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Aisling Reilly on bid for third world handball title, funding cut and why she won't turn pro

'Money is great, but pride was the main factor. That is why we are much better than the Americans'

By Declan Bogue

From time to time, Belfast's least-known world champion considers her sporting career and how the more success she gained, the less support she could count on.

But Aisling Reilly, the double world handball champion, has found a nice little arrangement in working as a personal trainer at Brian Magee Fitness.

It suits better than her previous job as a civil servant, but nothing can beat the time she enjoyed a generous dowry from Sport NI that allowed her to concentrate exclusively on sport.

"For the years that I had it, I suppose I had it too good, too quick," she says, a mini-lament from a woman who exudes a laid-back chirpiness.

"It's disappointing. I have had to fund everything from strength and conditioning, the gym, what I eat, weekly massage and weekly physio, travel up and down the country."

However, it will all be worth it when, in a little over a fortnight's time, she will be boarding a plane with Team Ireland to defend her world title in Minneapolis.

Her sister Brona, who goes to every tournament with her, will be there.

The target is to match Fiona Shannon's three-in-a-row feat of 2003, 2006 and 2009.

Shannon was a relentless competitor, a woman of exceptional mentality who now takes part in IronWoman events. She brought ladies' handball into a different realm.

The 2000 world champion was Priscilla Shumate, a Brazilian living in Texas. Anna Engele, from Minnesota, was the previous champion, and Lisa Fraser, the 1994 winner, was a Canadian.

But since 2003, the title has belonged to a tiny corner of west Belfast in the St Paul's club, a natural handover occurring in the 2012 final when Reilly beat Shannon.

Equalling her clubmate's title haul will not be easy. For years, Reilly carried a shoulder injury with two major and one minor tear on her right, and dominant, side.

She had surgery on St Patrick's Day 2017, but the first time she was able to play after that was in the St Paul's Golden Gloves Tournament in November. The lay-off has left her badly under-prepared, but for the first time in five years, she hasn't been abusing her body by playing and managing pain.

"I was having to constantly strap up, use cream, take injections and tablets and stuff. I was getting to the point where going to training and playing was a bit of a chore and I didn't really enjoy it anymore," she says.

"Being back playing, I don't know if it is a hunger, but I am really enjoying being back and not having to worry about taking tablets, icing up a joint and being out for two or three days. It's just a completely different feeling."

Perhaps some of that damage was down to her style of play, based around power and breaking her opponent with pure speed.

She explains: "I haven't really changed my style over the years, it's just managing your time in between games and training sessions. It's about being smart in how you recover in between.

"I still think I have a good amount of power. I am still pretty explosive and not as laid-back as I used to be.

"The only thing I will be thinking about is to get in and get out as fast as I can to recover for the next game. I don't think my style of play has altered over the years, I still play as hard as I can."

If she can pull off a miracle in Minneapolis, it would be something like the greatest male player of all time, Paul Brady, is trying to accomplish.

Brady, a 39-year-old former Cavan Gaelic footballer, is going for his sixth successive title.

Stories of his endurance are legendary. In winning the world title in 2009, he essentially got through the finals on one leg with his quad completely torn.

Reilly is over a decade younger but one of the few players that does not hold Brady in awe, the two having a strong friendship.

The two are trying to keep younger rivals at bay, for just a few weeks more.

"I am in my late 20s, the girls are maybe around their mid-20s so trying to compete with them, even though they are five years younger, is pretty tough on the body. Paul would agree with that," Reilly says.

"It's just that you have to take a different approach to the tournaments. Paul has been dominant for 15 years now, and I hope that I can get my third title and I hope that he gets his sixth."

She has numerous competitors, such as Shirley Chen of Brooklyn, who comes from a one-wall tradition that makes her dangerous, the southpaw Danielle Daskalakis, California's Tracy Davis, Suzanne Entzeroth from St Louis, Missouri and Aimee Fadden of Denver.

Reilly follows them all on ESPN, with ladies' handball enjoying a decent following and plenty of support in America.

But the Irish players are always going to be ranked among the favourites. The metronomic excellence of Catriona Casey has been usurped in recent times by Martina McMahon, who won the All-Ireland title.

"I have had a year and a half out of competitive play, so I am coming in from ground zero while these girls have been playing continuously. I haven't," Reilly points out. "And I haven't played these girls in a long time either, so I don't know how their games have changed. But I am going to do my best, that is all I can do."

While Brady spent some time in the States, hustling a living from tournament (known as 'stops') to tournament, that kind of life never appealed to the Belfast girl.

"I've gone to the stops and come home again. The set-up we have at home here in Ireland is far better than what the Americans have. The country is far smaller for a start so it is a lot easier to get training games and our competitions mean more, in that we have All-Ireland Championships, we have the Nationals," she explains.

"You go to the States and they play for money. Money is great, but it was always based around an amateur sport and pride was the main factor. That's why we are much better than the Americans, Canadians and Mexicans. We have a better set-up here from juveniles right up to seniors."

Right now, there is a target on Reilly's back.

Because of her lack of playing time on the court, she has slipped to No.3 in Ireland behind Casey and McMahon. But because she is defending this title, she goes in as top seed, a serious scalp for up and comers.

"I don't really feel pressure because I am just glad to be back playing. There was a time I thought I wouldn't be back playing so I am just enjoying it at the minute," she concludes, playing down her chances.

But watch. Just watch.

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