Gemma O'Connor: I could feel my heart pounding through my chest and I thought 'why do I do this?'
The game of ‘will Gemma O’Connor play or will she not’ was undoubtedly the biggest subplot surrounding the 2017 Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Camogie final.
Cork were once again facing Kilkenny, in what was a replay of the 2016 final, and Cork captain Rena Buckley had the opportunity to become the most decorated player in the history of Gaelic Games if the Rebelettes could prise their title back from Ann Downey’s Kilkenny, but the big question mark heading into the final was will 10-time Liberty Insurance All-Star Gemma O’Connor play?
O’Connor had torn her medial collateral ligament (MCL) in the semi-final win over Galway and she had exactly 22 days to recover in time for the All-Ireland final. On average, it takes six weeks for a MCL injury to heal.
O’Connor was back on the field in just over three weeks. How? She rehabbed the injury morning, noon and night.
“The team had rules and I had to make the call whether I was going to be available or not,” said O’Connor.
“I was adamant that I wanted to play so I got with the doctors and physios and said ‘if there’s any slight chance at all that I can play I’ll do whatever it takes’.
“I took time off work and I just tried to build my knee up as best as I could. I needed to rehab and push it because I didn’t have time to rest it.
“I strapped it up and started slowly and I worked every second day on a programme the physio gave me.
“Between that I had my own exercises at home and then I had the pool at the Mardyke Arena. Paudie Murray, Dr. Con Murphy and Colin Lane made sure I had everything at my disposal and then when I was off from work I was just trying to rehab it morning, noon and night.”
There was no major litmus test for O’Connor’s recovery. There was a brief run around the outside of the pitch at the training session on the Thursday, and a few fitness tests on the evening before the final, but she was still very much uncertain about whether her knee would hold.
She said she only realised she had a good possibility of playing the night before the final and that she played the majority of the game through a mix of fear and adrenalin.
“Playing in the backline I was thinking I don’t want to be taken to the cleaners here,” added O’Connor.
“There was one incident in the first-half and I struck the ball and got this massive pain up through my knee after I planted my foot.
“After that I didn’t have too much trouble but I think I could have been playing on adrenalin. Once the whistle blows the aches and pains have to go out the window.
“I had it in my head that I needed to be prepared to go off, if it gets too bad because I have a team to think about as well and not to be putting the team in jeopardy, because I’ve become a weak link at the back.
“We knew there wasn’t going to be an inch out on the field and when the final whistle went, I thought it was the worst game I’ve been involved in for having that fear that something could go wrong.
“I could feel my heart pounding through my chest for the last couple of minutes and I was thinking ‘oh my god, why do I put myself through this?’
“But just seeing Julia White putting the ball over the bar was special. She’s been such a crucial player for us down through the years but she’s just been so unlucky with injury.
“With very little space she had the composure to take the shot and score and thankfully we had time on our side and the final whistle blew a short while later. That was my favourite moment.”
O’Connor added that it was her favourite win of all the finals she’s played in, because of what her team was up against heading into the final and because of the uncertainty of her own situation, which made the victory all the sweeter. Winning is still the best antidote.
Two teams comprising the country’s top Camogie stars will jet out to Madrid next week as Camogie goes ‘On Tour’ to the Spanish capital for the inaugural Liberty Insurance Camogie All-Stars Tour.