Orchard: From pregnancy to fulfilling the Olympic dream

Call it a hunch, but Ashleigh Orchard might well be the only athlete at this summer’s Olympic Games who has thought about attempting a ‘Couch to 5k’ in the last year.

When Orchard (née Baxter) gave birth to a baby girl, Arabella, in August of last year, playing rugby at Paris 2024 couldn’t have been further from her mind.

The rough plan at the time was to run a marathon, and a ‘Couch to 5k’ programme would be the best way to get back moving. Or so she thought.

So, how did the new mother end up preparing to fulfil a lifetime ambition of becoming an Olympian?

A former Ireland XVs international at wing and then flanker, Orchard was part of the Six Nations Grand Slam side of 2013, while she also featured on their famous run to the World Cup semi-finals in France the following year, before turning to Sevens where she was a regular for Ireland up until a persistent calf injury forced her to step away in 2018.

The door had always been left open to return to the Sevens programme, and after eventually getting her injury problems sorted, she returned to a development group late in 2022, playing tournaments in Elche and Dubai that led to a contract offer from David Nucifora.

Orchard got that call from Irish Rugby performance director in December 2022. Later that evening found out she was, in fact, pregnant.

“I had to go back to David to let him know I couldn’t take the contract,” the 33-year-old says of that fateful day.

“I suppose at that point, I was like, ‘ah this is a new adventure, I’m not going back, I’m not going to an Olympics’. I had Arabella obviously, and I didn’t think I was going to go back.”

Rather than being the end of her Olympic dream, it was only the beginning, with head coach Allan Temple-Jones getting in touch to see if she still fancied a crack at making the squad for Paris 2024. Her arm didn’t take much twisting.

Orchard (l) was part of the Ireland team that defeated New Zealand for the first time at the Rugby World Cup in 2014, celebrating alongside Ailis Egan and Vicky McGinn

She said: “I just thought, do you know what, I’m going to give this everything I have, and I’ll take it out of my hands, and it’s in the coach’s hands and if it happens, it happens, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.

“I just didn’t want to have a regret. So I went for it.”

Orchard was back in the IRFU high performance facility in Dublin in February, before her comeback on the HSBC SVNS Series in Singapore in May, where she was joined by Arabella and husband Jonathan.

Last week, the reality hit when she got the official word that she had made the 12-player squad for next month’s Olympics.

“I kind of had this picture in my head of how I was going to react either way, but it didn’t happen like that,” she said.

“I think I started shaking, and I didn’t cry or anything, but I was just sitting on my chair shaking whenever he [Temple-Jones] told me.

“When I was younger, I was obsessed with the Olympics. I really was obsessed, that’s all I wanted to do. I used to swim so in my head I was like, ‘I want to swim in the Olympics’, but I was too short and had tiny feet.

“So this is kind of this complete bonus. Like honestly, I just want to get there.”

The Ulster woman’s Olympic dream reached a peak as a 12-year-old, watching the Athens games in 2004.

“My biggest Olympic memory in my head is when Kelly Holmes won the 800m and 1500m,” she said.

“I became obsessed with her.

“I think I made a website about her. I can see the picture that was taken of her crossing the line of the 800m. I don’t know why, that’s just the one thing that sticks out for me from an Olympics.”

Orchard played at two World Cups for the Ireland XVs team, in 2014 and 2017

While she returned to the Sevens programme in February, Orchard hasn’t taken up the offer of a contract from the IRFU, explaining that she’s still on maternity leave from her day job at Citibank which ends, coincidentally, on the Monday after they return from the Olympics.

As she explains, balancing the physical demands of training and the private demands of being a parent is quite the juggling act.

“It’s the speed of the game,” she said.

“I can’t remember if it was training sessions or games, I remember turning around to one of the girls and being like, I just feel like everything is moving so fast in front of me that it’s just taking my brain too long to react to it.

“I’m on maternity leave and I’m on maternity leave for a year to be there for her [Arabella]. So I didn’t want to come down here and leave her at home.

“I’m still feeding her. I didn’t want to stop that just so I can do this. I very much wanted to put her first and the fact that the IRFU and management team all bought into that as well [is great].

“They were like, ‘bring her down, we’ll put you, Johnny and Arabella up [in a hotel] when we need to be down here, and the same when we’re away’.

“As a mum, it’s hard to just leave your child. If I was going away for two weeks and I had to leave her, I was kind of like, I’m not going to go then. So it’s me and her, or it’s not either of us.”

The support system has improved dramatically in recent years, with maternity leave in place for contracted players, while at last month’s world series event in Singapore, Arabella and Orchard’s husband Jonathan had a room to themselves at the team hotel.

Orchard was a regular for the Ireland Sevens team between 2014 and 2018

“It’s really become possible [to return to sport after pregnancy] now which is great,” she added.

“If I wanted to go off and have a family and 28, I would have had to leave the programme to do that, but now there’s opportunities, people can stay in the programme and play a full career like the men if they want to.”

While Orchard and her Ireland team-mates train full-time, Arabella has had a front row seat at the HPC, and looks set to be their unofficial mascot later this summer, with plans in place to have her with them in Paris next month.

The ten-month old is already hitting personal milestones as part of the Irish camp.

“She just stood there for a second, she got distracted with the cameras and she just stood,” Orchard said at a media event earlier this week.

“When we were in Madrid she did her first wave because the girls are constantly like, ‘c’mon, clap your hands, wave!’ and she just went [makes wave action] bye! It was so cute.

“She’s crawling and things now as well. I was hoping she’d take her first steps on the indoor pitch there. I thought that would be a good one.

“Everyone has been super helpful but there’s an element of you don’t want her to get in the way of other people.

Ashleigh Orchard (front, centre) holds her daughter Arabella after making her international comeback in Singapore in May (credit @baxterashleigh on Instagram)

“Initially at the beginning I was really trying to separate it both, but then the squad have really taken to her as well. So I think she’s actually had a really positive effect on the team.

“They’re able to switch off with her too because she’s always around which is really nice. They help me out so much with her as well. It’s got easier because of that, I think. I call them her aunties.

“It’s going to be special for her to look back on. It’s unfortunate that she’ll not remember it now but I know it will be really nice for her to look back and we’re trying to take lots of pictures so that she has that.”

While not among the favourites, Ireland appear to have an outside shot at the medals in Paris this summer.

They they finished seventh in this season’s world series with Temple-Jones rotating the squad quite a bit in anticipation of the Olympics, while the likes of Béibhinn Parsons and Eve Higgins were in and out of the team for their commitments in the WXV and Six Nations.

For Orchard, Paris will see her career come full-circle as the scene of Ireland’s first ever World Cup semi-final appearance ten years ago.

And having seen the success of the Irish team at the recent European Athletics Championships in Rome, she says it’s given them a sense of the prize that could lie ahead next month, and even beyond.

“You don’t think you’re a role model to the capacity that you are. It just makes you realise how much people look up to you.

“There’s so many young girls playing rugby now which is fantastic, and they’re going to be watching you.”

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