OCTOBER 2016 is a month that will live long in the memory of Donegal handball star Avril McNamee, after she claimed glory at the Simple Green US Open of Handball in California.
Despite three days of tough competition, the Sean MacCumhaill’s woman prevailed and defeated American Julie Jordan in the final.
It was a huge victory for the 26-year-old who has been steadily improving over the last number of years.
Handball may not be one of the mainstream sports in Ireland, but McNamee developed a grá for it at school, and she has poured her heart and soul into the game since.
“I started way back when I was in national school. My old principal in Glencovitt NS, Eamonn McDonald, would have introduced me to the game.
“It was the usual story – I just fell in love with the sport.
“I was into all sports when I was growing up – football, rugby, anything going really.
“It got a bit annoying when I was in my teens and you’d be going down to play a game of football, and there would only be seven girls on the pitch.
“I figured then that an individual sport was for me, and at around 17, I really decided to focus in on handball. I’d be fairly determined and hard-working at it.”
Paddy Murray has nurtured McNamee’s talent since she was 12-years-old and they are a good team.
There’s a lot of time and commitment involved, and she often has to travel into Tyrone, just to get a good competitive training session.
However, that is no major issue to a woman, who thinks nothing of training six days a week.
That work ethic has let to plenty of joy on the court, and she has amassed numerous Ulster and All-Ireland titles on her way up through the ranks, while she has also competed at the World Championships in Dublin (2012) and Calgary (2015).
There was heartbreak for the Ballybofey woman last year in the semi-finals of both the Women’s ‘A’ and ‘B’ singles in Canada, but she wasn’t too downbeat over those defeats, and was able to use them as a springboard to success in 2016.
“I was at my first World Championships in 2012 in Dublin and I got to the quarter-finals.
“That was a brilliant experience, and just the sheer intensity of the tournaments is something you have to get used to.
“In our championship, you’re going out and you might get a week to recover between matches.
“But in the big tournaments, like the US Open, it’s coming thick and fast at you.”
Handball is a physically demanding support and staying in peak condition is important.
McNamee is aided in that regard by the fact that she works for Tommy Gallagher Injury Management in Letterkenny, and is able to use the expertise of her colleagues to her advantage.
“I wouldn’t be at the level that I’m at without Tommy. You also have Liam Paul Ferry there who looks after all my strength and conditioning, and rehab work if I need it.
“Those guys have been a massive help to me. Tommy is brilliant and he’s very supportive when it comes to needing time off and things like that.”
McNamee’s main code of Handball is the 40 x 20 (4 wall), but she also dabbled in the one-wall version this year, and fared well at competitions in Mayo and Tyrone.
“It turns out that I’m not too bad at it,” she modestly commented.
However, McNamee’s main objective in 2016 was to perform well at the US Open. An eleven hour direct flight to California was far from ideal, but that was just one obstacle she had to overcome.
She then encountered three challenging games in successive days, and she was well aware that her quarter-final clash with Missouri-based Suzanne Koehler was going to be a tough assignment.
“The first game on the Friday was the big one in my eyes.
“She was in the military, so needless to say she was fit. I lost the first game, and I remember thinking ‘what are you doing?’
“I settled down in the second game. I’ve done a bit of work with David McGinley, who is a sports psychologist, and he’s been an unbelievable help to me.
“When things aren’t going well in an individual sport, all kinds of things are going through your head.
“I drew on past experiences and went on to win the second game 21-10, and the tie-breaker 11-9.”
The former LYIT student was on the court for one hour and 40 minutes before she eventually dispatched of Koehler, and she admitted that she was emotional when the battle was finally over and she was through to the last four.
Her semi-final opponent was Ellen O’Connor from Co. Kildare, and while McNamee wasn’t overly impressed with her display, she still won comfortably on a scoreline of 21-11, 21-12.
That set up a final with Julie Jordan from Alaska, and buoyed on by a well-known face in the crowd, she won comfortably 21-6, 21-4 to take the US Open crown.
“Jason Quigley and one of his sponsors Ray Hartnett came to the final and that was a real boost to me.
“He came down to me after the first game, and while I had won it steady enough, the few words he passed on gave me a lift, and helped get me over the finish line.
“People that know me, understand the work that I put in to handball in regards to training, and strength and conditioning, so it really did mean a lot to me.”
The triumph in California has made McNamee more determined, and she is hoping to advance her career even further in 2017.
“There’s a pro circuit in the States called the ‘Race 4 Eight’, and my aim at the minute is to try and reach that level.
“My win at the US Open now means that I can start challenging in these big competitions, and if I can just up my training, and stay injury-free – I’m in a good place to do that – hopefully I can push on.
“Obviously in Ireland, there’s the championship and Irish Nationals, and other wee tournaments as well.
“But definitely in 2017, I would like to be hitting the States a wee bit more, and trying to get into the pro circuit.
“I do believe I can get there, but it’s going to take a lot of hard work.”