Camogie great Gemma O’Connor told KIERAN McCARTHY that this might be her last year with Cork
GEMMA O’Connor is comfortable with the possibility that this might be her last season as an inter-county player.
Nothing has been decided yet, and won’t be until later in the year, but she admits that this could be her farewell season.
She’s not fighting it.
Instead, she’s embracing the challenge of being a 33-year-old inter-county player, and all that brings with it.
This particular challenge motivates her: to prove she’s still good enough at the top level.
‘In order for a team to work you need individual goals and motivation because if one person doesn’t have the desire to play it can have a massive impact on the team,’ the eight-time All-Ireland winning Cork star explains.
‘Everyone has their own individual goal and for me it’s can I still do it at 33 years of age? Can I still make those blocks and those runs and have those turnovers? Can I still influence a game?
‘I think I’ll know myself when it’s time to go. Maybe it will be after this year. It’s certainly harder this year. The recovery time is a lot greater. It might be time for me to move on after this year. Who knows.’
Those thoughts, that this could be her last year with Cork, are in the back of O’Connor’s head. It’s not a distraction at all, she says, more a reminder of where she is at in her particular journey.
‘If I’m being honest, every training session I take part in and every game I play, I always think that this could be my last,’ she admits.
‘I will go out, give it everything this year and make my decision then but ya, it’s something that I am very aware of.
‘I try to tell myself when I go training to enjoy it and soak it in as much as I can without getting too emotional and over the top about it.
‘Being realistic there is more of a chance that this is my last year than not – but who knows. I’ll just concentrate on the championship, enjoy it as much as I can and see what happens.’
It’s so far so good in this year’s championship with Cork on two wins from two Group 2 games, the latest against Dublin last Sunday at Páirc Uí Rinn.
Again, O’Connor was a rock. But that’s a gimme at this stage. She’s regarded as one of the finest players of her generation. A legend. Her presence lifts her team-mates.
Just look at her performance in last year’s All-Ireland final win against Kilkenny. She wasn’t meant to play. A knee injury suffered in the semi-final ruled her out. But she played. Heroically. And she led. Courageously. And she scored a late equalising point from distance, before Cork went on to win the game.
She proved herself last season on the big stage and she is determined to repeat the trick this year.
‘One of my motivating factors and biggest challenges this year is that I am 33 and still playing centre back, so the challenge is can I keep my fitness up and go another year and stay on top and keep up with the rest?’ she asks.
‘It would have been very easy for me to walk away on a high after last year and winning eight All-Irelands, I’m there since 2002, but sometime you have to give yourself a challenge. If I fail I fail, so be it.’
The odds on O’Connor failing are slim. It won’t happen. She’s too streetwise and clever. And she’s evolving. She knows what her body can and can’t do now.
‘I’ve gone from being one of the fittest people on the Cork team for years and probably one of the fittest camogie players around to, in the last few years, a change with my own energy levels and fitness levels. My body has changed,’ she says.
‘For the first two or three years I was like, “Oh God, what is happening?” Instead of fighting it you have to go along with it.
‘You still go to the gym and work as hard as you can, of course. What might not be strength nowadays, I try and use what I have to my strength.
‘I’m an experienced player and I use that, to be a bit cute and smart on the pitch. Sometimes you have to compensate and instead of fighting it, just go with it. I have learned that in the last three years when you are in pre-season or running, that it’s okay to get old, it’s perfectly natural.
‘When you are training, you aren’t there to beat anyone else, you’re there to keep up your own standards and train as hard as you possibly can.
‘If people, as they get older, recognise that then training becomes that bit easier. That pressure and expectation is less and you begin to enjoy the game that bit more.’
O’Connor’s game has evolved as a result these last few years, she points out.
‘It’s about conserving your energy levels at the time right time,’ she explains.
‘There would have been days in the past when you’d be running about like a headless chicken but how many times were you on the ball or were the runs the right ones to make?
‘It’s all about the decision-making – when to go for it, when to hold back, when to stay in the middle and look for the breaking ball. When you get older you get wiser because you know what you have in the tank.
‘I could be on a a forward who has the legs on me but that’s the challenge I have set myself this year.’
She’s in a good place this year. Last season she was on a course in Dublin in her work with the defence forces and the Monday to Friday trips from home to the capital were tiring. It wasn’t ideal preparation but this year, O’Connor’s back home, back in the nine-to-five routine and back in the frame of mind to train three or four nights a week.
‘I can feel myself getting fitter every week,’ she says.
Good news for Cork and O’Connor with plenty of championship battles in the weeks and months ahead.
Whether it’s her last season, we have to wait and see.
• Cork star O’Connor helped launched the ‘Camogie Made Me Ready for the Real World’ campaign by Liberty Insurance, who have announced a new three-year sponsorship of the All-Ireland camogie championships, with a marketing investment into women in sport of €750,000 in the second half of 2018 alone.