Sarah Keane has the kind of CV that inspires respect, certainly; perhaps a little envy, and definitely a degree of “how?”. She has been CEO of Swim Ireland for almost 20 years (during which time the organisation has gone from just two employees to a staff of 39 with revenue of around €4.5m); is president of the Olympic Federation of Ireland; on the board of the Central Bank, and a talented swimmer who has represented Ireland at water polo. She also has three children.
he is a huge advocate for sport — and everything it brings to society — and is clearly highly effective within that world, both personally and professionally, and equally so on a corporate level… and yet, she says, “I never envisaged myself working in sport.
“I did my Leaving Cert, filled in the CAO form, and I didn’t know what I wanted. My father, who is dead a long time now, he was… I wouldn’t say a quiet man, but not one for telling us what to do.
“I was at a swimming competition and I got a phone call from him: ‘This is your final CAO, you need to fill it in.’ And I said, ‘Dad, will you fill it in?’ He got quite angry — he never usually got angry — and said, ‘This is your future, you fill in your CAO form!’
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I picked law because it felt like something with opportunities in lots of areas.”
It’s not the career start I expected, but then, I learn over the next hour or so that Keane is often unexpected — a mix of drive, determination and the ability to sometimes simply let things happen. Often, people who do the kinds of things Keane has done seem (to me, anyway) almost superhuman, the product of endless precise calculations, entirely lacking in self-doubt. She sets that record straight.
Asked what it is that has allowed her to bring about such an impressive career, she says, “I think I’m very lucky. I’m educated.” And she translates this right across her working life. “I feel that I’m privileged. Because of that, one of the big things that drives me is that — while I know we all have different personalities and you could be nurtured the same way and still end up very different — I think some people’s lives could be very different if they had the same amount of opportunities as others, and I try to influence that where I can.”
The eldest of four, Keane grew up in Dublin. “I came from a family background whereby both parents worked — in fact, my father spent quite a lot of time in college so when I was born, my mother was the main earner.
“I always saw that, and I always saw it in a positive way. That gave me confidence when I decided I wanted to keep working after having my kids. I didn’t worry about the fact that I wasn’t there all the time, because I had that and it didn’t affect me.
“In fact, I found that a very positive experience. I always loved my mother; I always felt she was there for the big, important stuff. I have no recollection of my mother not being there… And so, when I feel the guilt sometimes, which women do, about not being there, I think, ‘Hang on a second, I’ve no bad recollections of my mother not being there, so the chances are that my kids won’t feel like that.’”
Having chosen law, Keane did a year in UCD, then went to the US on a swimming scholarship. “I went to Ohio. Life was very different. This was 30 years ago. I learned an awful lot about life in that year. It was amazing. I’d almost never seen a Black person; Cleveland is 60pc Black. Condoms were freely available in the dorms. I came from very Catholic Ireland, to the States, where I met people who were choosing their religion. That alone! In a way, it was probably a sensory overload in a year.”
Hers was a four-year scholarship. “But, after a year, I decided to come home. I knew I ultimately wanted to live in Ireland, and I foresaw problems with my US law degree back here. Also, although I loved swimming, I knew it was never going to be my career. I was a good swimmer at National Championships, but I wasn’t necessarily a brilliant international talent. I didn’t see that for myself. So I came back, finished my law degree and decided to do a master’s in commercial law.”
She got an apprenticeship, and then a job, at law firm Matheson — “It was the mid-1990s, not an easy time to get apprenticeships. I think the swimming helped me to stand out from others. It showed that I was committed to something, dedicated to something and willing to work hard at something.”
Keane’s story of her move from corporate law into the world of sport is an interesting blend of timing, chance and sheer determination. “I was an associate partner at this stage. I met up with an old swimming friend and we went to watch the National Swimming Championships. There was a particular swimmer who did very well, who was from my old club.
“I went to congratulate my old coach and he said, ‘I need a favour from you. This swimmer has likely qualified for funding — can you help him fill in the forms?’ My coach introduced me to the mum, a single mother, and the two of us met again a few weeks later. We got her son’s funding, and we became friendly. She rang me a couple of weeks later and said, ‘Swim Ireland are looking for a new CEO — it’s in the paper. I think you should think about it.’
“I said, ‘What? You must be joking. No chance.’”
Still, to this day, Keane says she “can’t explain it, but three weeks later, I rang KPMG, who were running the recruitment process, to ask about the role — what was required and the deadline.
“I was so naïve, I didn’t even realise the recruiter I spoke to was interviewing me. That was a Wednesday, the closing date was Friday, and he said, ‘I need you to submit by then, if you’re going to, and I think it would be good if you did.’”
So she did. “I went through a process like I had never gone through before, and I got the job. Then I didn’t get the job, and I went through a whole other scenario in the High Court, and then ended up back in the organisation a year later…”
This part of it she can’t say much about — only that she left her job once an offer was made by Swim Ireland in May 2004, then in July the then-secretary said it was not accepted that she had been “lawfully appointed”. A legal dispute ensued, which was finally settled in Keane’s favour. Still, the dispute took almost a year to resolve.
So, what kept her going during that time, when surely it would have been easier to accept the settlement offered and walk away? “I didn’t have any dependents at the time — that’s important,” she says. “Also, legally, I was in the right. And I knew it. My challenge was: if I take this settlement, where does the money come from? It doesn’t come from the volunteer board of directors who made the decision, it comes from the sport. Who’s going to feel that? The athletes, the coaches.
“That’s my sport. I can’t take money from my sport, so I said, ‘I want the job. I don’t want the payment, I want the job.’”
She got the job and has never looked back. “I have met some wonderful people in Sport Ireland and in Swim Ireland.”
If anything, she says, “I was probably better prepared than most people going into the job. I had a much better understanding of the landscape. I mightn’t have survived if I hadn’t gone through that. A lot of CEOs in sport don’t. There’s a high burn-out rate; it’s a lonely position.”
In 2014, Keane got involved with the Olympic Federation of Ireland “on the basis that there was no point standing outside and throwing rocks — maybe try and get inside and see if you can change something. I never expected to be the president of the Olympic Federation by 2017.”
That came about because, during the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, Irish president Pat Hickey was arrested after an investigation into the illegal resale of tickets that had been allocated to the Olympic Council of Ireland. He denies the allegations made against him.
“I won’t say very much on that, for obvious reasons,” Keane says now, “but I ended up going forward for election. I felt that I was a usurper; I’d only been around for a few years. But the organisation was in incredible crisis. Probably because of my legal background, I understood my director’s duties and I knew a bit about what was going on, so I probably took more of a… I asked more questions: ‘What exactly is happening? What are we doing?’ We appointed a crisis-management committee and I was appointed on to that committee, so I got involved then in trying to move the organisation forward. I put myself forward [for president] because I had a group of CEOs who came and talked to me about it. I’d never seen myself in that position.”
That was a brave move, I say. “I guess it was brave. That’s one of the things that I ask myself now, as I look back, and as I’m getting older: ‘Can you continue to be brave?’ It’s harder to be brave as time goes on.” Then she adds, “I don’t feel that I’m a comfort-zone sort of person.” For what it’s worth, I don’t either. She certainly not a dissembling sort of person.
“I get asked, ‘How do you manage everything?’ Well, the way I manage everything is by failing at some things. And that can affect your confidence. You can say, ‘Why the hell did I put myself in that position?’ You put yourself in that position because you didn’t think enough about it, because you were juggling all these balls over here — and they were maybe more important. But what’s the one that fails? It’s the one that affects you personally that fails.
“What’s the ball you let drop? Not the one that affects your family, or the one that affects your job, or that affects young people’s lives — which is why I feel so strongly about sport and my contribution. You’re going to drop the ball that affects you personally.”
And yes, “there have been things that I have got myself involved in and that I should have got myself out of, and I didn’t. And they didn’t go as well as they should have.”
Recently, she was appointed to the board of the Central Bank by Paschal Donohoe. “I was appointed for my legal background, and my international background. I’m sure my gender was part of it — my equality work and my strategic work. That’s the skill set I was appointed for. But you’ve got to say, ‘Well, how do I bring what I have to bring, in a way that will make a difference?’ For me, there is an element of ‘OK, you’re not an expert in terms of what the day-to-day workings of the bank are, so where’s your contribution going to be? And if you’re not going to make a contribution, you shouldn’t be there.’ This is a really important institution to Irish society. A massive organisation — 2,000 employees — dealing with lots of things: Brexit, Covid-19, war.”
Along the way, Keane had three children. “I didn’t ever ask myself, ‘Can I do these two things?’ For me, I think it’s important that women have something that’s theirs; something outside of your partner or your children. I also felt — I’m from a strong female background — I think we stand on the shoulders of giants in Ireland, in terms of females. And I feel strongly about bringing on that tradition. I want my daughter to be a strong woman, and I support her to be who she is.
“Also, I did feel I wanted to bring in some of my own money. That, to me, was very important to my independence — same as driving was important to my independence. I never really thought about not working and I was always very fulfilled in my working life. I’ve had tears, I’ve had bad days, but in general I feel very fulfilled, because I feel I’m making a contribution to something that’s bigger than me.”
And throughout, she has kept swimming. “I remember one of my children… I was going out to swim. I’d been at work a lot of the day. My five-year-old said, ‘You’re going out again?’ And I almost didn’t leave. I was about to come back in. Then my other half said to him, ‘Now, hang on a second, did you go swimming earlier in the week? Who brought you? Mammy. And are you going to football tomorrow, and who’s bringing you? Mammy. Do you not think Mammy should be able to go out and do her session?’ And my five-year-old said, ‘Mammy, go and have a good session.’ You need people around you to help you, support you. Not just women, all of us do.”
She is, she agrees, “very driven. I know that can be difficult for people around me. I’m constantly driving forward, constantly pushing. I’ve had to temper some of my own behaviour around it; maybe other people felt, ‘She’s always driving on — she’s not acknowledging what we’ve achieved.’”
This summer, she and Swim Ireland launched Ireland’s first Pop-Up Pool. Access to swimming pools has long been a challenge, and the pop-up pool is an innovative solution to that — literally a mobile pool that can be taken around the country and set up, meaning access to facilities for many who would not have it.
So, what’s next for Sarah Keane? “In 2024, I will be 20 years with Swim Ireland. My current boss — he’s a volunteer, the chairperson of Swim Ireland — finishes up in 2024. And I’m president of the Olympic Federation until 2024. Quite a few things are going to change for me then.
“I’m not saying I will leave Swim Ireland, but I am thinking about what I might like to do, and where I might be of use. I have a thing about transformational work. I have a thing about children and opportunity. I think if we give more children opportunity, then we change the world.”
Sarah Keane’s take on children and sport
“I’m a real advocate of children finding something for themselves in sports. We’re a real country for throwing team sports at our young people. That’s not for everyone.
I think we should expose young people to many sports, but then come down to one or two, then try and develop a competence in that. That brings confidence. If you’re good at something, you feel good about yourself. Doing something once a week isn’t enough to build that competence.
It’s important to have something outside school. If a child is having a bad day at school, if they have sport/music/friends on the road — something that isn’t school — they have somewhere they can go.
Life is different for our kids. They don’t play on the road; they don’t go off and stay away for the day. They don’t have those independent learning opportunities.
Sport is so important because it creates these opportunities — it won’t necessarily go right for them. They want to win and they won’t necessarily win. They might not make the top team. They can have a bad day… Sport is one of the safe places they can learn this — that’s why it’s such a powerful part of society.”