PHOTO COURTESY OF JAMES MADISON ATHLETICS
Thu Nov 10 2022 | Kenny DeJohn | College
College Women James Madison
Mairead Durkin listens and pauses. She lets each question pierce her mind as she patiently thinks. Complex, Durkin is also somewhat misunderstood.
Quiet but confident. Composed but quirky. Tough as nails but sweet as can be. Durkin, whose obsidian hair and astonishing athleticism attract attention, is equal parts inclusive and borderline unapproachably cool — with a sense of humor, too.
“This sounds like a Tinder bio,” Durkin says after reciting a list of her hobbies, which includes charcoal drawing — something she taught herself from watching YouTube and is darn good at — and listening to music.
“My playlists go from Irish music to heavy rap to Phil Collins,” she said.
Pat Buckley and Missi Holland, her basketball and lacrosse coaches at Albertus Magnus High School in Bardonia, N.Y., respectively, had the same description of their former star athlete, someone who was an enforcer in the paint in basketball and set the program record for goals in lacrosse.
“Anything she touches turns to gold,” they said in separate conversations.
“Anything she touches turns to gold.”
— Pat Buckley and Missi Holland
Her latest masterpiece was the James Madison defense last spring. The Dukes finished 11th in the nation by allowing 9.47 goals per game and overcame a 3-4 start to reach the second round of the NCAA tournament. Anchored by Durkin — who came to Harrisonburg, Virginia, as a midfielder but made the switch to defense thanks to the teachings of associate head coach Kateri Linville — James Madison held nine opponents to fewer than 10 goals.
The switch to defense didn’t fluster Durkin. A staunch competitor, she’d do anything to get on the field and impose her will on the opposition. Being on a team and not trying to win? That’s a mentality that Durkin simply can’t fathom.
It helps to have her athleticism, of course. Durkin is a natural in lacrosse, a 5-foot-10 “controlled tornado that comes through that you can’t stop,” as Holland put it. She was an all-state basketball player who excelled in soccer and dabbled in swimming and volleyball.
Durkin’s best sport, though, isn’t even offered at the Division I level.
Following in the footsteps of her father, Shane, who played Gaelic football in Ireland for County Sligo and for the national college team, Durkin excelled in the Irish sport that combines the skills and properties of soccer, rugby and basketball. She dominated against boys until she was 15, then led the U.S. women’s national team to a gold medal as a 16-year-old in 2016.
“He’s my dad in so many ways,” Durkin said. “I have his pale skin, too.”
Gaelic football laid the foundation for Durkin’s prowess as an all-around athlete and competitor. Fans, coaches and teammates alike can’t help but marvel at her on the field.
“Girls used to be like, ‘How can I be like Mairead?’ And I’d just say, ‘You have to be born like that,’” Holland said.
When everyone slows down, Durkin speeds up.
“It’s just incredible,” James Madison coach Shelley Klaes said. “She plays at a higher intensity level than anyone else, and what she can do at top speed, she can slow the game down at that level.”
Durkin’s program-record 52 caused turnovers in 2022 tied for third nationally. Her 2.74 per game were fourth. When James Madison plays a zone, she’s the backer at X calling the shots. In man defense, she eliminates the opponent’s top option.
“She’d go toe-to-toe with anybody,” Buckley said of her basketball days.
Durkin has the game face to get in an attacker’s head. “Everyone says I look very intimidating,” she said. “Like I have a resting stone-cold face. But I’m happy. I don’t mean to come off that way.”
Her on-field persona is a stark contrast to the way she carries herself elsewhere. The popular kid in high school, people in Durkin’s circle gravitate toward her because of her kindness and compassion.
Like a scene out of a movie, Holland recalled seeing Durkin in the lunchroom making sure someone sitting by himself was included.
“She has a heart of gold,” Holland said. “People see her as this big presence, but there’s this softer side of Mairead that is just so genuine and down to earth. When you get to see that side of her, it’s a blessing.”
The many layers of Durkin are possibly what make her so well-rounded. That also makes her a tough read for outsiders. Those who know her best, like James Madison midfielder Lizzy Fox, appreciate the complexities.
Fox and Durkin grew up together and live near each other. They didn’t attend the same high school, but they remained close since their elementary school days.
“She’s really good at everything she does,” Fox said. “She’s one of the toughest people I know, but she’s also very humble. It’s just Mairead. She’s her own person.”
PHOTO BY SHARON REDICAN / @SHARONREDICANPHOTOS
Mairead Durkin is a gold medalist in Gaelic football.
Despite winning the NCAA championship in 2018, James Madison is still something of an underdog. The Dukes aren’t Division I blue bloods. A mid-major that embraces being overlooked, James Madison revels in the chance to make a statement. Durkin embodies that psyche.
“Mairead has a mentality that feeds JMU lacrosse,” Klaes said. “The blue-collar work ethic. The fact that we are not afraid or intimidated by anyone. We talk about leaving a legacy. Mairead is such a huge driver of the competitive energy and swagger that JMU has.”
Durkin was an IWLCA second-team All-American last spring. But having played in the CAA, she isn’t a household name like top defenders from the ACC or Big Ten. She should feel slighted. She’s just as good — if not better — than many of them. But she doesn’t care. “I’ve never really thought about that,” she said. “It doesn’t really matter.”
Fox said Durkin is just now reaching her peak.
“She’s just showing that she’s one of the top defenders,” Fox said. “She goes out there and plays her heart out. A lot of people on our team just want to play to win. Most of us just don’t care about the recognition.”
James Madison enters 2023 with a fresh outlook. The Dukes are out of the CAA and will embark on a new journey in the AAC. They were “exposed,” as Durkin puts it, in the 18-8 loss to Loyola that ended their NCAA tournament run.
The redshirt-senior who already runs like a gazelle and redirects attackers like a traffic cop is focused on improving her fitness. She wants to better learn how to take care of her body and recover. Whatever it takes to win.
“We all kind of look at her in awe,” Klaes said. “She’s cool. She’s just cool.”
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