'I spent my whole career thinking if I didn't win an All-Ireland then my career was a failure. That's how you're taught to see it. What a destructive mode of thinking that is'
Diarmuid Lyng tells Cliona Foley how illness and travelling the world taught him true value of the game
DIARMUID Lyng knew immediately, the minute he stepped out of the cryotherapy chamber. "My body was shocked to its core. I knew, straight away, that I'd done something wrong. There was an ice in my bones, a coldness, and it was deeper in me than I'd ever felt before."
Rumours abound about what has forced one of the best Wexford hurlers of his generation to quit the game at present, largely that he picked up some weird incurable bug while away finding himself around the globe.
Couch-surfing throughout, it started with a week's meditation in a Buddist temple, included visits to Nepal and Tibet, Cambodia and Vietnam, trekking up to Everest's Base Camp, practising Tai Chi in Chinese parks and kipping with complete strangers in diverse locations like a single room in Kathmandu or a wood outside Moscow.
Now that's the sort of free-spirited stuff that boggles conservative minds who don't need to hear too much else to jump to conclusions.
The truth is that Lyng was sick long before he went on his 17-month voyage of self-discovery in late 2010.
Back in 2007, after playing in a Leinster final, he felt pretty invincible and when advised to use a local cryotherapy chamber to speed up a hamstring injury he was, in his own words, "a mind-closed dull athlete. Someone suggested something and I just did it, without question".
Worse still his ego kicked in and when he saw he was sharing it with a couple of soccer players he subconsciously played 'chicken' with them.
"I stayed in for five minutes when I should probably have only stayed for three, but I was like 'I can do what I want!' That mentality was going on all the time."
Lyng captained Wexford's hurlers in 2009-10 but his gift for free-taking and floating over eye-catching sideline cuts masked the truth.
He was already struggling badly and, in 2010, a stomach parasite was finally diagnosed as the cause of his desperately depleted energy levels, his inability to absorb nutrients and his badly disrupted sleep.
A week after the cryotherapy he lined out against Tipperary but "hadn't really slept, eaten or drunk for a week".
He believes that the shock his body underwent in cryotherapy gave the upper hand to a previously dormant parasite.
"In no way is this against the cryotherapy chamber. It's useful, it's good for some people, but for me and where I was? No, it was a bad thing because I didn't ask the pertinent questions, I was in the ego-zone."
Back then he inhabited a box labelled 'Gizzy', the childhood nick-name (from Gizmo in the 'Gremlins' movie) that seemed to perfectly fit his outgoing personality.
He was Gizzy the teacher, Gizzy the Irish-speaker, Gizzy the dual player, and he had a particularly high profile as Gizzy the chirpy Wexford hurler who was too nice to say no to any media request.
Yet none of that equipped him for what would come.
"Every game I went out I was afraid I was going to be found out," he confesses. "My hooking and blocking were gone way down, I wasn't able to cover the ground.
"I was boxing clever for a long time. I was trying to stay away from the melees and stuff in case I'd give away too much to my marker and they'd realise how weak I was."
Sometimes the energy he needed just to focus on one element of the game was such that he'd unconsciously drop his hurl.
As a county Wexford were, and still are, going through a rough patch.
Lyng top-scored when they were shocked by Carlow in the 2010 league but physically and mentally he was burnt out, sinking into self-confessed "victim mode" which he blames on no one but himself.
So, after defeat by Tipp in July 2010, he took a career break and took off, initially to his then girlfriend in Annapolis, followed by six months in New York working every hour to build up a financial war-chest to go exploring the world.
He set out to explore as many new creative experiences as possible yet inevitably also agreed to some local GAA service and chuckles now at the shock of a first marking assignment in Gaelic Park.
"I'd been working three straight days so I'm falling in exhausted, playing football for 'Kerry' and who am I marking only yer man from Monaghan, Tommy Freeman – lovely!"
Working as a barman in Yonkers yielded a gang of Mexican and Hispanic mates with whom he played soccer, including a Chilean called Sergio who became a great friend and mentor. Yet, as great a cultural and social melting pot as New York was, it didn't provide any answers for a 29-year-old who was "lost".
South America had been his initial plan but Sergio persuaded him to head to South East Asia, where a week in a Buddhist temple outside Bangkok was among their first adventures on a voyage that opened him up to literature, philosophy and a spiritual world he'd never before explored, teaching him to live in the moment and let go of what he previously regarded as "the ego".
He came home, briefly, for Eoin Quigley's wedding in December 2011, with Sergio in tow – "his head shaved, his eyebrows shaved, like a little monk!" – but took off again afterwards, the buzz of travelling and the simplicity of the life and the few demands it made on his sick body a simpler and more joyful alternative.
And then one day, on an idyllic spot in Vietnam, despite having work lined up in Australia and on a 22,000-acre ranch in Argentina, he finished reading Paulo Coelho's 'The Alchemist' and instantly felt ready to go home.
When he subsequently found an unexpected email from Wexford selector Tomas Codd, no further sign was needed. He returned in time for Wexford's two final league games last year and lined out against Offaly in the championship, with two of his new Dutch mates in the crowd.
"It felt good to be back but it cost us against Offaly because I missed a couple of chances that I wouldn't have if I hadn't been away. That didn't feel great but that's the way."
In that resignation is some clue to Lyng's new take on life. He never fell out of love with hurling, mind, ever.
Two hurls accompanied him throughout his travels and complete strangers were enlisted to film him striking a sliotar at all the great cultural landmarks he visited.
He has since enlisted some high-profile Irish superstars, and hurlers, to do the same at home and plans to edit the video into a fundraiser for the Sports Charitable Trust.
But Lyng is, in some ways, delighted to be plain old Diarmuid now, back teaching in a local gaelscoil but taking a break from hurling in the hope that all the alternative therapy he is exploring will eventually heal his body.
It is clear he misses it desperately but the vacuum has allowed him to explore new interests.
He now practises meditation and yoga, has just bought a fiddle and is on the board of Tony Griffin's youth support foundation SOAR.
Griffin, Clare's 2006 All Star, went through his own epiphany and is immersed in youth philanthropy and community development – what's now termed 'social entrepreneurship'.
Lyng also wants to initiate change, convinced that he is not the only inter-county player ill-equipped for the GAA's growing win-at-all-cost philosophy, professional-like demands and the multiple pressures these place on young men.
"There's an actual life-force you get from playing, especially when you hit that perfect plane where you feel really good about yourself and you feed off that," he explains.
"I'm probably a creative soul but hurling was where all my creativity was. It wasn't just the adulation, it was the physical feeling of playing well, that was my moment!"
"You think you have to train through problems, that you have to hammer yourself. If something was wrong I was like 'give me the drug or treatment', always looking outside of myself and really not listening to my body properly.
"There needs to be a lot more care for players, not just lip-service. They need to be cared for holistically, not just when they're out on the pitch.
"It's almost gladiatorial. When you're there they (the crowd) roar and when you're gone they don't care.
"This isn't about me, I just feel there needs to be discourse about this, a space created for fellas to have a conversation about all of this," he says, encouraged by the fact that the Gaelic Players Association (GPA) offered players free access to a philosophy course this year.
"You've got guys going from playing to crowds of 80,000 on a Sunday back to work on a Monday. People love talking about that. 'Oh, this guy could be fixing your car tomorrow!' and that is great, they are heroes.
"But no one understands the dangers involved for the player himself, that he has to make this big jump – physically and mentally – from one to the other, or asks if he has the skills to deal with that.
"Everyone assumes it's a good thing but there is a deeper-seated energy shift within that which needs to be explored.
"I spent my whole career thinking if I didn't win an All-Ireland or play in one, then my career was a failure. That's how I saw it and how you're taught to see it.
"What a destructive mode of thinking that is. And what an absolute insult to all the people who worked so hard with me all along.
"Sport and the GAA is about so much more than that and when you define everything through winning it's hugely destructive, especially when you are coaching children."
What Lyng values most now is the integral beauty of life and this unique game.
At a New Year yoga retreat in Sligo, surrounded by 30 alternative, creative types who have probably never darkened the door of a GAA club in their lives, he and a friend produced seven hurls on a beach and watched the magic happen.
"When they threw up the ball and hit it, the buzz was just so great for them, they just loved the physical act of hurling! It's such a beautiful game when it's just played for itself.
"When you're in that place, time ceases to exist, you don't feel tired, you're in the zone. I want to get well now so I can recreate that feeling, as part of a team, and hope that 14 guys around me can feel that," he says.
"I think that's what's worth playing for. After that the result takes care of itself."