O'Brien eager to step off White House lawn and onto camogie fields of home
Published 25/07/2015 | 02:30
IF Barack Obama wants someone to give him a few tips on how to use that hurl he got from Enda Kenny then Waterford's Valerie O'Brien would love to coach him.
She is uniquely placed to get quick clearance from White House security because the 19-year-old from Roanmore is mixing in high political circles this summer as a wide-eyed intern in Washington DC.
It has meant living away from home for the first time in her life and while the Waterford centre-forward is far too busy and enthralled to be homesick there is one thing she is missing badly; top-class camogie and her county team-mates.
O'Brien played throughout this year's national league when the Decies won Division 2 but by the time Waterford opened the Liberty Insurance All-Ireland intermediate championship - with a 6-8 to 1-3 trimming of Antrim - she was in a very different space.
"I was actually downtown at Washington's 4th of July parade, with an American flag in one hand and my phone in the other, listening to my mother giving me live updates from the match in Walsh Park!" she reveals.
A second-year international business student at Waterford IT, O'Brien is one of only 30 selected from this island to take part in the 'Washington Ireland Programme' this summer, a prestigious two-month placement in youth leadership, which has immersed her the heart of American politics.
"I don't really know much about politics but I think my involvement with sport and things like volunteering with my club all helped me to get selected," she reckons. "I'm working with one of the local lobby groups who represent large multinationals on government affairs. I spend a lot of my time up on Capitol Hill, reporting on hearings and rubbing shoulders with Congress members and senators.
"It is very surreal and very 'House of Cards'-esque!" she chuckles.
O'Brien's only misgiving on taking up this once-in-a-lifetime experience was how it might affect her burgeoning camogie career but she will be back in time for the late stages of the All-Ireland series.
She lands home at 6.0 on August 2 and the family have been primed to drive her straight to Kildare for Waterford's final group game.
"I'm no superstar," she stresses. "I'm not like Trish Jackman or Beth Carton so I don't expect to waltz back into the team or anything but I'm doing as much training as I can out here and staying in shape because I'd love to play any small part I could if we got to an All-Ireland semi-final or final."
She trains and plays for local club DC Gaels in Washington whenever her hectic schedule allows and by coincidence her host family in DC is headed by a third-generation Irish-American called Kevin Moran. "Yes, just like the Waterford hurler!" she laughs. "The first thing I gave him when I arrived was a present of a Waterford jersey."
Finding somewhere to watching the recent Munster hurling final was a priority, especially as her only sibling Gavin is a member of Derek McGrath's Waterford senior squad.
O'Sullivan's pub, the home-from-home for DC Gaels, provided it and the profile of local players has surprised her.
"I was expecting them to be mostly ex-pats but the majority are as all-American as you could imagine. Some of them actually Googled 'hurling' and were so impressed they got involved. They train twice a-week and have games at weekends."
O'Brien has also witnessed first-hand the fervour at America's recent success in the Women's World Cup.
"They didn't call it the 'women's' World Cup, it was just 'the World Cup'," she notes. "Lots of men were wearing shirts with the women's names on the back, I've never seen that before. Women's sport seems to get a lot more coverage and support over here."
O'Brien may be getting a crash-course in US business and politics but she is reciprocating it through sport.
"People are fascinated by my hurls, they have started more conversations on the Metro (underground) than I could ever have imagined," she explains.
Life is a whirlwind of work and post-work 'town-hall' meetings and lectures, and Obama's 2008 campaign manager David Plouffe and veteran US TV political anchor Mark Shields have been among her guest lecturers.
Waterford's women lost consecutive All-Ireland junior finals in 2009 and '10 (a replay) before winning it in 2011.
Having lost three intermediate semi-finals in a-row since - twice to Galway and to champions Limerick last year - they are looking to make another big leap this summer.
"I was born in 1995 so was lucky enough to have seen Dan Shanahan and John Mullane through the noughties. I suppose they were my first role-models," O'Brien says.
"Then when Waterford played in those four camogie finals in-a-row it was players like Trish Jackman and Karen Kelly who inspired me. They showed us that we could win things, that we could be successful if we worked hard enough.
"You could probably say it was the Waterford men's success that first made me carry a hurl but it was the camogie team's that gave us all some real self-belief."
For more profiles of the women hoping to get to Croke Park this summer see www.wgpa.ie and follow their #behindtheplayer campaign.