Leah Cheung photographed at Postural Alignment and Fitness Ireland, Wexford. Photo: Mary Browne.
Three Irish women share how sport unlocked them from their worlds shaped by diabetes, cancer, and grief, writes Kathy Donaghy
When it comes to sport, women of all ages are being left behind. The latest figures show that by the time a girl has done her Junior Cert, her physical fitness levels plummet. But the gap between men and women is narrowing and with more women visible in the area young women have role models across a range of disciplines for the first time.
For many women, sport isn’t just about their team turning up top of the league, it’s part of the fabric of who they are. In this, the second article in a week-long series highlighting role models in women’s sport, we talk to inspiring women who have battled extraordinary odds, with the help of their sport.
⬤ LEAH CHEUNG (19)
When Leah Cheung sets herself a goal, she doesn’t let much get in her way. She certainly didn’t let a diagnosis of diabetes at the age of 12 stop her from living life her way and following her passion.
Leah’s passion is powerlifting and it’s something that she’s only come to in recent years. But it’s opened the doors to a new sport and showed her that a life in sport is something she wants – she’s also training to be a personal trainer.
Being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes came as a big shock, says Leah.
As a 12 year-old she was hospitalised for a week at the time of her diagnosis. She feared that her life would be taken over by blood tests and appointments and insulin pumps.
And while Leah, who lives in Blackwater, Co Wexford, says there was a big adjustment to managing her condition, she was determined that it not dictate how she would live her life or stop her from doing the things she wanted to do.
Two years ago at the age of 17, Leah was at the gym and she started lifting weights for the first time. She progressed to heavier weights and decided to see what she could achieve with powerlifting.
“I was experimenting with lifting weights and I just started adding on. I was saying to myself ‘what will I lift next week?’ In powerlifting there are three main lifts – your squat, bench and dead lift. In competition, you lift each of them three times and for each of those you add on more weight each time,” says Leah.
For Leah, the idea of bulking up wasn’t something she wanted, but this doesn’t necessarily happen and the main effect for her is building strength and giving her goals to aim for.
Understanding her body and listening to it is something Leah is aware of and staying on top of her medical condition makes this vital for her.
It was during this period of training and learning to work within her own body’s limits that Leah realised her own experiences could help other people with their own fitness goals and she embarked on a personal training diploma.
“There’s a lot of people who are diabetic who thrive in their own businesses and are doing what they love. Yes, they have their struggles, but everyone has struggles. You can do whatever you want – for me it’s just about making sure everything is OK,” says Leah.
She’s preparing for competition in Limerick. And while Leah says there are people who are lifting a lot more than she is, it’s important to turn off the switch in her head that constantly compares.
Patience is something her sport has taught her. It means slowly building up to lifting heavier weights.
“It clears my head and it’s my way to taking it easy – it’s like a meditation really. There’s a release you get when you go in there and lift something and just bang it off the floor. It gets all the feelings out,” says Leah.
“There are times when I don’t want to train. But I know that when I do it, I’ll feel good. The sense of achievement that comes from powerlifting is great. It’s always going to be in my life,” she says.
While Leah says there will always be distractions in life to pull us away from sports – anything from school to work to social media – you have to focus on how it makes you feel afterwards. And for her, those feelings are worth it.
“It makes me forget sometimes that I have diabetes. I know it can be tough sometimes but I feel good that I can do something I love. Yes, I have to live with this constantly, every second of every day. But I can’t let other people’s mindsets about diabetes label me. I have to live my life and look after myself.”
In time, Leah wants to have her own space with her own clients. In an ideal world she’ll still be competing in her sport and giving others the confidence to chase their own dreams – no matter what setbacks they face in life.
‘Dragon boat racing helps me with my fears of breast cancer returning’
⬤ DEBORAH BONNER (49)
When she was diagnosed with breast cancer almost a decade ago, Donegal mother Deborah Bonner took up paddling as a means of recovery. Now she’s sparked a movement that is helping other women on their recovery journey.
It started when she found a lump in her breast. Deborah was a busy working mum, but cancer stopped her in her tracks. She had surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Two years later, she was still struggling emotionally to deal with what had happened.
Deborah remembers going to a conference where former Donegal football manager Jim McGuinness was talking to cancer survivors. She was too afraid to even call herself a survivor at the time for fear her cancer would come back.
She doesn’t remember much about the conference except McGuinness mentioning a group of women called the Plurabelle Paddlers in Dublin. The only thing they had in common was that each had a breast cancer diagnosis and had set up a dragon boat team to get fit and support one another.
For those who are not familiar with the sport, a dragon boat can hold up to 20 people. They paddle in pairs with one person steering at the back and another beating time on a drum up front. The sport has its origins in China and goes back thousands of years.
The next Saturday morning, Deborah took the earliest bus available to Dublin and joined the Plurabelle Paddlers at Grand Canal Dock. She loved every second of it. “Here were women of all ages, shapes and sizes, mammies and grannies and they had this amazing camaraderie. I was there every Saturday for six months,” says Deborah.
But the journey every week was taking its toll and Deborah’s husband Donal planted the idea in her head that she should start her own dragon boat club locally in Donegal Town.
But dragon boats are not easy to come by; they cost thousands, they’re as long as a bus and difficult to store. As if by serendipity, Deborah had met a man from a British Dragon Boat club on a trip and told him she’d love to set up a club in Donegal. He rang her not long afterwards and said if she was serious about a dragon boat, she could have their old one as they were upgrading. Donegal Town was getting its very own dragon boat and Donegal Dragons was born a short time later.
The club now has 52 members. Women who have been affected by breast cancer and their family members have joined. And they travel from all over the county, from Glencolmcille in the west to Inishowen in the north to join in each week. When she started it, Deborah only knew that she wanted others to feel as good as she felt paddling. Now there’s a thriving community of paddlers and helpers who are a regular sight in Donegal Bay.
Deborah explains that the benefits of paddling for breast cancer survivors was first documented by a Canadian doctor 25 years ago. He could see that not only did the movement help build strength but the act of participating together in a group made people happier.
According to Deborah, on the emotional side of things the benefits of paddling are great. The women, she says, are literally all in the same boat and the sport means they become healthier, fitter and happier together.
On Monday, Wednesday and Fridays Deborah is down at the pier in Donegal town. She jokes that she eats, sleeps and breathes dragon boat racing.
She still races herself as well as being chief cook and bottle washer at the club, as well as looking after all the administration and social media. “I do it to keep well emotionally and physically. It helps me with my fears about cancer recurring too. There’s very few words for what it does for me, never mind what I see it doing for others,” says Deborah.
“Every night we go out it’s different. We’ve new people coming all the time. Everyone helps out – my sons help out, my father and sister help out. Anyone can get involved – we’re all-inclusive,” she says.
“Whether you want to be sociable or sit back and have a laugh, there’s something for you. On Monday nights we do race training, Wednesday is about technical ability – we break it down as to how you do it – and Friday is known as ‘Friendly Friday’. It’s quite a strong upper body movement. I’ve seen my own body change in a good way as a result,” says Deborah. “The benefits are amazing. I think sport is the most under-estimated form or therapy. This is the new normal for me. I’ll never be ‘normal’ again but I know I’m managing really well with this new normal. If I didn’t have this, I’d say I’d be on a lot more medication and I wouldn’t be as happy”.
Donegal Dragons are marking their fifth season this year and Deborah says their doors are always open to anyone who wants to join. “If someone was to say to me what’s been the biggest life changer for you, I’d say it wasn’t the breast cancer, it’s the dragon boat world. I’m still amazed every week. I have to thank a breast cancer diagnosis for the life I have,” she says.
For more information, see dragonboat.ie or ‘Donegal Dragons’ on Facebook.
‘I’ve made so many friends through running’
⬤ ANN BATTERSBY (59)
Ann Battersby couldn’t have foreseen the way here life would change when she signed up for a local park run almost five years ago. Now on the cusp of 60, she’s gearing up to run the New York Marathon.
But it wasn’t always like this. A few years ago, Ann says she was overweight and struggling to cope. Her life had become a go to work, come home and repeat cycle with nothing planned for the weekends. She was drinking too much and couldn’t see a brighter future.
Things had begun unravelling in her life following the death of her mother in 2012. Ann had been close to both her parents. As a single mother, she had lived with her parents in Dublin’s Palmerstown, where she reared her children Ross (37) and Lauren (25).
Her father, Tommy, passed away at the age of 82 some 10 years ago but when her mother Una died three years later, the overwhelming grief took a hold of Ann and she got stuck in a loop of not taking care of herself.
“I was devastated and I was lonely. When I look back on it, I had no friends of my own age group. Mum was everything. I started to eat and drink too much. I did internet dating for a while. I lost the run of myself,” says Ann.
“I’d pick myself up for a little while but then I’d go backwards again. I remember in 2014 I saw something in a local paper talking about a park run starting in the area. The people behind it were meeting in a coffee shop to see who wanted to get involved. I didn’t really know what I was looking for – I just wanted something”.
When Ann went to the coffee shop, she met a woman sitting with a lap top. Ann was the only one who turned up at the meeting and she volunteered to help out at the first park run. She volunteered for the first few weeks and then thought she might try to do it herself. She started by walking and the walking became a habit.
“I’d never done any sport whatsoever. I’d no interest, but I did enjoy walking. I’d go for a walk in the evening and I was surprised at how good I felt. My mind felt open when I did it – it just cleared my head so much and I felt fantastic afterwards. I’d often come in from work in bad form, go for a walk and feel brand new again,” says Ann.
Gradually and tentatively she built herself up with running and tried a couch-to-5k. Her knee was so sore that afterwards she had to go to a physiotherapist for treatment. Even then her big fear was that she wouldn’t be able to run again.
The physio told her to rest for two weeks and gave her a series of exercises to do at the gym. Ann took out membership at a local gym for a month and then did her second couch-to-5k with her friend, Julie O’Connor, who she met at the first park run meeting.
The two friends were intent on getting more people out running as they felt there must be more people like themselves who could benefit from being in a supportive community. They set up their own running club, Waterstown Warriors, the numbers of which have swelled to 180 people.
Ann believes that people love the ethos of the club and news of their modus operandi spread through word of mouth. She explains that they are well known at events for waiting at the finishing line until every last club member has finished the race.
As well as running, Ann says she changed her eating habits and stopped drinking wine every single evening. In the space of a few years, she says she’s lost about three-and-a-half stone in weight, acknowledging that it was a slow process.
“I kick-started good habits. I made so many friends through running. I often smile to myself when I’m sitting with a group of people, thinking that a couple of years ago I didn’t know any of them. They’re from all walks of life. When I’m in work, we have customers come in and ask me if I was running at the weekend. It opens up conversations everywhere. Before this I worked, I came home and I did nothing. I was very negative – there was nothing good going on,” says Ann.
Now with three Dublin City Marathons under her belt, Ann is gearing up for the New York Marathon. The marathon is her 60th birthday present to herself and she can’t wait to run around the city and take in the sights, smells and sounds of the five boroughs as she goes.
“People are surprised that I genuinely never did any sport in my life. I often wonder, when will I stop? I want to keep going. One thing I want to do is to come first in my age category even if it’s when I’m 80 years old,” says Ann.