Members of St. John's GAA Club in Sligo pictured taking part in the club's Lockdown Challenge before Christmas. 
Members of St. John's GAA Club in Sligo pictured taking part in the club's Lockdown Challenge before Christmas. 

St. John's hit the ground running in 2021


By John Harrington

St John’s GAA Club in Sligo are determined to hit the ground running in 2021.

This Wednesday, January 6th, they’ll be embark on ‘St John’s GAA OT21’, an eight week Operation Transformation that will engage around 180 members of their club and local community.

The programme will include nutritional workshops, a couch to 5k, yoga, sports psychology, a weight-loss workshop, mapped walking/running routes, and Q&A’s with fitness experts.

Most of this will take place virtually through Microsoft teams, and all physical exercise will be socially distant and within a 5km radius of each person’s home.

That might sound like an ambitious programme of events, but it’s nothing the vibrant Carraroe club haven’t already done before, and in the very recent past too.

OT21 is building on the very solid foundations already in place after the hugely successful Lockdown Challenge the club ran before Christmas.

“That’s right, it's a follow-on from the lockdown challenge which really engaged the whole community,” says club Chairman Seamus Casey.

“We had over 150 people participate in that over the six weeks and it was well received, it was a massive success.

“What we did was we got 18 mapped routes all within the 5k and there were varying distances from 1k up to a half marathon.

“We set up a group and we loaded all the maps on to that. And then people had to do 12 of the 18 routes or as many as they wanted, really, it was just about getting them out and getting them being positive.

“The group took on a life of its own with recipes going up on it every day and various different things. There was great banter within it and it got people motivated.

“When you did your walk you'd put up your route on the group for the others to see. So over the whole day you'd have people putting up their routes and that just kept everyone motivated.

“The mapped routes were really successful. The whole aim of it was to get out walking in places they normally wouldn't walk, different estates and various other areas in the town. It was really good. Most people got a half marathon done in the last week of it which was a great success in itself.

“EOT21 is now kicking off this Wednesday evening and that will run until March 3rd. So far we have about 140 people signed up for that and in the next couple of days I'd say we'll hit 160, 180 people on this I would imagine.

“It's all positive and obviously it will all be done socially distant. A lot of it will be virtual as well on Microsoft teams and mentoring on the web, that type of thing.”

Dublin and Raheny footballer Brian Fenton presents the 'Hero Award' to Seamus Casey Sr. of St. John's GAA Club during the 2018 GAA National Healthy Club Conference at Croke Park Stadium, in Dublin.
Dublin and Raheny footballer Brian Fenton presents the 'Hero Award' to Seamus Casey Sr. of St. John's GAA Club during the 2018 GAA National Healthy Club Conference at Croke Park Stadium, in Dublin.

St John’s have been very proactive members of the GAA’s Healthy Club Project since 2018 and Casey himself won a ‘Hero Award’ the same year for implementing a very successful Operation Transformation programme and making the club the first non-smoking one in Sligo.

He’s long been an enthusiastic advocate of the Healthy Club Project, but now more than ever after personally benefitting so much from St. John’s Lockdown Challenge.

“My target when I became chairperson was to get involved in the Healthy Clubs and, to be honest, I was the last person you would expect to push something like that because I was seriously overweight myself,” admits Casey.

“I was conscious that I was portraying as well and people just rowed in behind the thing because they saw that everyone was trying. 

“Thank God this year it worked and I lost seven and a half stone myself this year. I suppose I'm leading from the front at last having talked a good game up to that. I'm actually doing it now myself too. 

“It's win-win all round. There's a great vibe around the club and I'm not blowing our own trumpet but I genuinely think we've set the bar high here in Sligo for what we're doing in the locality.”

St. John's GAA Club Chairman, Seamus Casey, lost over seven stone taking part in the club's Locdown Challenge before Christmas. 
St. John's GAA Club Chairman, Seamus Casey, lost over seven stone taking part in the club's Locdown Challenge before Christmas. 

The common experience of GAA clubs that have taken part in the Healthy Clubs Project is that it puts their club at the heart of the community in a more real way than it had been hitherto.

By engaging with members of the community who may not have been previously club-members and getting them involved in various initiatives, the club quickly becomes a hub for more than just those of a playing age and draws in new people who can make it stronger in all sorts of ways.

“When I started the Operation Transformation with the club back in 2018 we had yoga in the clubhouse on a Saturday morning,” says Casey.

“A woman came to me one day and said she had paid ten pound a month for the building of the clubhouse twenty odd years previously and didn't think she'd ever get to use it or even step foot inside it because she had no children. But now that she was doing the yoga there, she said it made her contribution all the more worthwhile now that she was getting something from it.

“It definitely has engaged the community as opposed to just GAA members. An awful lot of people living in the locality that we would previously hardly have known, we now know very well, and they'll now continue to support different aspects of the club going forward.

“I'd say there were maybe 70 per cent of people who participated in our Lockdown Challenge before Christmas weren't club members. The whole thinking behind it was to try to engage the whole community rather than just the GAA club itself.

“So, the more we got in that never kicked a football, the bigger the bonus. Lots of more people now feel a real part of our club because they got something worthwhile out of it.

“They'll support the club now in other ways as the years go on now because they're getting something out of it. It's not just about the football team. The football team is just an aside to it, really.”

Everyone who completed St. John's Lockdown Challenge received a specially commissioned medal for the achievement. 
Everyone who completed St. John's Lockdown Challenge received a specially commissioned medal for the achievement. 

Casey himself is proof of the physical benefits of taking part in Healthy Club initiatives like Operation Transformation, but he believes the mental boost it gives people is just as important.

At a time when the country is under another lockdown and we can’t engage with friends and family like we normally would, he expects St. John’s OT21 challenge will give people in the area a much needed social outlet, even if it is a virtual one, and distract them from the harsh reality of a Covid winter.

“Definitely, the mental aspect of it is nearly as important,” he said. “The six-week lockdown programme we had before Christmas kept people massively positive and engaged in the whole thing.

“The lockdown nearly became a side issue with a lot of people. It was about getting out, getting that daily walk in and communicating about it with one another. The interaction was unreal.

“Most people engaged in the healthy recipes and some of the senior players who would be on the county panel, the likes of Paul McNamara, gave some tips in the nutrition videos we put out and that type of stuff. There were a lot of strands to it and one would back up the next one.

“Everyone who took part got a medal of participation. We had a drive-through prize-giving ceremony and had absolutely class participation medals made up.

“They all had a picture of the club and the crest and different images that they would have seen over the six weeks, scenic areas they would have walked around, the likes of Ben Bulben, printed on the ribbon. It was just a lovely keepsake for the year that was in it.”

St John’s have also been canny enough to use their Operation Transformation programmes as a way of both raising much needed funds for their club as well as charitable causes.

It was €25 euros to take part in their Lockdown challenge before Christmas which raised €1,200 for the club and the same amount again for good causes in the community.

The latter was donated in the form of vouchers for local shops, which meant local businesses also benefited from the club’s initiatives and further good-will was generated in the community.

“The voice that the club gives you in your locality is unreal,” says Casey.

“My whole thinking is that football is brilliant, but there's an awful lot more to a GAA club than just football. What it does is it gives you a platform in the community.

“That's what you have to build on. You can win silverware and medals, but there are a lot of other things you can win that might not be as tangible, but are arguably even more important.”