Saturday, January 20, 2018

Eckerd's Ally Gallagher finds fast track to rugby success

It was just past midnight and Ally Gallagher was readying for bed. With her faithful dog, Titan, by her side, she took one last check on her laptop. There she saw an email with the title "All American Stars and Stripes Rugby." It was an invitation to train and compete in a tryout camp for the top 100 women's college rugby players in the country June 28-July 3 in Salt Lake City.

"I saw the email and I started bawling,'' Gallagher said. "I called my mom and woke her up. She was like 'What's wrong?!' I called my coach. I was texting my friends. I was jumping all around.''

Two years ago, Gallagher was introduced to rugby as a freshman at Eckerd College. She had no idea how much the sport would change her life. How it would help her deal with sometimes debilitating bouts of anxiety and depression. And how it ultimately led her to Titan, a 3-year old pit bull-pointer mix who is her best friend and constant companion.

'What is Rugby?'

Gallagher, 20, grew up in Mullica Hill, N.J. She lived on a 4 1/2 acre farm with her parents and two older sisters. The farm was filled with horses, chickens, goats, ducks, turkeys, sheep and pot-bellied pigs.

"We loved the pigs the most,'' Gallagher said.

She attended Kingsway Regional High School and played on the basketball team. A defensive center, Gallagher said she liked the game but didn't love it.

"I was always the one with five fouls,'' she said.

Her coach found out she wanted to study animal-assisted therapy and suggested Eckerd College because one of her neighbors was an alumus.

Gallagher, a straight-A student, visited the St. Petersburg campus and decided to attend. It was at an orientation for new students when she was introduced to rugby.

"I was visiting for accepted students day,'' Gallagher said. "I was hanging out with some of the girls who went to the school and they were going to show me around. One of their friends busted in and said 'We're going to a rugby party. You look like you can play.' I was like, 'What is rugby?' ''

Rugby 15s is a women's club sport at Eckerd College. It is called 15s because there are 15 players per side. The Tritons compete in the Florida Rugby Union's Division II Conference, which includes Florida Atlantic, Florida Gulf Coast and the University of Miami.

Since there are no scholarships or heavy duty recruiting, the team relies on soliciting players from the student body. At 5 feet 11, and with her basketball background, Gallagher fit the mold of potential rugby player.

"Her strength, her aggressiveness, her enthusiasm and the fact she is a quick learner, those are things that set her a little higher than most,'' said coach Jason Schiessl, who took over the team this year but has seen Gallagher at camps before this season.

From the beginning, Gallagher took to the sport. She was placed at forwards, which assistant coach Michael Geibel likens to a linebacker in football.

"The forwards are the grinders that win the ball and keep possession,'' Geibel said. "She is perfect for that.''

Even though she wasn't quite sure how to play the game.

"I pretty much went in blind,'' Gallagher said. "I learned the rules as I was going. A running joke on the team was that if the ref blows the whistle, just go back 10 yards. You probably committed a penalty, you just don't know it.''

What her teammates didn't know, what she most certainly didn't want them to know, was that she struggled every day with her anxiety, depression and obsessive/compulsive disorder. She has dealt with it since she was about 12 years old, she said.

Gallagher tried to keep it all together, despite being a thousand miles from home, on a tiny campus of 1,800 students with demanding classes and playing a new sport with unfamiliar rules.

"To have anxiety and depression and OCD and not know what you're doing, it just causes breakdowns,'' Gallagher said. "I didn't want the team to see it so I'm trying to hold it in and making myself sick. It was really overwhelming.''

Titan to the rescue

During her freshman year, Gallagher wasn't sure she was going to make it. Living alone in an apartment in Gulfport, she was feeling overwhelmed by school and thought about quitting rugby.

"I was having breakdowns all the time and almost dropped out of college,'' Gallagher said. "It was just too much and I didn't like anything. My mom tried to talk me into coming home but I didn't want to be that person who got stuck in their little home town their whole life.''

Her mother, Christine Gallagher, didn't like the fact that her daughter was so far away and struggling to keep things together.

"I still worry to this day,'' Christine said. "There have been times when I've begged her to come home because I don't think it is good for her to be down there by herself. But at the same time, if I take her away from things she loves so dearly I think it would make her even worse.''

It was during this time that Gallagher found Titan.

She was persuaded to see a psychologist, Dr. Jennifer Massa, who later suggested she get a dog to help with her anxiety. Gallagher found Titan at a local dog shelter in January of 2015. They hit if off immediately.

She started taking him everywhere. Titan helped her stay calm in situations where she would otherwise feel overwhelmed. It got to the point where she wanted to take him everywhere.

In order to legally take him in public places such as malls and airplanes, Titan needed to be certified as a support dog. Armed with a letter from Massa vouching that Titan helps with anxiety, Gallagher filled out the proper paperwork.

In June of 2015, Titan officially became a certified support dog. He wears a support dog vest, which invites questions.

"At first, having him brought all this attention,'' Gallagher said. "I was like 'Oh no.' But now, not only has he helped me tremendously, but I've been able to talk about it with other people. It's been very empowering.

"He really helps me with my anxiety and depression. If I have a panic attack, he is next to me. He just knows. If I'm in a depressive state and don't want to get out of bed, well, he has to go outside sometime. I have an obligation to him.''

Gallagher said because of Titan, she has been able to stop taking medication for her anxiety and depression. She is able to focus on rugby and has become one of the team's top players.

"She's amazing,'' said senior teammate Colleen Owen, herself a top player who has been invited to an elite rugby 7s camp in Colorado in August. "She is someone who, even when we're down at the end of the game, she will keep giving 110 percent. I've seen her make four tackles in a row. She takes a girl down, stands up, takes another girl down, repeat. It's incredible to watch.''

Gallagher and Titan, who has become Eckerd rugby's unofficial mascot, will travel together to Salt Lake City. In order to help finance the trip, she has started a Gofundme page (

Because of her age, she is eligible to play for either the collegiate under-23 team or the junior u-20 team. If she is selected for either team, the United States will play games against Canada.

Does Gallagher have a chance of making either team?

"If I was a betting man, which I'm not, I would go all in on that one,'' Schiessl said. "I think this will empower her a little bit more. Despite her struggles, she can overcome this and do great things.''

There have certainly been some dark days in Gallagher's two-year journey so far. But thanks to Titan and rugby her future looks brighter. She is no longer keeping her disability a secret.

"I went from people thinking that I was crazy and fighting my demons by myself to having everything in the open and succeeding and overcoming my own battles,'' Gallagher said. "Between (Titan) and feeling better about rugby, now I'm like 'Okay, we got this.' ''

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