Development & Alumni Relations Office 

MEET CLAIRE MCLAUGHLIN – MEDIC, FORMER ELITE ATHLETE AND CURRENT IRISH RUGBY INTERNATIONAL  Claire McLaughlin, Irish rugby international, at Upper Malone pitch at Queen's with spotlights on in background

09 December 2020

The history, heritage and proud sporting traditions of Queen’s are built upon generations of graduates who have been part of our great clubs – people like medical alumna Claire McLaughlin, former Elite Athlete Programme (EAP) participant and a current Irish Rugby International.

Claire McLaughlin has recently joined the ranks of Queen’s sporting greats. Her journey through University – from lecture theatre to rugby pitch, and most recently to patient bedside – was made possible through the Elite Athlete Programme.

Speaking to Paddy Gilmore, Development and Engagement Manager for Queen’s Sport, Claire outlined how important the EAP was to her:

“I graduated from Queen’s in 2016 with a degree in Medicine, as well as an intercalated 1st Class Honours degree in Medical Science. I am now working as a Junior Doctor in the Ulster Hospital Emergency Department.

“The Elite Athlete Programme offers the perfect environment to grow, recognise and achieve the sporting potential of young athletes – all of which is only possible through financial support. Student athletes benefit from academic flexibility to help balance the demands of high-level sport and study.

“I wouldn’t have achieved everything I have without the support that EAP provided.”

Growing up on a farm in Bushmills in County Antrim the future medic didn't develop an interest in sports until she started playing tag rugby at Coleraine High School, aged 16. She became hooked and joined a women's team in Ballymoney RFC at 18, and went on to join the Ulster Women’s squad while in her final year at school.

“Having met some of the girls from Cooke RFC, I decided to join that club to play in the Women’s All-Ireland League (AIL). I got my first 3 caps for Ulster and enjoyed a good season with Cooke, but I was keen to play with more girls at a similar stage in life, so looked into other clubs.

“When I spoke to the guys at Queen’s, I was blown away by the support for the rugby club, and the potential benefits off field, with regards to assisting with and helping balance sport with studying.

“I joined Queen’s that year, and had an extremely enjoyable couple of seasons, gaining promotion to the AIL during my time there.”

Elite status

A Rugby Academy Athlete from 2011-14, in 2015, Claire joined the University’s Elite Athlete Programme, having won a University Blue for Rugby in three consecutive years (2013-15). She made the Irish International squad in 2015, earning her debut for Ireland as a second half replacement in their 14-3 win over Italy in the 2016 Six Nations.

“The academic flexibility was a fantastic aspect of being part of the Rugby Academy,” said Claire. “It was definitely difficult to balance my studies in Medicine and to train and compete as much as I needed to, but the option of academic flexibility contributed massively in allowing me to succeed in both.”

Since graduating, this balancing act has been even more challenging for Claire, who would certainly have appreciated some ‘work flexibility’ during her foundation year, when she was training for the Women's Rugby World Cup and working 50+ hours per week as a Junior Doctor at Mater Infirmorum Hospital in Belfast.

“That year I had no balance at all, and something had to give, so since then I’ve been working on a less than full time basis in order to facilitate my rugby career.

“My employers and colleagues have been brilliant in making this possible, and while it has still been challenging to train and play rugby at an elite level and work as a doctor, I’m so grateful to everyone who has helped me along the way.”

Reflecting on her time at Queen’s, what part did the Academy and the EAP – with all the resources they make available to elite student athletes – play in her development as a top level rugby player and what would she say to someone considering supporting student sport – financially – at this time?

“Being part of the Academy system gave me all the support I needed to excel within rugby. The gym access, strength and conditioning programming, high-performance coaching and sports psychology were all integral in allowing me to learn and develop and reach my potential in playing for Ireland.

“The system gave me a glimpse of what it could be like to train like a professional – not only working with coaches one-on-one with the on-pitch skills, but tweaking all the other bits which feed into making you a more rounded, overall better player.

“I look back on my time being involved with Student Sport at Queen’s with very fond memories. I can easily say that the resources and help I received led to the success I have enjoyed in my rugby career. Before joining Queen’s Rugby, I never thought that I had the potential to play for Ireland!

“I’ve now been involved with Ireland for 5 seasons, and I’ve taken the learnings from my years at Queen’s with me. Student sport at Queen’s, the Rugby Academy and the Elite Athlete Programme, offer the perfect environment to grow, recognise and achieve the sporting potential of young athletes – all of which is only possible through financial support.

“I certainly wouldn’t have achieved everything I have without what Queen’s provided, and I’m really grateful to have been part of a University focused not only on advancing career paths, but sport as well.”

Giving back

Since graduating, Claire has returned to her alma mater from time to time as a guest coach, helping out with technical aspects of certain skills and drills. She has particularly enjoyed seeing more Queen’s women making the Ulster squad and having the opportunity to train and play with some of them during provincial sessions and matches.

Currently a Junior Doctor in the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald, she is highly appreciative for the many opportunities open to her and the skills she gained at Queen’s.

“You learn so much through sport that teaches you invaluable life skills, and I can definitely say I learnt a huge amount over the five years at Queen’s in the sports Academy system.

“Time management and prioritisation were big learning points during University, and they are skills which are essential as a doctor.”

Through sports psychology sessions provided by the Academy, and experiences within the rugby squad system, Claire also learnt about coping under pressure and dealing with difficulties, both on and off the pitch. And the resilience she gained through playing rugby – not to mention challenges with injuries and, on occasion, non-selection – has equipped her well for life further down the line.

“I’m really thankful for all the experiences I was able to have at University and feel very fortunate to have had the support of the Queen’s Academy in all my endeavours.”

If you would like to support the next generation of sport at Queen’s through one of our five Sporting Academies visit the Queen’s Foundation website or contact Paddy Gilmore, Queen’s Development and Engagement Manager, Queen’s Sport.

For general enquiries about this story, or to submit graduate news items, please contact Gerry Power, Communications Officer, Development and Alumni Relations Office, Queen's University Belfast or telephone: +44 (0)28 9097 5321.


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