LOOKING TO THE FUTURE Shona Kennedy is pictured at Westport Rugby Club last week. Pic: Conor McKeown
Shona Kennedy dreams of playing rugby for Ireland
LAST Wednesday morning the rain poured from the sky over Westport. In the corner of a downtown café sat a young woman enjoying her last few days in Mayo before she returned to America to follow her sporting dream.
Shona Kennedy is a proud Westport woman but for the past three years she has spent most of her time in Washington studying psychology and playing top-level colleges rugby with some of the best young female players on the planet.
Her story is an inspirational one, filled with the courage to grasp opportunities and the drive and ambition to succeed. The woman from the village of Mace has blazed a trail for others to follow.
How did this rugby journey begin?
“I was down at gaelic training one evening in 2015 and Claire Coughlan came to me and said, ‘we have an All-Ireland final in rugby this week in Dublin and we’re down in numbers, will you come?” explained the 21 year-old.
“A few days later we were on the bus going to the final. They literally taught me how to play rugby on the bus. “They had a sheet of paper and drew diagrams and even though I hadn’t a clue, it worked out in the end. They said when you get the ball in your hands just run. And I did and we won.
“I was hooked, and thanks to the brilliance of our coaches Joe (Grady) and Bernie (Nolan) we became such an amazingly tight bunch. One year we won the double – league and cup – and it was amazing.
“I loved every single second. I loved it so much I get emotional thinking about it.”
Life progressed and Shona was approaching Leaving Cert year in the local Sacred Heart Secondary School.
She was very good academically but all she wanted to do was play rugby and there was no outlet in Ireland.
“I saw an ad for First Point USA and the chance to play rugby and study in American colleges. Mam and Dad (Sinéad and Declan) were hugely supportive and, long-story-short, a huge amount of girls applied. But after a number of different phases I was selected and, after speaking with the various coaches, I chose Central Washington University.
“Mam and I flew to Seattle, which is about two hours from the campus in Ellensburg and after a few days she flew home and I was there on my own.
“It was a new experience. I’m usually fairly tough but this was different. I missed home, missed the family and missed playing rugby with Westport.
“I told Mam and Dad I wanted to come back but they convinced me to wait until Christmas. I came back for a break in December and when January came I was ready to go back.”
Shona had joined the CWU Wildcats as a full-back with great potential, but things didn’t go according to plan at first.
“I always expect the very best from myself and work every single day at various aspects of my game and preparation, so I desperately wanted to make an immediate impression.
“However, that’s not what happened. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. I was playing badly and the girls couldn’t understand my accent with the gumshield in when I’d be calling moves.
“Then, the coach suggested I try playing flanker and everything changed in a flash. I loved it and have never looked back. It suits me so well.
“I’m involved all the time and love chasing down the opposition’s number 8 when they come around the side of the scrum,” the Westport woman added before giving a brief insight into the life of a student/college sports star in America.
“First of all we must consistently have a good GPA (Grade Point Average) and this is the primary goal. Then, sport is next. It’s of huge importance and we fly around America to away games. That’s an experience in itself.
“I’m up every morning at 5.30am to be ready for training and everything just flows from there,” she added as the rain fell from the skies outside.
In truth, it would take many pages to fully tell Shona’s story with whole chapters devoted to arm-wrestles and races with her dad and three sisters; skiing, fishing and hiking in America; cousins playing for Notre Dame and winning All-Irelands with Mayo; gym sessions; Joe Grady’s tackling drills; Americans trying to pronounce Saoírse and Aoífe and many, many more stories told as only she can.
Shona Kennedy is blazing a trail for young Mayo sportspeople. She wants to play another two seasons with The Wildcats and then return to Ireland to play for Westport, Connacht and Ireland while studying for a Masters in Psychology.
She sees opportunities everywhere and is determined to grab them and run — as she did in that All-Ireland rugby final all those years ago.