World Champ to Legal Eagle • Curadh domhanda go comhairleoir dlí: Caroline McGrory Keeps Her Eye on the Ball

Caroline McGrory, ADCRG and Chief Legal Officer for the 2022 Commonwealth Games, discusses her amazing journey from World Champion to Oxford University – and her rise to the top of Sport and Media Law.

  1. Introduction – Tell us a bit about yourself? What were your favourite subjects at school, where did you study further education?

I was born in Coventry to Irish parents from Co Mayo, Ireland. I started Irish dancing, together with my older sister, when I was three years old; I was hooked from day one and, as well as spending summer holidays in Ireland, my fondest childhood memories are linked with Irish dancing.

At school, Maths was my favourite subject. I loved the fact that there was a right/ wrong answer. I also loved English Literature – I still love reading whenever I get the chance! I did work hard at school but I was always kept busy with other activities – not only Irish dancing but Irish music (I played the accordion and tin whistle for many years) and playing team sport. From an early age I guess I got used to having to manage my time wisely.

My school (which was an all-girls Convent school in Coventry) encouraged me to apply to Oxford University. I really wasn’t sure at first and I had little confidence that I would be accepted. I was offered a place to read Law at St Anne’s College Oxford – I spent three amazing years there which really set me up for my legal career.  I then spent a year at Law School at Nottingham University before undertaking a training contract at a top law firm in the UK and qualifying as a Solicitor. 

  • Why did you choose to become a lawyer? Did you always know this was going to be your profession? (We want dancers to know that it is ok to change their mind if they have other plans)

I actually chose to be a lawyer because I didn’t really know at the time what else I wanted to study at degree level. I had no idea what I wanted to do as a profession.  My older sister suggested Law (as one of her close friends had studied it and loved it); once I looked into it further I found it fascinating – like nothing else I had ever studied before. That was it – I was hooked. I haven’t once regretted my decision.  

  • What is your professional experience as a lawyer?

As well as being a teacher at the Turley Duggan School of Irish Dancing in Coventry, UK, and a qualified adjudicator, I am currently the Chief Legal Officer for the 2022 Commonwealth Games which is a multi-sport event ( similar to the Olympics but for Commonwealth countries only). In 2022 the Games will take place in Birmingham, England (which is just 20 miles away from my home). In my role, I lead a team who are responsible for literally every legal matter related to the Games – the buying of all the required goods and services which will enable the Games to be delivered from sports equipment, ticketing providers, IT systems and  broadcasting and sponsorship services, the securing of all the venues for the sporting competitions and for training, brand protection and ambush marketing, all corporate and governance matters, dealing with the UK Government and all athlete matters, including anti-doping. 

Prior to my role at the Games, I was General Counsel of a Premier League Football Club and, before that, Director of Legal and Commercial Affairs at Mercedes Formula 1 Team. I was lucky to have been given the opportunity to be part of management buyout of that team when it became Brawn GP – that team won both the Drivers and Constructors Championship during its one year of existence before being purchased by Mercedes. I must say – the thrill of achieving such success with my teammates in F1 was similar to the feeling of winning a World Irish Dancing Championship (I’ve been lucky to experience this both personally and with my daughter) – I have been very privileged to have experienced such success in both by dancing and work career.   

I knew early on my career than sport and media law was the area I wanted to specialise in. Every day has been different, and I have had the amazing opportunity to travel the world with my job (even living in Hong Kong for three months), meeting the most amazing people, including dignitaries and celebrities and being challenged on a daily basis. I do however work long hours and I have to make a big commitment to my job which I try very hard to balance with my home life – having three wonderful children (of which my two girls Irish dance to a high competitive level) and a very patient husband!

  • What is your professional experience as a dancer, teacher, adjudicator?

As a dancer I won the World Irish Dancing Championships twice (in under 11 and under 17 age groups) as well as other majors over the years including the Great Britain Championships, British Nationals and the All England Championships. I stopped competing competitively at the age of 19 after my second year of University but still continued to dance at events and shows as part of my dance school. One of my biggest dilemmas was when I was training to be a lawyer and I was invited to audition for a new show – “Lord of the Dance”  – I had not danced competitively for 4 years and had sustained a lot of injuries to my ankle during my last few years of competing; it was a tough decision to make but I decided to continue with my legal training and not pursue this opportunity – it just didn’t feel like the right time to take this direction. If it had happened a few years earlier things may have been different. There are some days where I wonder what would have happened if I had gone down that route. However, I wouldn’t change what I do for anything and I always believe that you should never regret anything – things happen for a reason.

I had always dreamt of becoming an Irish dancing teacher one day but after I had finished competing it took me many years to actually decide to take my TCRG exam. My two daughters had started Irish Dancing and I  was spending weeknights and weekends at their dance classes helping out at the dance school which I had also attended as a pupil – Turley Duggan. Roisin and Marion Turley encouraged me to take the exam which the best decision I ever made. I have loved every minute of teaching Irish dancing and find it extremely rewarding. I also find it a pleasant release from my full time day job as a lawyer. I only wish I had more spare time to be able to teach more – the long hours I spend at work do make this more difficult, but I fit in teaching whenever I can.

As soon as I could apply to take my ADCRG I did so and was thrilled to pass. I absolutely love adjudicating – I could watch Irish dancing all day and to do so sat in the best seat in the house as a judge is a true privilege. My next ambition is to judge a Major Irish dancing Championship which I would absolutely love to do.

  • When things didn’t go to plan, how did you handle it? (We want to focus on maintaining discipline with the loss of the World, NANs etc)

When I won the World Championships at the age of 10 it was such a huge achievement at such a young age. I didn’t really quite understand the magnitude of what I had achieved at the time. After winning, there is a huge pressure on maintaining that podium position on an ongoing basis. My results started to drop – I didn’t recall one year at the World and I was devastated – I was very close to giving up.

But as my friends and family know, I don’t give up easily. I was determined to give it one last go. I  found a new determination and motivation  –  I had a burning desire to  make that difficult journey back to the top of that podium – I really wanted to win the World Championships just one more time. I was totally focussed on improving my performance in all areas; I got up early every morning before school and practised for an hour each and every day in the run up to the Worlds. Everything worked on the day and the most amazing experience ever was to achieve that top podium place once more.  It meant so much more to me as I had worked so hard and made so many sacrifices to make the long way back up to the top of that podium again.

The key is to never give up – it was something which my Mum and Dad always taught my sister and I and to this day I still live by that motto. Everything is achievable if you work hard enough. It is all about hard work and practice – no amount of natural talent can take you to the top – you need to work at it to achieve the results.

  • How did you handle dancing competitively and studying for University?

To be honest I did find this very difficult. Time management was key – I had long reading lists to study each week and essays to write which were more challenging than ever before. In between being a student and trying to fit into the student life, I was also trying to practice my dancing and sustain it at a high competitive level.

My Mum had been the driving force really for myself and my sister from such a young age. She just loved Irish dancing – she also loved feising and we would often compete at 2 or more feises over a weekend! While I was studying for my A levels my Mum passed away very quickly within a few months of  being diagnosed with Cancer. I was just 17 at the time (my Mum was only 51) and our family was just heartbroken and devastated. I kept it together for my Mum and achieved the results I needed in my A Levels to take my place at Oxford. When I went to University I lived away from home for the very first time; my Mum wasn’t there to drive me to class when I needed to, and I didn’t attend any regular term time classes in Oxford. When I went home for weekends and holidays I had lots of lessons with Marion (Turley) and Colin Dunne to catch up on new steps and in term time I practised in my room in the College halls.

I also played lots of sport and kept as fit as I could. I couldn’t dance at as many feises as I was used to and therefore it was more difficult with less feis practice to dance at major Championships. I did compete at two more World Championships (in double age groups at that time) against other amazing World Champion dancers such as Mandy Hennigan, Grainne Feeley and Sorcha Mc Caul to name but a few. I managed to gained two more podium places at the Worlds before I retired at aged 19. 

  • Did you take time out of dancing to study or did you manage both?

I did both for as long as I could. It was more difficult at University during term time at Oxford where I had to practice completely on my own in my room. Also, more independent will power is required – nobody is there to push you – you have to do it all for yourself. My college friends thought I was mad!

  • Do you think being involved in Irish Dancing has helped shape your professional life and helped you to develop key life skills? (Dedication, commitment, handling disappointment, time management, working hard to reach goals?)

Absolutely! The life experience you gain from being an Irish dancer is priceless. The friends you meet internationally, the feeling of competing at major competitions, having to cope with the highs and the lows, learning to be gracious in defeat and humble in success, the nerves, the adrenalin, the dedication which is required, the sacrifices you have to make and missing parties with your friends because you are in training or practising for a major competition. I truly believe you can achieve anything once you have been an Irish dancer!

Also, I honestly believe that my achievement in my Irish dancing helped me gain a place at Oxford University – I was competing for a coveted place against students from all over the UK and overseas with top academic results. However not one other person in my intake was an Irish dancer! I believe it made me different from the other candidates – I used examples from my dancing experience in my interview and I genuinely believe this helped me stand out from the crowd. A few months ago, I happened to meet my old tutor from University who now sits in the House of Lords as a peer – I bumped into her and the first thing she said was “oh my – you’re the Irish dancer!” it really made my day that 26 years after being taught by her, and considering all the students who she would have taught over those years, she remembered that fact above all else!

  • Any hints or tips for dancers who want to stay committed to their dancing and maintain their studies, please feel free to add in any personal comments.

I truly believe that anything is possible. It does take time and dedication to keep your dancing going to a highly competitive standard when you have more intense study and exams at University. It takes good time management and organisation to fit everything in.

Also, it is not easy to juggle both commitments – it does mean making some sacrifices along the way – you might miss a party or two but in the long run it really is worth it. Dancing is a fantastic release and escape from studying, both mentally and physically.