Loss of a Shamrock Sister
It had been designed as maybe the greatest celebration ever for rowing at the University of Notre Dame.
On a fall Friday night in 2016, the new McConnell Family Boathouse, hard by the St. Joseph River near downtown South Bend, had been scheduled for a blessing, dedication and dinner.
On top of that, that moment came less than a month after former Irish rower Amanda Polk claimed a gold medal at the Summer Olympic Games in Rio after helping the United States eight boat defeat the rest of the world.
Heady stuff, indeed.
But, instead, that muggy evening under a tent on the shore of the river that accounts for the name South Bend turned into a complicated emotional exercise that left most anyone even remotely connected with Irish rowing not knowing whether to smile, cry or laugh.
Earlier that same day — Sept. 10, 2016 — the Irish women’s rowing program had lost one of its own. Ailish Sheehan, from County Limerick in Ireland and a 2015 Notre Dame graduate, died from head injuries suffered in a fall the previous Sunday in Poznan, Poland. The accident came hours after the 23-year-old Sheehan — who owned dual citizenship in both Ireland and Great Britain — helped the British four boat claim a bronze medal in the World University Championships.
It only made it more emotional to know that the daughter of Jim and Lisa McConnell, the lead benefactors for the new boathouse, have a daughter, Erin, a 2012 Notre Dame graduate who was a senior when she rowed in the same Irish boat as Sheehan.
Sheehan had been studying for her master’s degree in design and environment at the University of London and rowed for the college. She had won Irish championships as a junior and senior oarswoman for St Michael’s Rowing Club in Limerick. Sheehan also represented Ireland at the World Under-23 Championships in 2013, placing fourth with the Ireland W4- boat in Linz-Ottensheim, Austria, and becoming the first international Notre Dame rower to compete at that event.
Prior to focusing on rowing, Sheehan had established herself as one of Ireland’s leading shot put and javelin athletes — representing Ireland at international schools level and later at the Celtic Games in Scotland.
Plenty of people in attendance on that Friday night knew Sheehan — and that only made it tougher to sort out the appropriate emotions for the occasion.
University associate vice president Micki Kidder, who served as master of ceremonies that night, referred to the loss of a “remarkable shamrock sister.”
“Our collective pain is real, it’s raw,” Kidder added. “This morning her life ended much too soon. We remember tonight her deep passion and commitment to Notre Dame rowing, her contagious humor and her love for dancing, which many of you may have experienced, and her leadership in inspiring others. We grieve together, we pray together and we remember her together.
“I know Ailish would want us to share stories of this sport, I know she would want us to dream of what’s ahead and dream wildly together. She was supposed to be here this evening — that was her plan — to celebrate this new facility she was truly enthusiastic about. Ailish and her classmates were actually the first ones at Notre Dame to go all four years to the NCAA Championships.”
A second-team All-American as a senior at Notre Dame in 2015, Sheehan placed second in the first varsity eight grand final (6:28.60) behind eventual team champion Virginia at the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship. She helped the Irish finish in 17th place overall at the NCAA Championship after crossing the finish line in 6:44.901 of the first varsity eight C final.
As a junior she was a second-team all- ACC choice.
Added Notre Dame vice president and James E. Rohr Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick, “It’s fitting in some ways that these two events coincide today — one unspeakably tragic and one celebratory — because they both speak of family. The rowing team that grieves today can do that as a family, as a unit, because athletics has created that bond among them. To the extent this facility helps make that bond stronger, it has done a far more important thing than simply create a sport venue.”
The addition of the McConnell Family Boathouse (with the former Irish boathouse next door then donated to the city) became yet another shared Notre Dame facility that helps forge the relationship between the University and the community. Much like the Compton Family Ice Arena, home not only to the Jeff Jackson’s Irish team but to youth hockey events virtually every weekend, the new rowing facility accents the community pillar that ranks as one of the five hallmarks of Notre Dame’s athletic goals. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg eloquently echoed all that in his remarks that night.
Irish women’s coach Martin Stone, who has taken his teams to the NCAA Championship on nine occasions, logically would have been another of the speakers Friday evening — but the emotion produced by Sheehan’s loss made that unrealistic.
It was left for Jim McConnell to offer a final tribute to Sheehan: “I spoke with Erin today and she talked about how Ailish was so fun-loving and such a free spirit. She was an amazing teammate and always a positive force no matter the circumstances.”
Sheehan’s death drew international notice. Ireland President Michael Higgins said, “A talented rower and student of design, her loss will be felt acutely by her teammates and colleagues. This is a cruel blow for all those who were so impressed by her rowing success.”
Irish Olympian Sinead Jennings, a former teammate of Sheehan, described the Limerick athlete as “one of the most talented Iʼve ever met.”
Limerick Mayor Kieran O’Hanlon asked for the Irish flag to be flown at half-staff outside Limerick city and county council offices on the Monday after Sheehan’s death in her memory.
Sheehan’s London club coach, Phil Gray, said, “Not only was Ailish a top oarswoman with a significant future in the international side of the sport, but she also lit up the club with her humor and laughter. She was a great example to younger members, and starting next year without her is hard to imagine at the moment especially as she had been elected vice captain.
Paying tribute to his daughter’s remarkable sporting achievements, John Sheehan said proudly: “We are so thrilled with the life she led. Ailish was wise, wild, determined and about as fun as anyone could be.”
Added Jennings: “It’s absolutely awful. I rowed with Ailish in 2013 when we won the senior (pairs) together. She is an amazing girl. She was so bright and so full of life and energetic.
“I think we are all in shock — we can’t believe it has happened really. She had such a future ahead of her. She was such a lovely girl. To think she was just out celebrating, as anybody would be, after winning the bronze medal. It just shouldn’t have happened.”
A close friend of the Sheehan family said: “Everyone is in shock. She was so bubbly, so full of life, so determined.”
Phil Roche, the Dooneen Club president, described her as “an all-rounder.”
It marked the second major tragedy to strike the Sheehan family. John’s brother Jim was left paralyzed following a crash about 20 years ago, which claimed the life of his wife.
“It’s so sad. She had packed so much into her 23 years. She achieved so much. Most of us wouldn’t reach the heights she did in our lifetime,” a family friend said.
Another former neighbor described Ailish as having been “full of life, and full of go and full of craic.
“She was always very competitive — she had to be, to get on the rowing team and to win her bronze medal.”
James Richards, the college’s men’s captain, described his fellow athlete as exceptional. “She was mentally one of the strongest people I knew in all aspects of life. She had a relentless infectious energy that made everyone better themselves. She was inspirational.”
Lottie Bruce, the women’s captain, said: “Ailish was the most gutsy and remarkable girl I had ever had the pleasure of meeting. Her strength shone through but she kept humble about her successes. She will be missed. The stars are shining bright for you, Ailish.”
“‘Devastated,’ ‘torn up’ are some words,” said Marnie Stahl, associate head coach of Notre Dame women’s rowing. “We knew that the accident wasn’t good. We knew she was in a fight coming out of that accident.”
Ten Notre Dame coaches and student-athletes traveled to Ireland for Sheehan’s funeral ceremonies.
Sheehan was working toward making the Great Britain senior team for the World Rowing Championships in Florida in 2017. Her ultimate goal was to make Great Britain’s team for the Summer Olympics Games in Tokyo in 2020.
The Notre Dame team remembered her by the “I Am a Champion” signs that Sheehan attached to the rowing machines at Notre Dame prior to graduation — in notation of another of Sheehan’s favored pieces of music.
“That’s the person that she was,” said Stahl. “Just an unbelievable spirit and always wanting to be better, always being positive.”
Perhaps the most poignant celebration of Sheehan’s life came on the night after her death, when her teammates and coaches played Sheehan’s favorite song, the 1984 “Footloose” hit “Holding Out For a Hero” by Bonnie Tyler. They danced on the dock as a team in a celebration of her spirit.
“I’ll remember her with a smile,” said Stahl. “She’s just an amazing spirit that makes you want to live life to the fullest and make a difference and be a light for other people. For me personally, it’s about embodying her spirit a little bit more: just enjoying the moment and laughing and dancing and just enjoying what’s in front of you.”
Her father called her “the ultimate warrior.
“While still a baby, around 18 months of age, and unable to move freely in a liquid-filled nappy, (Ailish) ripped it off and flung it high into a bush, and ran laughing towards her Kerry cousins,” he recalled. “Helping Catherine bake a cake with her arm in a cast, Ailish was told to wash her hands, and she duly stuck the cast between her knees and pulled the plaster off for good. . . . Snorkeling in Australia, she cut her hand, and was poisoned by a fish while feeding sausages to hundreds of fishes in a corrib.
“She created many waves in many ways — when she danced, waves were sent to the earth’s core. It was who Ailish was that made us her greatest fans.”
Ailish’s sister Niamh described her as “beautiful, strong and courageous.”
In a touching tribute from the altar at the funeral, she added: “When Ailish Sheehan hit South Bend, Indiana, a whirlwind came to town, and their world was rocked for the better.”
Kidder on that Friday night in South Bend noted a candle — brought to the boathouse dedication from the Grotto on the Notre Dame campus — that was lit that same night in remembrance of Sheehan: “It’s a representation of the light she brought to the Notre Dame rowing family.”
A moment of silence was observed the next day, prior to the Notre Dame- Nevada football game, to recognize Sheehan’s death.
Rowing is a historic sport offering at Notre Dame, dating to a social rowing club in 1867, establishment of the men’s rowing club in 1964 and the addition of women’s rowing as a varsity sport in 1998.
There will be scores of past, current and future rowers who will relish the notion of community that the glossy new McConnell Family Boathouse provides.
They’ll continually rue the reality that Ailish Sheehan can’t be there to join them.