Posted: 2 weeks ago

MY SPORTING LIFE… every month UTV’s brilliant sports presenter RUTH GORMAN shares the experiences of her sporting life and times

Interviewing Olympics-bound new mum Ashleigh Orchard for UTV

“THE most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but the taking part.”

Well, so the founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin once said.

But try telling that to the 10,500 athletes competing in Paris this summer! Not one of them is planning to go just to make up the numbers. Especially those who may only get this chance once.

Thirty-two year old Ulster woman Ashleigh Orchard thought her Olympic dream was over.

She grew up admiring Kelly Holmes and vividly remembers Athens 2004 when Kelly won both the 800m and 1500m.

Ashleigh was a swimmer in her earlier years but she “was too short and had tiny feet” according to her. She went on to to play rugby for Ireland, first for the XVs team (she was part of the Grand Slam winning team in 2013 and their famous World Cup run to the semi finals the following year) before changing codes to play Sevens, but she was forced to step away after a persistent calf injury in 2018.

The door had been left open for a return and, when IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora phoned in December 2022 offering her a contract with the Sevens squad and their push for the Olympics, she originally jumped at the chance.

That same December day was made even more special when she found out later that night that she was pregnant. Ashleigh went back to Nucifora to say she couldn’t take the contract. She was convinced her Olympic dream was over.

Ashleigh Orchard and daughter Arabella (©INPHO/Dan Sheridan)

Baby Arabella (who is one of the cutest babies I’ve ever met by the way!) was born in August 2023. But then head coach Allan Temple-Jones got in touch to offer Ashleigh a chance at making the squad for this summer’s Games.

1Ten months later, Ashleigh was named in the 12-player squad for Paris and now she’s heading to the Ireland Women’s Sevens first Olympic Games. The best part is Arabella will be right there by her side! 

Ashleigh’s husband Jonny has taken a career break to help Ashleigh live out her dream and she is on maternity leave up until the end of the Olympics – the Monday after to be precise.

“The IRFU have been brilliant with me,” Ashleigh told me when I visited the High Performance Centre recently.

“They allow Jonny and Arabella to come everywhere with me. I’m still feeding her, I didn’t want to stop that just to do this. It’s me and her, not either of us. I very much wanted to put her first and the IRFU bought into that as well which is great. We travel down from Belfast to Dublin and stay together there for training sessions, and also they stayed with me in Madrid and Singapore for the SVNS series.”

One thing I noticed about Arabella was how comfortable and content she was with everyone. She smiled away as the camera snapped pictures of her and while I was filming with the UTV camera also. She was being held by Ashleigh’s team mates, affectionately known as her ‘aunties’, as they took turns to get photos during their media obligations. Arabella took it all in her stride. “She hasn’t had a chance to get strange with anyone because she’s been on the road so much already. She’s been so good,” her dad smiled.

She may not remember Paris but there will be memories made this summer that Arabella and her parents will look back on for the rest of their lives.

Ashleigh and her team mates will be heading to the Olympics with their male counterparts, who will be competing at their second Games.

Making his debut will be Zac Ward, son of former Ulster and Ireland player Andy Ward.

“Zac has worked hard and deserves his call up,” his Irish men’s Sevens coach, former Ulster player James Topping told me.

“We are going to Paris to get a medal and we believe we can.”

Sevens is a very different game than 15 versus 15 but many more eyes will be on the Olympics this year with one of the world’s best ever rugby players switching codes to play in Paris. France’s Antoine Dupont is a superstar. During the World Cup in his home country last year he was on every billboard, every TV advert, every newspaper and every magazine. And not just in a rugby context, every brand wanted to be associated with him. He’s one of a few rugby players that have really transcended the sport.

Having Dupont compete on this stage is huge for the Olympics and will only grow the sport which is normally in the shadows of rugby union.

Joy for Ciara Mageean in Rome

While we’re on the topic of the Olympics, I cannot wait to see Portaferry’s Ciara Mageean on the big stage again.

What a moment last month when she crossed the 1500m finish line in Rome to win her first gold medal at the European Championships.

I got goosebumps watching it on TV that Sunday night as she pushed her way through the two GB athletes who were trying to block her in in the final stretch.

Ciara’s interview with RTE afterwards summed it up perfectly, “I didn’t grow up playing camogie to get boxed in!”

Good on you Ciara, keep those pointy elbows out in Paris!