A look at my latest sporting experience

If I were to hand in my resumé in sports, it would have just one line that says “Did gymnastics. Plays badminton. Historically has been able to correctly guess the difference between a soccer ball and a basketball about 50 per cent of the time.” In other words, apart from the two niche sports that I’ve played, I know literally nothing about all other sports. So why did I decide to start a sports column?

Well, for exactly that reason. All my life, I’ve played niche sports that I wished more people would care about. So hopefully you can occasionally laugh, possibly cry, but definitely cringe along with me as I bring attention to different non-mainstream sports by probably being unsuccessful at them.

This week I overcame (or at least, tried to overcome) my fear of Death Via Projectile Spherical Objects in joining my friend and Fulcrum arts & culture editor, Ryan Pepper, at the Ottawa Gaels, a recreational Gaelic football club.

My whole preparation for this experience was a 10-minute crash course on the rules that Ryan gave me on our bus ride to the field. I learned that Gaelic football was essentially a mixture of volleyball, rugby, and soccer. Two teams try to score on the other’s goal, which is a hybrid of a football post and a soccer net. To pass, players either punt the ball like a volleyball, or kick the ball like they would in soccer. A goal is achieved when a player either gets the ball into the net (three points) or through the uprights (one point) of the opponent’s goal.

This was not exactly fantastic news to me as my foot hasn’t touched a ball since sixth grade gym class when I accidentally scored on my own team. I had vowed then that I would never play soccer again. Unfortunately, we were already on a bus heading to Gatineau so there was no turning back.

We started off practice with a light warm-up jog, then went directly into a Gaelic football game. I spent the first 15 minutes running back and forth on the field trying to figure out exactly where I was supposed to go, simultaneously trying to catch the ball and stay out of its way. Soon enough, I began to understand the game and even caught the ball a couple times before I was tackled and it was taken from me. After a short intermission, I was given the opportunity to play forward.

The first time someone passed me the ball, I kicked it right into the open arms of an opponent, lost my balance, and almost toppled over. However, a couple minutes later, the ball came at me again. It was as if time slowed down and I could see it right before it happened: I dropped the ball and kicked it as hard as I could. The ball soared over the arms of the goalie and sailed right through the posts. Scoring that one goal was, and will likely forever be, the highlight of my Gaelic football career.

Against all odds, I came out of the experience with no injuries, apart from a slightly bruised ego. But I had gained some valuable insight on the sport, experienced the joy of working together as a team, and even felt the rush of adrenaline as I watched the ball clear the post.

Dermot Guinnane is the organizer of the Ottawa Gaels and of the Eastern Canadian team for the 2016 All-Ireland Senior Football Championship. Based in Dublin, the Gaelic Athletic Association is the governing body of a range of Irish sports and cultural activity, with Gaelic football as the most popular sport, along with hurling.

“Canada went through a rough patch for a while when we didn’t have a team. With the economy going into the gutter in Ireland, there was an influx of immigration. A lot of people from Ireland ended up in Toronto so their team ended up being very strong,” Guinnane said.

Throughout off-season, the Ottawa Gaels do cross-training. On Saturday nights they play a mix of Gaelic football, handball, and soccer, with open drop-ins for anyone who wants to try out the sport. On Tuesdays they do fitness and Gaelic-specific training. During the summer, their schedule turns to mostly Gaelic practices.

Their warmth to new players is undeniable. “We’re always open for new players and it’s a mixed level,” said Guinnane. “It’s a sport that I love playing. It’s always fun to see new people playing it and having a good time.”