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St Paul’s student proud to represent Ireland at Canoe Polo European Championships

By Diarmúid Pepper

All the hard training is set to pay off, as St Paul’s student Fergal McConvey prepares to represent Ireland in the canoe polo at the U21 European Championships in Portugal this summer. 

Canoe polo may not be a sport on everybody’s radar, but it has been a huge part of Fergal’s life since he was introduced to it.

Canoe polo can be played indoors or outdoors on a water pitch measuring 35 by 23 metres, in a five-a-side game with three substitutes.

As Fergal explains: “A goal is scored by throwing the ball into the net, which is two metres above the water. If you want to stop the goal, you have to block it or smack it down with your paddle, which is what the defending team are trying to do. 

“When you are attacking, there is a 60 second shot-clock, which means you have 60 seconds to shoot. If you don’t shoot within the 60 seconds then the ball is tuned over. The game is played in two 10 minute halves, with two minutes of half time in which you can talk to your coach or have a quick break.”

Upper body strength is key to be able to both manoeuvre the canoe and use the paddle for defensive purposes.

 Fergal explained: “The paddle is used to move your boat around the water. When in defence, you are trying to stop the attackers from getting into your zone. You want to force them into shooting from longer out, which is a tougher shot. This also gives the defenders more time to block the ball with their paddles.”

It was a summer camp for kayaking that was Fergal’s avenue into the sport. He said: “It was the summer scheme where I started off, just kayaking with no canoe polo yet. The summer scheme is with Le’ts Go Hydro, and it is about learning how to kayak, to not be afraid of the water, to respect the water.  

 “You aren’t just kayaking; you’re doing stand up paddle boarding, canoeing, going on the inflatables, games on and off the water. It is just like a normal summer camp but with kayaking, and it’s incredible fun.

“It is not about being all serious; it is about having fun and getting the kids enjoying the sport. Once they get older, then they can start getting into tactical details and getting serious, when they want to and on their own time.”

Like any sport at this elite level, it takes a lot of hard work and dedication. 

“It is a team sport. It’s all about having your teammates there and having fun. But as well as that, when you are on the water and when you’re training, it is a very serious sport,” Fergal said.

“You are training hard, doing your fitness, gym and skills training. I train four times a week on the water, which is two hour sessions, and two hour long sessions in the gym.”

It’s a big commitment, especially with A-Level studies, but Fergal takes it all in his stride. 

“The gym is pretty easy; you can go before school at an early morning session which gets you in school at quarter past 9. Easy! Then the water sessions are all late-night. It is from 7 to 9, so you finish school at 3:20 and you have a few hours to do your work and study and homework, and then you can go to training.”

It’s a busy schedule, but one which keeps Fergal focused and on track. “It is good that we are able to train as much as we can because personally, if I don’t train, I feel like I can’t study. You need to freshen your head and get out and do stuff so you are able to study.”

With the U21 European Championships just around the corner, Fergal is aiming high and hoping for a medal.

He told the Examiner: “I am extremely proud to represent my country in a sport that I love doing. All the training that I have put in over the past four years has paid off.

“In the last Europeans two years ago, we came 11th but that was the very first major competition for us. It was very daunting going in to a big competition but we have been training now for two years and we are one of the youngest teams going into the competition. Compared to last time round, we feel so much stronger and fitter and quicker, and we are hoping to be going for a podium this year, definitely.”

Ahead of the European Championships in Portugal, Fergal and his team are holding a fundraiser with ‘Let’s Go Hydro’ in Belfast on Friday 14th June which is open to all. 

It promises to be a great day’s fun and will go a long way to helping Fergal and his team fund their trip to Portugal for the European Championships. 

“On Friday, the session will start at 7pm and end at 8. You get an hour on the inflatables, one of the biggest inflatable water parks in the UK, at a reduced price of £10. That includes your entry on the inflatable, your wetsuit, and everything else will be taken care of for you on the day. It’s going to be great craic and I hope to see many local people there to enjoy the event.”