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Niamh Cooper

It wasn’t until Niamh Cooper was unable to play netball that she truly embraced her body.

For years, Cooper tried to hide away from having muscular arms. Sleeveless tops and dresses were avoided at all costs for fear of appearing too masculine.

Yet the Covid-19 pandemic meant the netball dress stayed on the hanger for a few months, and Cooper turned to CrossFit. There she met a community of unashamedly strong women.

It was a light bulb moment for the wing defence, who has since chosen to love her body for what it allows her to achieve on and off the netball court.

“I had a couple of moments where people had commented ‘Can I get a ticket to the gun show’ or those things and I used to hate it,” she said.

“I got into CrossFit a little bit myself over the Covid time. There were quite a lot of women who were bigger than me, I was small. They were doing really cool things and I looked at them in terms of how strong they were and thought ‘wow’. I didn’t think they looked manly.

“It was probably over those few months that I realised, why do I have this impression of myself? I started embracing the strength programmes a lot more.

“I saw my strength increase quickly and that was the moment I thought this was something I was meant to embrace. It took coming out of the netball environment and coming into a different one to open my eyes.”

Niamh Cooper and Nat Panagarry

A new love for a strong body represents a big change for Cooper, who admitted it was something she struggled with for as long as she can remember.

Now her message to young girls is one of self-acceptance.

She added: “It’s something that I have been through peaks and troughs within my life. I have always had a very muscular upper body and as a younger girl in school, I used to be really embarrassed about it. I felt like I was more manly than some of the boys that were in school.

“It was something I really struggled with and I wish now that I can tell my younger self that actually, it is a big strength of mine and something that other people want to have.”

A new perspective is not the only change Cooper has undertaken in recent times, with the 31-year-old swapping Surrey Storm for Severn Stars last summer.

It meant an end to a four-year stint in Guildford that required a switch of house and hospital for the Northern Ireland international.

But Cooper is approaching new beginnings with open arms, even if it does not come as easily as it once did.

 Jo Trip and Niamh Cooper

“It’s definitely harder to do new things when you’re older, it turns out,” she joked. “The new kid that is 31 was welcomed really well.

“The team made it really easy, they were so supportive. I think I had four girls help empty a van of fridges, dishwashers, washing machines and about 17 boxes of stuff that I owned up a flight of stairs into my new flat.

“I find that if you live in the area where the club is, you do a bit better because you can turn up to the extra sessions, do the weights with the girls and the bonds get stronger a lot quicker.

“I knew when I was talking to Jo [Trip] I wanted to move to where the club was. I knew absolutely nothing about Worcester and I was a wee bit apprehensive. I had a permanent job in Guildford that was right across the road from where I was training with Storm, it was all very nice and easy.

“All of those things in terms of moving to a new place has challenged me because it does bring the best side out of you because you want to impress people on and off the court, you make a lot more effort.”

Adapting to a new side is difficult for any player, but Cooper has dealt with the extra rigours that come with working in A&E.

But the doctor would not have it any other way, and believes her time on the wards is an asset on court.

“It gives you different types of skills,” she added. “I am more empathetic to what’s going on in everyone else’s life because I see it in A&E, you are the coalface of everything that comes into the NHS.

“I understand a lot of the problems the girls have and they do come and talk to me. It gives an extra string to me rather than just Niamh the netballer.

“There are a couple of doctors in the league and we all probably make it work slightly differently. Luckily the way the NHS has set up and the way I work in A&E, they are a bit more appreciative of extra-curricular stuff outside of medicine.

“They have been very supportive and interested in the fact that somebody has another string to their bow.”

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