By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Jun 19, 2013 at 4:27 PM

Over the course of 3,000 years, millions of people have played hurling, but a disproportionate number of players have been women. However, the Milwaukee Hurling Club (MHC) is working to change this, and as one of the few co-ed hurling clubs in the country, MHC currently has 39 female hurlers out of the 220 players total.

Cory Johnson, a 50-year-old compliance analyst, has been in the club since it started 18 years ago. She is also one of the few female refs and a youth coach.

"Volunteerism is a large part of the club’s success," she says. "We all wear a lot of hats."

Johnson decided to join MHC upon the recommendation of a bartender at the now-defunct Black Shamrock Pub on Milwaukee’s East Side.

Growing up, Johnson says she was more of a theater person than a sports person, but she attributes this to how girls were less likely to play sports in decades past than they are today.

"I was born with an athlete’s body, but I just wasn’t encouraged to do much with it," she says.

Both of Johnson’s daughters play hurling, as well as her sons and her husband, Dave Olson, who was the first American to receive the prestigious President’s Award by the Gaelic Athletic Association in Ireland. 

For Johnson, the family-friendliness of the club is one of the most appealing aspects of the game.

"I do not know of another league that is this family friendly," she says.

The other beauty of the game, she says, is that it accommodates any fitness level or body type and can be learned at any age.

"Hurling is not like some sports that if you didn’t start playing by the time you were 6 it’s too late," says Johnson.

Erin Clapper, who started playing hurling just three seasons ago, agrees.

"As long as you can walk around, you can get out there and play," she says.

Clapper was first introduced to the game while working at Anodyne Coffee in Bay View. 

"A guy came in with a hurling shirt and so I Googled it and found it fascinating," she says.

Clapper joined MHC’s email list and, before long, the club as well. Today, even though she relocated for work to Rockford, Ill., she returns to Milwaukee every weekend during hurling season.

"The team and the fans are the most supportive group of people," she says. "It’s really something I look forward to every week."

Clapper believes the game looks a lot more violent than it really is, which might seem daunting to some women. Granted, Clapper says she gets bruises all the time – and she's also pretty sure she had a concussion once.

"But these are just battle wounds," Clapper says.

Johnson had to get stitches in her finger, but otherwise she has remained injury-free in almost two decades of play. Aislinn Leonard, who has been hurling for 10 years, has only been lightly hurt as well.

"You get bumps and bruises – I got cut on the nose last week – but it’s all part of the game," says Leonard, who plays half back.

Johnson says another reason why more women don’t join the club is because female athletes are in such high demand and have a lot of choices, from triathlons to volleyball to field hockey.

"And honestly, we are not as good as we need to be when it comes to woman-to-woman promoting," says Johnson.

According to Clapper, the key to getting women to play hurling is to simply get them on the field. Recently, Clapper says a woman came to a game to watch her boyfriend and was convinced to try it herself.

"After one game, she was hooked," she says.

Hurling is played on a field that’s, ideally, 100-by-150 yards, which is larger than a soccer field. There are two posts that are similar to a netted soccer goal on the bottom with a crossbar on the top.

The object of the game is for hurlers to work a ball down field toward the goal. Sailing the ball over the crossbar is a "point" and sending the ball below the crossbar is a "goal," which is worth three points.

The game is divided into four 15-minute quarters (in Ireland the game has two 30-minute periods) and there are 15 players per side. Hurlers wear cleats (usually soccer cleats), shorts, a jersey and a hurling helmet, which is lighter and provides better visibility than other sports’ helmets.

Hurlers can whack the sliotar (ball) or carry it on their flat sticks – called hurleys. The sliotar is similar to a baseball except the seams are on the outside, creating a "ridge" that makes it possible for the ball to balance on the stick.

Members of MHC start practicing in March and the season runs from May through August. There’s a national competition in September. The games are free and open to the public.

All of MHC’s equipment comes directly from Ireland. One of the club’s hurley makers journeys to Milwaukee for Irish Fest every year to lead a hurley-crafting workshop.

Leonard got her first hurley when she was 5, during a family trip to Ireland. While driving through the countryside, they saw a group of young girls playing hurling. However, they had never seen the game before, so her mom, who Leonard describes as "interested in everything," pulled over the car and asked the girls what they were playing.

Not only did the girls give them a run-down of the sport, they gave them each hurleys. Leonard still has hers today.

"They were so welcoming. They just wanted to teach everyone how to play hurling," she says.

Prior to hurling, Leonard played hockey at the age of 4.

"I wanted to be like my big brother and I had supportive parents," she says. "But it's only because of hurling that there is hockey. Hurling is the great, great, great, great – I don’t even know how many ‘greats’ – grandfather of hockey."

This fall, Leonard will be a junior at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., and originally she went to the college to play hockey. She was cut from the team at the end of last season, which she is disappointed about, but happy to have hurling in her life.

"Everyone should try it. It’s really fun. I met my boyfriend and best friend through hurling. We all look out for each other," says Leonard. "It really is like a family."

Although the MHC does divide into men's and women's teams when traveling abroad, Leonard says she loves playing co-ed games. And in the midst of the game, she says, gender just doesn’t doesn’t matter.

"When you’re on the field, you’re not a girl or a guy. You’re a hurler," she says.

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.