A STRABANE woman who is more used to winning medals on the hurling pitch took to a London stage recently to receive an accolade of a different sort.
Geraldine McGarrigle is the goalkeeper of the Ulster GAA Wheelchair Hurling team, she travelled with the team to London to receive the award for the Best Sports Project in the 25th birthday National Lottery Awards.
Speaking about her sport Geraldine explained, “At first it was painful, but you get used to it,” says Geraldine, who picked up a hurl for the first time in 2013 at a taster session held at Ulster University. “You also learn how to use the hurl to protect yourself.”
Geraldine’s first match was against a team from Munster and it didn’t go too well. She let in nine goals. “I’m a lot better nowadays,” she laughs.
She certainly is. The 55-year-old grandmother has filled her mantelpiece with awards including a Goalkeeper of the Year, Player of the Year and an All-Ireland medal. She hopes to pick up a second All-Ireland medal on October 26.
Wheelchair hurling was established in 1998 to allow those with disabilities to fully participate in GAA games.
Participation is open to men and women of all ages – including those who are not wheelchair users.
While players use specially adapted wheelchairs that are light and fast, the rest of the equipment is conventional.
Geraldine, who has Spina bifida, began using a wheelchair in 2008. After her son and daughter left home she found she was alone much of the time and began to experience depression.
Seeking a team sport to reduce her isolation she tried wheelchair basketball but didn’t take to it. Then she attended the wheelchair hurling taster session at Ulster University’s Magee Campus and was immediately hooked.
Geraldine is the only woman in the Ulster GAA squad and the oldest player. The sense of camaraderie and team spirit has done wonders for her mental and physical health. “I don’t have depression anymore and my upper body strength has increased hugely,” she says. “If you have a problem there’s always someone to talk to.”
When Geraldine’s mother died at Christmas, 2018, the whole team rallied around. “They were all there for me, calling and texting,” she says. “The coaches even came to the house to make sure I was OK. And when I came back to training in the New Year they were all asking after me. I felt really supported.”
Geraldine concedes she plays the role of a mother figure for some of her team-mates. “I kind of look after new people who come into the team and when we go away I make sure they get their breakfast and they’re OK.”
And the secret of good goalkeeping? “Keep your eye on the ball and make sure your defenders are in the right position. Keep your hurl on the ground. If you swing it the ball will go underneath it by the time it reaches you.”