Fitness feature, Like magazine, June/July 2015. Click to enlarge. Read below.
Photography: Phil Darko
From Britain’s Got Talent and the Late Late Show to the World Pole Championships, Cork-born athlete Terri Walsh is a fierce ambassador for the sport she loves. Carolyn Moore finds out if pole could be the sport for you.
With gyms and fitness centres all over the country suddenly adding “pole classes” to their schedules, you could be forgiven for dismissing pole sport as just the latest passing fitness fad. In fact it’s been around for almost 800 years.
The phallic nature of the pole can’t be denied, and indeed it was as a fertility ritual that Indian women engaged in pole dancing as far back as the 12th century.
By the 19th century, Chinese gymnasts – mostly male – were using both vertical and horizontal poles in their routines, but while the horizontal bars have gone on to become an Olympic gymnastics sport, the vertical pole took on a slightly different connotation.
While many performers enjoy using the pole for a variety of fitness styles, from dancing to acrobatics to burlesque, for the world’s elite pole athletes it can be frustrating to find the pole so frequently associated with strip clubs. “I think people really don’t realise what is involved in pole, and how much training you need to be really good,” says Terri Walsh, the Cork-born pole athlete who, with her doubles partner Lisette Krol, recently retained her World Championship title for the third year running.
Anyone who has seen the pair perform will appreciate the incredible mix of strength, endurance, grace and agility it takes to compete at that level, and as the international pole community campaigns for it to be made an Olympic sport – a bid that Walsh fully supports, pointing out that “a lot of parallels can be drawn between pole tricks and gymnastics” – there’s no question that, nationally, it’s a sport that’s growing in popularity.
“Calisthenics as a form of training has exploded,” explains Terri, “and pole is one of those sports that encourages people to use their own body weight as a training tool. People see how toned and fit pole athletes athletes become, so it’s definitely appealing from a fitness perspective.” But there’s more to its growing popularity than just fitness, she acknowledges with a smile. “Pole dance is intriguing and a little bit taboo for many women, so coming to try it out is always exciting. Then they get hooked!” she laughs, as she herself knows this only too well.
“I wanted to try pole for fitness,” she says of her early experience with the sport. “At the time, I was 21 and working in a global bank in Dublin. I wanted to change up my routine! I took some classes at the International Dance Academy and a few months later they asked me to teach beginner level pole for them!”
She points to her own progression in the sport as proof that anyone can do it, and says that wannabe polers should “sign up to a beginners class! Don’t hesitate or wait for your friends – I started by myself and I’m so happy I did! You gain the fitness and strength from actually doing the classes.
“Teaching Pole was just the first step for me… it was a good few years before I started competing, and a few more years before I started training really hard for World Championships. It was a slow and organic progression!”
And it’s a progression that typically sees polers lose weight, build muscle, develop flexibility and grow in confidence as their newfound physical strength and agility makes them look and feel amazing. It’s also, Terri says, a close knit community where friendships are made and everyone is encouraged.
“The Irish community in particular is so small, so we’ve all known each other for years! It’s wonderful to be a part of such a big group of friends.”
These days Terri’s reputation takes her around the world teaching master-classes, and at her studio in Maynooth she introduces curious men and women, and children as young as five, to a fitness practice that could change their lives. One of those students is now her boyfriend, and a year into his training Michael Donohoe won a male Irish pole sport title to match Terri’s female one.
Now with multiple national and international titles under her belt, and a burgeoning fitness empire in the form of her “Fierce Fitness” dance studios, it’s clear that pole is taking Terri – who performs as Terri Fierce – exactly where she wants to go. “I always believed I could have my own studio, and that came from my own love of the sport. It’s the best job in the world!” she gushes.
As strong becomes the new sexy, this poler is leading the charge.