NUI Galway student Conor Whelan achieved more than most last year. Not only did the Inter-county hurler help lead his team to victory in his second All-Ireland final, the 21-year-old from Kinvara was also awarded an All-Star, named Young Hurler of the Year, and appeared on Ireland AM to discuss mental health.
If all of that wasn’t enough, the future teacher celebrated the historic win a little differently to the rest of the county; by starting his Master’s degree the Monday after the All Ireland. As he settles into the new semester, Whelan is focusing on placement, a new hurling season and using his platform as an advocate for mental health.
Conor fell in love with hurling at a young age and was nurtured by his local Kinvara GAA club where he says he went from strength to strength through the under-age system. He was playing for his county by u14 and has gone on to become a household name across the country. Yet you’d never know it by talking to the PME student, who openly explains how tough it was to adjust back to real life after becoming a local hero.
“Honestly, life has been hectic. The excitement and how much the All-Ireland means to people can never be put into context until you actually go and win it,” Conor told SIN.
“I went away for a few days after so I could reset and refocus as I was starting my Master’s and needed to process everything.”
Conor said that he missed some key aspects in the first week of college but was lucky that he could seek help from his teammates Cathal and Padraic Mannion who are in their second year of the same course.
He admitted that it can be tough to juggle college and sport but commended the university for their support and for understanding the strain that an inter-county player is under.
“It’s difficult to achieve the same grades as others in my class but I do my best because I want a successful career. I see myself as a teacher first and a hurler second,” said the ambitious Conor.
On top of classes and teaching practice, Conor also faces the massive pressure from his sporting career. While there is no easy way to avoid it, himself and his teammates have learned to deal with it.
“Pressure is helped with experience. We try to block out all the excitement and leave that for the fans. As players we kind of put ourselves in a bubble so we can focus on our job. The stakes were so high this year and we weren’t willing to let the chance of the All-Ireland slip again,” he explained.
“I’ve learned that any event is only as big as you make it in your head.”
And as for the pressure of suddenly becoming a public figure at a young age?
“It’s important to me that I represent Galway well. Every inter-county athlete has the responsibility of being a role-model. I remember being young and looking up to my idols. Although you may not be wearing your jersey all the time, people still perceive you as the person with the jersey. That’s who they remember you as.”
Although 2017 worked in Galway’s favor, Conor has also experienced losing an All-Ireland. He said that over-thinking a defeat can be unhelpful when you need to lace up your boots soon after to take to the field of play again.
“It’s unhealthy to over-analyze yourself and to have a cloud hanging over your head,” he said.
“It never becomes any easier to lose, but as soon as I’ve assessed the performance I try to put it to one side. It’s important to look at the bigger picture, losing isn’t the end of the world.”
“In Galway we have a philosophy: you never get too high when you win and never get too low when you lose.”
Luckily, everything did go his way this past season, with the Kinvara hero even bagging an All-Star – yet the corner forward remains modest.
“The All-stars were the icing on the cake. It’s a great of reflection of all the hard work put in but I couldn’t have won an individual award without my teammates. I’m honored to be a part of a team that was able to bring joy to people.”
However the work never ends for Conor, who is already thinking ahead.
One wonders when the young hurler even sleeps, as Conor also actively uses his platform to encourage people to look after their mental health.
He recently appeared on Ireland AM to discuss how important it is to “break the stigma” and talk about what is on our minds.
“In today’s world we all worry about our physical appearance and health but as a society we don’t pay attention to our mental health which is the fulcrum of a person’s life and should be treated that way,” he said.
“Everyone will encounter challenges and have moments where they feel the weight of the world is on them. We can all deal with this by seeking help and talking to each other.
“Together we can help break the stigma around depression and move forward towards a more understanding place where people can openly share their problems and receive the necessary tools to deal with any challenge they face,” he added.
“As a society, it’s our responsibility to raise the awareness of mental health and to educate young people on its importance”.
By Martha Brennan