The racquetball world is wide open for Edel Coonan, who made history by becoming the first Kilkenny person to play for Ireland at the World Junior Racquetball Championships. The 12-year-old, who hails from Muckalee but plays for the O'Loughlin Gaels
ADVERTISEMENTracquetball club, was part of a 17-strong Irish team who travelled to the Dominican Republic for the world games recently, taking on players from other countries such as Argentina, Canada, USA, Chile and Mexico.
Competing in the 12 and under category, Coonan made a great start when she beat Mery Nanyely Delgado from the Dominican Republic in her first game in the gold section of the competition. Although she was beaten by the eventual finalist, Bolivia's Natalia Mendez, she got another taste of international competition by playing against American Lexie York in another section of the tournament.
While victory may have evaded her on this occasion, one of Coonan's mentors is convinced that the experience she has gained will stand to her in the future.
"This was a magnificent achievement for Edel," said John Comerford, secretary of the O'Loughlin Gaels racquetball club. "She was the first Kilkenny person to represent Ireland at junior level, and we are all so proud of her."
With Comerford in regular contact, her clubmates were able to get constant updates on Coonan's fortunes in the Caribbean.
"Edel found that the heat was tough going," Comerford recalled. "She was also a bit nervous playing out there but that was natural, given that the players were surrounded by other courts and plenty of spectators. Being on a world stage like that was new to her, but she enjoyed it all the same."
Ireland did well in the competition, finished fifth overall from 19 countries, but Comerford believes their success is like that of another team closer to home.
"Just like the hurling here in Kilkenny the youth programme in racquetball has paid off," he said. "Developing players at an early age has Kilkenny hurling where it is, and the same can be said in racquetball. The national organisation hired American coach Jim Winterton - who predicted big things for Edel - to take charge of the Irish team for a season and his work has filtered down through the ranks."
Although not yet a teenager Edel has plenty of experience playing racquetball, having played the sport for best part of five years.
"Edel began playing at the complex in Muckalee, but as they are not an affiliated club she joined O'Loughlin's to play in national competitions," explained John. "She has won All-Ireland singles titles at 10, 11 and 12 age levels, while she has also won the Irish Open title a number of times."
And Comerford is confident that Edel will pick up more titles as the years go on.
Blazed a trail
"She has blazed a trail through the sport and will continue to do so," he predicted. "She has earned her successes through hard work, while having a very supportive family behind her has also been a huge help."
Next up for the Kilkenny youngster is Moylagh Open in Meath. Edel will also be able to play in that event at adult level, with Comerford hoping she'll play the sport until she is an adult herself.
"The trick to playing the sport for a long time is to keep at it," he said. "So many sports are fighting for the attentions of young people so we're hoping Edel will stick with racquetball."
The sport itself has attracted many people in Kilkenny over the years, and has come a long way since its early days in the county.
"I was in my 30s the first time I played racquetball," John recalled. "We used to play it in a hall at the back of the Club House Hotel, in what went on to be the Euro Gym on New Street."
And the sport wasn't just popular with racquetball players.
"One of the best racquetball players I ever saw was the former Kilkenny hurling goalkeeper and manager Ollie Walsh," Comerford added. "He was one of many hurlers who loved to play the game as it is great for their hand-eye co-ordination. Even now we get plenty of them playing the sport during the Winter months in handball alleys in places like Clogh and Mothel. There is a huge following for racquetball during those months, as people can just go in and play away whatever the weather."
Plenty of success
And success has been plentiful in Kilkenny, with the O'Loughlin's club lifting some silverware of their own lately.
"A team from O'Loughlin Gaels won the All-Ireland novice club championships recently," said a proud Comerford. "Eight teams from places like Fermoy, Templederry and Carrick came to Kilkenny for the competition. We made the final, where we beat Youghal to win the title."
That team included Clogh native John Paul O'Neill, who has played squash for Ireland at the World Transplant Games. O'Neill, who underwent a kidney transplant in 1998, has competed at four Transplant Games including the 2009 competition, where he won a silver medal for squash in Australia to follow on from the gold he won in France in 2003.
And even though it was a different sport, a meeting with an 'old enemy' couldn't go without a black and amber reference.
"Before the final we sang The Rose of Mooncoin, and welcomed the Cork lads to the home of hurling," Comerford laughed. "I don't think it went down too well!"
While Kilkenny has had much success in the past Comerford - who also represented Ireland at racquetball in the Senior Olympics and has played the sport from Antwerp to Las Vegas - is looking forward to the silver anniversary of the Kilkenny Open, which will be 25 years young this May.
"I can't believe we are going to reach this landmark," he said. "It promises to be a great competition."
By Trevor Spillane