Natural organiser Wenjing's rapid rise
By John Harrington
It’s easy to make the case for volunteer officers being the real heroes of the GAA.
Players get an immediate payback for their commitment – the pure joy of playing a sport, the personal development you get from challenging yourself to be the best you can be, the emotional release of a final whistle when you’ve won the match.
A player will rarely be short of positive feedback, but there’s not many club treasurers who get backslaps for balancing the books, or PROs who are routinely lauded for their timely club notes.
For GAA officers, the reward for many hours of often thankless work is more of a quiet satisfaction of a job well done that’s buttressed by the knowledge your efforts help cement a community.
There’s also the camaraderie and mutual appreciation you develop with fellow club or county officers who also go the extra mile.
The truth is that really good GAA officers are worth their weight in gold, which is why Wenjing Zhuang has quickly risen to the rank of Assistant Secretary of Gaelic Games Europe and Chairperson of Nordic GAA, even though she played her very first game of Gaelic Football just four years ago.
How that came about was a little bit random, which is the standard origin story for most non-Irish people who accidently discover Gaelic Games.
Wenjing, a native of Perth in Australia, was aware of Gaelic Football as a sport because of the International Rules series, but she had no idea it was a sport she could play herself until she moved to Copenhagen, the capital city of Denmark.
“One day one of the girls I played netball with came in going, 'Oh my God, we're short, can any of your girls come and play gaelic football for my team at this tournament?’” Zhuang told GAA.ie.
“And we were all like, ‘well what is it? And she goes, ‘Wenny, it's just like AFL, it's just that the ball is round, so just come down’. So I went down and I thought this is exactly like AFL, just much easier.”
Or maybe not quite so easy. The netball habit of standing on the same spot and pivoting when you receive the ball rather than immediately running rose the blood pressure of her new gaelic football coach.
With just two weeks of training under her belt she played her first tournament with Copenhagen GAA in Gotenburg, Sweden, which was an at times confusing crash course in the rules of Gaelic Football.
“I don't really remember much except, I won't say I was screaming at the referee, but just going to the referee and saying, 'What actually am I allowed to do? What can I do? Do I hold it in my hands, do I put it on the ground? What do I do?'
“And she'd just tell me, ‘kick the ball now’, or, ‘your ball, free out’. And then I'd say, 'What do you mean a free? Do I take this ball home?' And she'd be like, 'No, no, no...just kick the ball!’
“Once I'd finally figured out what the rules were by playing and just what was going on, it made a lot more sense.”
Wenjing had some previous experience of sports administration in touch rugby when she lived in the Netherlands, but when she decided to give Gaelic Games a real go her intention was to focus purely on playing.
But, as is often the case in the GAA, a talent for organisation is quickly spotted and harnessed if at all possible.
As a Senior Project Manager for a Multinational Corporation, organising people is Wenjing’s speciality. When you combine that natural talent with a proclivity for saying ‘Yes’ rather than ‘No’, it was perhaps inevitable she soon found herself appointed club secretary of Copenhagen GAA.
“I had originally started out playing tennis quite a lot and touch rugby so I've been to a few touch rugby competitions, been to a few World Cups and European Championships,” she says.
“When I moved to Denmark, because I used to live in the Netherlands, there was no team here. Instead of trying to set something up I thought, you know what, I've been driving touch rugby for a while, so I'm going to actually take a back seat and join a club where things are organised and I just want to try something new.
“And also, to be honest, in the beginning when I first moved I was a bit burned out and I just wanted to play and someone else to organise.
“Then in the natural way of how things go, people started dropping out and having kids or they just burned out as well. In the end they were like, ‘can you help out, do you want to be the secretary, do you want to help us run the club?’ And I said, ‘well, why not?’
“It was 2018. I can't even remember how it what happened, to be honest.
“Look, I'm a Project Manager, so I spend a lot of time organising things a long time in advance. I think one year where I joined the board in Copenhagen, I said, right, these are the three or four tournaments that we're going to do this year, it's been agreed in February, and by the end of February I had booked accommodation for everyone for all four tournaments.”
In the world of GAA officers efficiency is quickly spotted, and Wenjing was quickly fast-tracked for promotion in Gaelic Games Europe, much to her own surprise.
“In 2018 we had an All-Ireland ticket in the club and I was going, ‘what is this?’ One of the Aussies said, ‘it's like the Grand Final, you should go if you've got the chance’. So, I got the club ticket because no-one else wanted to go. It was Dublin v Tyrone and everyone was expecting Dublin to win.
“So, I trotted down there, went to the ticket hand-out, and I actually met two of the European GAA people.
“So, I said, 'Hi, I'm Wenjing', and they were like, 'Oh, we've heard about you!' And I was like, 'How? What?' And they were like, 'Yeah, we're looking for people to join the board next year'.
“I was saying, ‘I'm just here to pick up a ticket, I've never been to Dublin before, where's Croke Park?’
And they were like, 'Great, give me your email address and we'll be in touch and maybe you can help us on the board'. I was like, 'Okay!' (laughs).
“Hopefully I must have come across as an organised sort of person. I think it was because I was helping to organise when we do our tournaments so you meet the referees and a few people around and it goes from there.”
When you scan Gaelic Games Europe’s Committee for 2021, what really jumps out at you is the number of different nationalities of the various officers.
This inclusive approach has an obvious benefit. By bringing together people of different backgrounds, quite often with little or no prior knowledge of how the GAA works, you’re opening yourself up to new ideas, new ways of doing things.
So, what does Wenjing bring to the mix? How does she hope her particular skill-set can benefit the growth of Gaelic Games in Europe?
“My personal thing is organisation and time-planning,” she says. “I think this also comes from having lived in the Netherlands for a while. Things have a schedule. You go forward and you just talk about what happened or why something didn't happen and then what you can do better next time.
“I think it's a very Dutch/Germanic approach, whereas not everyone likes to think that way. And in Europe you've got so many different cultures that don't think that way.
“I see it at work as well. We have offices all over but how you behave with your colleagues in Denmark or Germany is not how you could do it outside. It's understanding the different cultural approaches and also personal approaches.
“It's an interesting training ground for people who want to learn how to facilitate and basically how to manage. I'm Assistant Secretary, but sometimes it's about learning how to persuade people around to your point of view and how to just work with other people from different areas.
“Everyone is a volunteer and a lot of people often don't do the things that they do professionally. So, for me, I don't take notes professionally, but I can help plan. So, that's one challenge, looking at European GAA.
“And, it’s not really a challenge, but something we'd like to improve is female participation, both in terms of the decision-making of the top-management but also just recruiting and keeping female players.
“Something personally that I've always wondered about which I've asked a lot of people but never gotten a good answer is, ‘why are there so many male coaches and referees in ladies football and not female coaches and referees?’”
The rapid growth of Gaelic Games in places like Brittany in France and Galicia in Spain is being powered by the native population.
Gaelic Games are been introduced to the sporting curriculum of many schools, which means a new generation of players are produced who gravitate towards local GAA clubs.
This is something that requires a lot of organisation, so it’s not easily done, but Wenjing hopes that, in time, something similar might happen in her own Nordic region of Europe.
“Copenhagen is an international city, everyone speaks Danish. But I think the hurdle that we have to cross and many clubs have to cross is to involve the native speakers who converse in the native languages as well, and we're not quite there yet,” she says.
“A few of us can, but it just requires time and energy for volunteers to be able to push it forward.
“A teacher in Western Denmark has actually contacted our club recently and they will be bringing over around 40 students. They've heard about hurling, they've tried it in Ireland a few of them, I believe. They've asked to come across and do a hurling and football session with us in October.
“We're setting something up like that and we can try and demonstrate it. The difficulty is they are around three hours away from Copenhagen which means that without the resources to embed someone in there to say ‘this is what you do, this is how you should train without a coach’, or have someone who is able to run trainings, it will be difficult.
“I'm not sure how we're going to move forward on that but we will probably try to invite them to any competitions we have next time and just have a chat with them after we see how the training session goes.”
Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and you quickly get the impression from talking to Wenjing that she’s the sort of person who delivers on her goals.
Sports administration is a natural fit for someone of her organisational abilities, so what does she hope to achieve in her role on the GGE Committee for as long as she’s there?
“As nerdy as it sounds, I want to leave it in a better state than I found it,” she says.
“So, getting policies put in place in terms of governance so if and when I do leave this volunteering, that we'll have a ship that's running well.
“To have played a part in getting all the nitty gritty bits in order so it functions well for whoever takes it over.”