,” said Shannon of her introduction “on a whim” at the age nine.
Lindsay was the early influence. The 40x20ft courts would be their weekend haven of excitement and sport. The Friday school bell signalled a dart over to Shaws Road. And that was it, she was in for the long haul.
Participation in Féile started and other competitions that popped up.
“So there was excitement and buzz with that, especially when you started to win a few games,” Shannon recalled. And it followed into school.
“We had a tennis ball and hit it up against the wall at break and lunchtime. That’s what you did and probably…whatever ball you had, you played with.”
After her first taste of handball in St Paul’s something made her go back for a second day, the baby steps on the way to becoming the game’s most decorated female player.
“It was always fun,” came Shannon’s main reason for falling in love with the sport.
“And, it was always indoors, so that was another benefit. You could play it all year around, whereas camogie depended on the weather.”
The attraction of playing an individual sport, that also had a doubles’ dimension, was something that appealed to her.
It was her ownership of a challenge to bring some silverware, without reliance on a team’s collective input.
“Sometimes with camogie, you’d be standing and you couldn’t field,” Shannon said of days when games were under jeopardy, sometimes minutes before the throw-in.
“I just got hooked (to handball); it was fun and what kept me at it was the experiences we got from it.”
It helped widen the horizons across Ireland and further afield.
“My first American trip saw me represent Ireland at u-15 or u-17, from then I knew that’s what I wanted to do and camogie took a back seat – handball was my sport,” Shannon admits.
Eventually it began to get more serious. By her early twenties, camogie was parked.
“Winning an All-Ireland was a big thing and getting the recognition and praise keeps you going as well,” she points out.
Her All-Ireland titles are up there among the array of accolades. Representing Ireland in America was another honour and “unbelievable feeling” to be savoured.
After the early example of Mary Lindsay, Shannon hails the input of coach Sean McEntee who squeezed everything out of her career.
“I became the player I was because I had an amazing coach who made me the best,” she said, after casting her mind back over a decorated lifetime of handball.
Three times a week, he’d be coaching and coaxing. When it came to tournaments, McEntee ferried his players the length and breadth of Ireland, all at his own expense.
“I owe all my titles to him,” Shannon added. “He believed in me even when I didn’t and brought the best out of me.
“It’s not a coincidence that he also coached my sister Sibeal (Gallagher) and Aisling Reilly – both former All-Ireland and world champions.”
Of all the career highs, Shannon places her three successive world titles – 2003, 2006 and 2009 – at the top of the tree.
“It takes place every three years, so it is tough keeping that type of (high) standard at the top for nine years,” she said.
Also ranked high are her doubles’ titles picked up alongside Sibeal. Every medal is coated in memories, the reward for the graft.
When she lost out in the quest for a fourth world title, in 2012, it was time to call a day life in the fast lane. Barring giving birth to her daughters, handball didn’t become a back seat during an injury-free career.
Now it was time for her family.
“The reason was the time commitment and the children, they were getting older,” she said of her decision to step away.
“It is hard to get time for them with my sports and they sacrificed a lot with me playing and away travelling – that was my main reason.”
Away from the playing days, Shannon highlighted the amazing “handball family” that traipse all over the country.
“I was at the Loughmacrory tournament at the weekend and you are meeting all these people you have grown up along with,” she said.
“There are kids who were in wiping the court when I was playing and now they are still there, so there is that camaraderie…I have met some amazing people.”
Now, on the outside, Shannon vows to keep those connections as she heads up Ulster GAA’s new plans to sell handball to the masses.
She is a walking billboard for everything the game can offer. Agility. Speed. Hand eye co-ordination. Footwork.
“It’s an amazing sport,” she insists. For those who don’t want anything more than a recreational avenue, it offers the perfect pre-season to keep them tipping away. It has so many benefits to keep any camog, hurler or footballer sharp over the winter.
There are also the stories of famous hurlers lashing a sliotar around the four side of the alley to get their eye in.
“DJ Carey was an amazing hurler, but he was an amazing handball player and he would play it in the winter months to keep him ready for going back into the (hurling) season,” Shannon pointed out.
It’s a game for all ages, with an over-80s category rolled in, increasing the inclusiveness.
Looking ahead, getting more coverage for the GAA’s “poorer relation” is high up the list or priorities.
Developing and growing the game is a central part of her remit.
“It is all about the coaching and getting quality coaches in for everybody,” Shannon insists.
The ‘1-Wall’ model gives any cash-strapped schools’ a chance to increase participation at a fraction of the cost of a four-sided court.
It has “definitely” accelerated the growth, with the next challenge to get all the kids affiliated with the nearest handball club.
Like any sport, its strength is in numbers and consideration for having sufficient numbers of coaches to ensure new recruits are not lost to the system.
“It is the link (to clubs), but it is all about the coaches,” Shannon stressed about another key component in her plans.
“There is no point in sending kids to a club if they don’t have the coaches there to take them, so you have to be developing quality coaches and volunteers.”
Another consideration is tweaking the seasons, to enable a serious handball career to be dovetailed around the other GAA codes to enable crossover. It’s something to worry about later. For now, participation is key.
“There are many who play it in the winter months as a preseason to keep the fitness levels up, the agility and speed work,” Shannon said.
“Whether they play competitively or not is irrelevant. It’s about getting more people playing it and getting it recognised.”
As a world champion and one of the greatest, Shannon doesn’t do recreational handball. After bowing out from the elite level, she tried to play for “a bit of craic”, but a leopard doesn’t change its spots.
It’s all or nothing on the playing front.
“I have to be training and I need an All-Ireland focus, so that time and commitment takes away from 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 have the ultimate ambassador for handball, a legend.
Anyone interested in getting involved in handball, contact Fiona or Darragh Daly (National Handball Development Officer)
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