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Meet the world champion who is unknown on Belfast streets

Handball ace Aisling reveals hopes to raise profile of game

By Declan Bogue

Earlier this week, the updated world rankings for handball were released. As expected, Belfast's Aisling Reilly was world No 1 in senior ladies.

Last month, she picked up a special recognition award at The Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards. She chatted and got the obligatory selfie with Neil Lennon, and caught up with fellow athletes who she bumps into along the corridors of the Sports Institute of Northern Ireland.

But outside of her own St Paul's club and her local surroundings, this is one world champion from Belfast that goes unnoticed in the street.

If she is concerned at that, it's not for her own, but the sport's sake.

"It would be great if the sport was more widely recognised," she says. "Although I am a world champion, I would love if more people started playing handball.

"It doesn't really bother me. I know that I am a world champion and I am fine with that."

Since she retained her world Ttitle in Calgary last August against Catriona Casey of Cork, the social invitations have continued to drop onto the hallway mat. While she says: "It's great to be recognised as a world champion, because a lot of time and effort goes into it," she is quick to add: "It's not something that I would dwell on, because primarily what I do is I just love playing the sport. Those other wee touches are just nice additions."

She is 26 now, but when she finishes up, her goal will be to spread the game of handball far and wide.

One means of getting people into the court is to market handball as the perfect partner to other Gaelic games, especially as an off-season pursuit. Reilly herself was a keen camogie player and played football for St Paul's right up until 2010.

"Even if it was in-season, off-season, just that agility, the speed, the hand-eye co-ordination, it would complement anybody, even footballers and hurlers for the guys, I know some of the Dublin senior footballers had been using it as their pre-season last year," she points out.

It's easy to judge Reilly on her modesty and the ease with which she carries herself. But bear this is mind - she is probably the best female player ever. This is a serious athlete.

The big thing is the rivalry with Casey. Aisling is an explosive, attacking player but very laid-back off the court. Catriona is a methodical, percentage player. They're the two best ladies to ever play the game without doubt.

Casey took over from Aisling and looked like she would dominate. A top American handball promoter said Casey was the greatest female player in history and she began trying to qualify for the men's pro tour. Since then, Aisling has taken back the crown.

As for honours, she beat Fiona Shannon in the world final in 2012 and then beat Casey in close tiebreaker in the world final of 2015.

Their rivalry is unique in that they meet in the final of every single tournament here, in the States, in Canada. Neither has lost a game to anyone else in donkey's years. And that's in an era where the standard of the ladies is higher than ever, probably because of the two top players dragging it up.

As a measure of the reach of handball, In the last two years they've met in finals in Calgary, Cavan, Castlebar and to interrupt the alliteration, Salt Lake City.

Despite all of this, her funding from Sport NI, which enabled her to live the life of a full-time athlete, was cut last summer.

If you are looking for complaints, she won't give you any. She simply gets on with it. Previously, she had worked as a civil servant but couldn't imagine herself going back into that way of life so she got herself qualified as a trainer and now works shifts in Brian Magee's gym.

Of her new boss, she says: "Brian is great. He understands that I am still trying to be a full-time athlete. He is coming from the same background when he was boxing so he is helping me out a good bit."

In the mornings, she will be in the gym at SINI by 7am and train until 9.30am. She might then attend physio for a while before getting home for a quick nap. Around 4pm, she will reach for more gym gear to get along to the handball court for almost an hour. That night, she will work a little with the foam roller to keep things ticking along.

Any spare time is devoured by TV boxed sets.

"I have about seven on the go at the minute. There is a show called 'The Blacklist' which is my favourite," she says.

"I like 'Bones', CSI stuff. Then I would go completely the other way and watch 'The Big Bang Theory', 'The Good Wife'.

"Basically, I could be a forensic anthropologist, I could be a lawyer or a murderer! One of the three!"

For now, she wants to keep this run going, establish herself as the undisputed queen of her sport. A female Paul Brady, if you like.

As for any far-reaching work ambitions, they are centred on handball.

"Whenever I was at school I tended to stay away from the sport-type occupation, because I was so involved in sport. But looking back, it's probably something I will go into once I finish playing," she explains.

"I love coaching in the club in St Paul's. I love working in the gym, so anything that I can pass onto people of what I have learned over the last 15 years and what I will learn over the next five years."

In the third week of February, the All-Ireland Championships take place. The games are all held in different locations. There will be no great media coverage or fuss or glamour.

But Catriona Casey will be there. And so will Aisling Reilly. One of the greatest Irish sporting rivalries.

And we know and appreciate so little about it.

Belfast Telegraph


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