Out of the darkness... Cork camogie captain Ashling Thompson
She has struck a chord with young people just as the late Donal Walsh did during his short life. Twenty-five-year-old Ashling Thompson is a modern sporting heroine for a new Ireland. She talks about waking up in an ambulance after a car crash in 2009, trying to deal with her boyfriend's suicide in 2012, and how staying positive, both on and off the field, brought her to where she is today - captain of the Cork senior camogie team and a new icon of Irish sport. Photography by Kip Carroll. Styling by Liadan Hynes
One of Ashling Thompson's tattoos says: "Never give up on what you really want to do. The person with big dreams is more powerful than one with all the facts." This quote by Albert Einstein embodies Ashling as much as it does her indomitable spirit.
Ashling is no ordinary sports star probably because Ashling is no ordinary woman. The Cork camogie captain is a modern sporting heroine for a new Ireland: a GAA star who has come out openly about her mental-health problems and her boyfriend's suicide.
Even allowing for cliche and marketing spin, the young woman from Newtownshandrum in Co Cork has brought herself out of a pitch-black place in her life in a manner that belies her age. Along with some brave others such as Bressie, the 25-year-old has helped change the culture and made it OK to speak about mental health and suicide in Ireland.
"I don't blame him," she says of her boyfriend and the terrible tragedy that befell him. "I'm not mad or anything, because I have been in that position. I know what it feels like. And it is very hard to come out of it. Five or six times, I contemplated it myself. 'Is this worth it or not?'
"I remember driving around in my car at times, on my own, thinking, 'This is shit. Why do I bother even living?' You know? Because you would honestly think tomorrow is going to be the exact same. So why should I bother going through this pain and agony? And this black cloud is constantly following you around and you can't get rid of it."
How long did it take to chase that black cloud away?
"Jesus. It still comes around every now and again, not in the sense that I'm ever thinking. . ."
Ashling says The Good Devil and The Bad Devil sometimes sit on her shoulders looking for a reaction, looking for trouble.
And you tell the Bad Devil to f**k off, I'm not talking to you?
"It is exactly like that," she says. "But nowadays it is never in a way where I contemplate. . . life or . . ." She pauses, gathering her thoughts. "Some days you might feel down on yourself. But you are still always carrying it a little bit."
The last time Ashling saw her boyfriend alive (just before he decided not to go to Funderland with her) is also something that she carries around with her. "To this day, not in a way that I'd put myself in a bad place, it just always crosses my mind. I'll ask myself the question, and think for a minute, and forget about it and move on with my day. But it could come back again. Every time I think about him, I ask myself some sort of a question."
And does she ever have an answer?
"Not really, no, because I just never expected it and nobody else did. So you can't, really."
How does she try to deal with it, the loss, the pain?
"Just continue to play sport. Continue to focus my mind on something else. Continue to do things for different charities, like Cycle Against Suicide for Pieta House. Or Headstrong," she says, referring to the non-profit organisation supporting young people's mental health in Ireland. "I'm an ambassador for them."
Ashling firmly believes that becoming a Headstrong Hero will help break the stigma surrounding youth mental health."I want to share my experience with everyone," she continues. "I suppose it is kind of shocking for someone like me to come out with it, because people see GAA players as strong figures. You'd rarely hear someone in the GAA talking about depression," she claims, "because it is seen as a weakness, whereas it is not a weakness.
"It is a massive strength, because young girls look up to me. Young boys look up to me. Older women, teenagers, everyone can relate in some way because, you know, only very few escape a traumatic experience in their lives."
After a car crash in 2009, the internal trauma resulted in Ashling suffering bouts of depression. But after her partner took his own life in 2012, Ashling fell into an even darker place of personal torment and inner pain.
"It was really bad depression. It got to the point of no return. It was going one way or the other. I don't like to put a definite word on it but people know what I'm talking about. I was rock bottom."
How did you get up again?
"I just stuck with my sport," she says.
"Frankie told me to trust him," she adds of her coach Frank Flannery at her club, Milford GAA.
"And I didn't trust anyone really at the time, because I had lost all hope; and friends and family, I just pushed them away and got myself involved in all the wrong kinds of crowds. I wasn't training. I decided to keep my mind ticking over by getting involved with eejits," she says, meaning the 'wrong elements' for a serious sportsperson.
"And messing," Ashling adds, again not elaborating by what she actually means (although she alludes to being through a lot of scary experiences she can't talk about).
"And not being interested in going to watch training or going to match games."
Frank changed all that in Ashling. "He could totally relate to me, because he was battling his own demons in the past. I think it was that relationship; we just saw totally eye to eye. I never had that with a trainer. I trusted in him completely. Sometimes you need an outsider to come in and throw a few home truths at you."
What did he tell you?
"He didn't have to tell me. He knew what kind of a place I was in. He just basically said, 'If you are going to trust anyone, just give me one chance. Trust me'." That was at the very beginning in 2012. "I completely trusted him and said I would give it one more shot."
Prior to Frank's arrival in 2012, her team, Milford Camogie Club, had, she explains, "lost a lot of county finals and semis. In 2011, we were knocked out in a quarter final, and that was so rare because we were the best team in the county. We could just never finalise a win. So it was really disappointing for four or five years to get beaten on the trot constantly. So I had had enough of it. When we got knocked out of the quarter final, I was like, 'Feck this'. But when Frank came in, he told us we have eight steps to an All Ireland."
Frank led the team to an All Ireland in his first year.
"We were laughing and saying, 'If we get past the county final, we'll be happy'," Ashling laughs now. "And as the year went on, we won every game. We were unbeaten in 22 championship games in three years. So as the wins came, the hard work was paying off. I just knew if I stayed positive upstairs and did my training and stuck with the team - and they did the same - it felt like the hard work had paid off."
A testament to all that hard work is that Ashling is now Cork captain, and she and her team secured their spot in the Liberty Insurance Senior Camogie All-Ireland final - on September 13 against Galway in Croke Park - when they comprehensively saw off Kilkenny two weeks ago in the semi-final.
As Ashling tweeted after the game, "Winning isn't everything . . . Oh no wait, it actually is!!! #FuckThat #CrokerBound #RebelettesAbu".
Ashling is full of belief in her and her team's sporting prowess on the field of dreams. Ashling also has another kind of faith. Although she doesn't go to Mass, she prays every night and before every game. Ashling has a powerful sense of empathy too. If she reads on social media about someone having passed away, she will always "say a Hail Mary or an Our Father" - even if she didn't even know the person who died.
"I am very religious now because I wasn't [religious] when I was a little black sheep. I totally lost faith in God, because so many bad things had happened to me."
Her love of sport started straight away, she says, "once I was ready and able at five years of age." Young Ashling didn't have to look far for inspiration: both her parents competed in sports. Her mother Sheila was an athlete who ran marathons and played camogie and hockey, while her father Mattie was a hurler.
"It was a genetic thing, really," Ashling says of her love of sport and her desire to compete in sports herself. Ashling started playing camogie when she was six. "I was brought into sport from the get-go, really. Sport was in my blood. My mother said I was always a very active child, and wanted to be outside constantly. I always had a hurley in my hand or I was always kicking a football."
In terms of signs of her future ability, Ashling says you "wouldn't really get to know that until you start playing sports. Like when you start playing camogie, you never know until the skills come to you a couple of years down the line. Everyone is a beginner at the start, you know. But, I suppose, after a while, once you get the skills of camogie and get them all right, you will know from there really, whether you are going to be [any good].
"You can tell, though. Even from young wans, and watching them at camps and stuff," she adds. "You can tell who's going to be a superstar and who is not." Some would say that Ashling is probably a superstar in her own way.
"But then you have some people who mightn't have been good at underage level - there are plenty of county players out there that never go on school teams," she says.
How much of sporting success is more head than body? "I think it is 50/50 - 50pc getting your body right and getting your eating habits right and getting in shape, body-wise, but I think 50pc of it is mental. Like, no matter how much in shape you are, if you are not right upstairs, you are not going to perform.
"Your head is more powerful than your body. Your mind overrules whatever you do. And if you think you are tired and say, 'Oh, I'm tired', then you are going to be tired. Whereas if you are tired and you say to yourself, 'There is still more in me', you'll keep going. Your mind overrides anything."
Ashling says she has a habit of physically drawing positive signs - actual mathematical plus signs - on her hands before a game. "So if I ever feel the pressure coming on, and you're obviously holding a hurley and a ball, you see the plus signs every now and again. It tells me to stay positive even when the shit hits the fan and you are down six points in a game. It reminds me to keep in a positive state of mind because the mind is more powerful than the body."
How does Ashling put that into practice when Cork are down six points, and then 10 points in a game? How does she maintain the positivity even when psychology doesn't seem to be working because the game looks like it's being lost?
"It is all to do with pure belief. You do it in training. You master that pure belief in training. You train to the point of - you know, you think you can't go on because you are so exhausted. You train yourself to fight through that tiredness. That's how you bring it to the game, but obviously you have to have the belief and the desire to do it, and the fight to keep going."
Does it make it more difficult to put the theory into practice when she also has the responsibility of being captain of the team too? When players drop emotionally or psychologically in a game, are they looking to you to pick them up?
"They are," she answers. "I mean, that is the role of a captain, really. You are a leader on the field, along with many other girls who are leaders. Everyone has to be a leader. But people will look to you, because you are the captain. So if you drop your head and completely give up, you are portraying that to the rest of the team.
"Even if someone was a captain over me and I saw them dropping their head and things like that," she continues, "that would put a doubt in your mind. Maybe not in mine, because I would know what to do in that situation, but there are so many younger girls."
So when you play camogie, do you play without doubt?
"Obviously there are times where you doubt things, have doubts, but I always know you will get the best out of yourself by staying positive, no matter the situation."
And when you lose?
"It is in the past. I never like to lose; even it is a challenge match or a game of chess or a game of cards. I am just a sore loser in general. I am great crack to be around, in some respects, but I take the game very seriously."
This burning intensity for some truth, not just in sport, seems central to her very being, almost her raison d'etre. I say to her that she reminds me a bit of another Corkonian sports hero in that regard - Roy Keane. She doesn't balk.
"I take it extremely seriously. The girls know that, too. That's why they look up to me a lot, and especially the younger ones," says 25-year-old Ashling. "And I know they do. Because I know when people look up to me and when they don't. And literally every time I speak, they are looking straight into my eyes. Because they know that I am 120pc serious about it.
"Even as a teenager, I was always extremely driven. That never left me."
You wanted to be captain of the Cork camogie team when you were a young teen?
"Sure, you only dream of it. I always dreamed of it, but I never thought it was going to be a reality. The dream was Cork camogie. Even to make the team, never mind be captain. And captaincy was a bigger dream onto the dream. The dream was just to make the team. Captaincy was a million miles away."
Ashling first got on to the panel in her Leaving Cert year, although she dropped out of camogie to concentrate on her studies. It was around this point in November 2009, when she was badly injured in a car crash.
"I was rear-ended by a car and my car was completely written-off." She woke up in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. "I was just in shock." The medics in the ambulance were talking to her, but she was unable, as she remembers, to talk back.
Was she frightened she'd never walk again - or that she'd never play again?
"No, I am the type of person who even when I get a belt in a game or could have a broken hand in a match, I'd be like, 'Oh, it's grand. The pain will wear off in a minute'. So straight away, I thought, 'I'm awake'. I tried moving my arms and my legs. I was like, 'I can feel them. I'll be fine in a few days'."
Where does Ashling think she got that kind of emotional courage?
"I suppose we bought into tough love. We were never babied," she says referring to herself and her two older siblings, Michael and Nigel. "I got it from my mam and dad. My dad would have been a serious hurler, an aggressive hurler. My mother was an athlete, but she was a winner. She was the last woman in her time to win the old Cork City Marathon. She was sponsored by adidas at one point. That was the type of person that I looked up to."
You were almost bred to be a winner, I say to her.
"Oh, bred, like! Born and bred. But even my parents' sisters and my mother's brothers were all the same. It's all tough love. No one is babied - or 'I love you' or hugging," Ashling says.
"And when you are involved in sport - I have been involved in a load of sports - and anything I ever did, my mother drove it into me. 'You are to run your legs off. You are winning this game. I don't care'. She trained me underage as well."
Would Ashling look into the crowd during a match and see her mother?
"I wouldn't even have to look. I would hear her before I'd see her. 'Come on, Ashling!' But she'll only roar at you when she knows that you need it. When you need that lift."
That is when, adds Ashling, Cork are down in game and "we're sitting back - and she knows I'm sitting back a bit and not going hell-for-leather."
Is that to conserve energy?
"No. Sometimes you go through the motions in games. It happens."
After the car crash in Cork, Ashling was in "a low place" because she "tried to come back to playing sport as quick as I could and it just wasn't coming."
The recovery wasn't coming quickly enough because Ashling, as he says herself, "just wasn't able". She had deep muscle damage to both her back and her neck. The physiotherapist told her she was looking at a long road to recovery.
It took Ashling three years to come back to where she was previously. Before that full recovery came about, Ashling was playing sport but she wasn't the same athlete that she was before the accident "because I had lost a serious amount of weight as I wasn't eating or sleeping".
"I am fully back now," she continues. "I'm carrying no injuries."
In a game when she is going hell-for-leather, does she have that fear that she might injure her back again?
"No. Not one bit. Never. And even if it was sore, I would never think it is coming back," she says. "I am not like that," she says, attributing Flannery in 2012 with instilling that inner self-belief, but explaining that Frank's arrival was just prior to the most traumatic moment of her young life.
"He died in June 2012," Ashling says of her boyfriend's suicide. "And Frank had come in a few months before that."
You had started on the road to sporting recovery and then, with your boyfriend's death, you stepped off again. You didn't want to be on that road again after what happened?
"No. No. I was completely broken again. Back to square one."
What was your mother saying to you when you were hanging around with people who you earlier referred to as eejits?
"She couldn't really do anything about it, because I was so in my own world. I didn't care what happened to me, but I didn't care who I was hurting along the way. I just thought, 'They'll get over it'. I didn't realise that I was actually destroying their lives as well," Ashling says, meaning those close to her.
"They were so disappointed. The most frustrating thing was being helpless. They were just completely helpless. You could tell me one thing and I would do the exact opposite."
Asked how it feels to be described as a hero for young people, she smiles.
"It is amazing. But I am very proud as well and humble about it. Fair enough, I was rebellious and I was this and that, but stuff happens, like.
"That happens to a lot of teenagers where they go down a bad path and they don't think of anything outside of what they are doing. They don't think about who they're hurting along the way. It takes scary experiences. I have been through a lot of scary experiences in life. Things I couldn't talk about honestly because it would get me in trouble with the people I was involved with. Some people could probably put two and two together, but I had no fear whatsoever. No fear of anyone."
Did she bring that on to the playing pitch? "I did at times, and I was sent off. If anyone said anything to me, it was fist up straight away."
Ashling freely admits that she let her friends and family down by her actions.
"My family were there for me through thick and thin when I lost every friend I had."
Ashling still lives at home with her parents in Cork. "I want to live at home with my mum and dad for as long as I can, because you have a roof over your head with no bills to pay. You get to spend time with your family. You have your whole life to spend it away, so you may as well make the most of it."
"I am going to continue playing with Cork," she says at the end of our conversation, "and my club for as long as I can, really."
Long may she run.
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