'I want the chance to give more of my time to the people in my life' - 18-time All-Ireland winner Rena Buckley retires
When the end comes for elite-level athletes, it's often cruel, seldom kind. The typical profile looks like a hard climb to the top, a long (if they are lucky) plateau and a sudden descent, as age kicks in overnight, injuries take their toll or their coach pulls them aside to quietly suggest that they might not have another year in them.
Rena Buckley, Cork's dual star and the most decorated GAA player of all time, is in the fortunate position of being able to decide for herself, on her own terms and with her place in the history of her sport and the hearts of supporters and fellow players assured.
With 18 All-Ireland medals, six camogie and football doubles and the distinction of being the only GAA player to captain their county to All-Ireland success in both codes, Rebel Rena is one of the most successful Irish sports people of all time.
But there's life outside sport, especially for an amateur player who has a busy physiotherapy practice to run and other commitments such as a boyfriend, family and friends.
When we sit down to chat over a coffee in a quiet cafe on the outskirts of Cork, close to her native Inniscarra, the 31-year-old GAA star is ready to talk about the decision she has just made and only talked about to her coaches, family and close friends.
She will continue playing for her Inniscarra club. But for the first time in many years, Rena won't be seen in Rebel Red this summer.
As she talks through how she arrived at her decision to end her inter-county career, it's clear the dual GAA star is still processing the pros and cons of calling time on what has been a huge part of her life, the role that has in many ways defined her since her teenage years.
"Look, in every person's life, you only have a certain amount of time, there's limited hours you can give to what you want to do," says Rena.
"For a long number of years, I've given sport a huge chunk of my time. And I've arrived at the stage of my life now where I have other commitments, other things I want to do. And I have to make the choice.
"It's not like I want to travel the world, or make massive changes in my life. But I want the chance to give more of my time to the people in my life."
Rena has only recently completed a Masters degree at UCD; she sees on average eight patients a day at her physiotherapy clinic in Macroom and she is in a long-term relationship with her boyfriend (also a hurler) Paudie.
She says it helps having a partner who is also very involved in the GAA as they will understand the pressures and demands that you face. "You don't have to explain it to them, they know the score."
As a dual player, for club and county, for so many years, the commitments she has given are on a par with most professional athletes. As well as the almost year-round training and playing and her responsibilities as captain for club and county, Rena is very much in demand for various functions and spends many nights each year dressed to the nines in various Dublin hotels.
"It cuts into a lot of your social time. To be honest, you don't really get a lot of social time to yourself, there's lots of commitments around playing.
"I wouldn't complain about that side of things, because you just have to accept it and they are often thoroughly enjoyable.
"But you get months and months when you are just working and training, working and training. With the inter-county side you start right after Christmas, you meet up with everybody, get ready for the year ahead. I don't know about work-life balance, it's hard when you don't even have the time to watch a bit of TV."
It's clear Rena is not bemoaning the long years of dedication to her sport, the sacrifices she has had to make and the understanding and support that she has had to depend on from the people close to her.
But a rare holiday, a trip to Washington last November, with her boyfriend and his family, does appear to have got her thinking about life outside the game. Even to take this week out for herself, she had to turn down an official trip with the GAA.
What most of us will take for granted, the chance to get away with family and friends for a week, can be something rare and precious for athletes like Rena.
"We had actually booked the trip to Washington when a Camogie All-Star trip came up," she says.
"So there was a bit of a clash, but I was happy with the choice I made. Washington in November is not the sort of place I would have normally chosen for a holiday. But my boyfriend's family have family and friends there and we were over for Thanksgiving, and it was lovely. We did all the sights, the White House, the Lincoln Memorial, JFK's grave, it was fascinating, and the relatives over there wined and dined us and showed us around."
Then in January, there was a special event for Rena at the shiny new Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork, to celebrate her incredible career. Over 100 guests, family, friends, fellow players and past stars of camogie and football, gathered to mark her record-breaking success with her 18th All-Ireland medal.
It was a very GAA affair. Paddy Collins, father of her boyfriend Paudie, sang a song he himself composed about Rena and her legendary exploits; old friends, coaches and teammates said a few words, past games and glories were recounted.
The following Monday morning, Rena was back at her busy clinic in Macroom, thinking about the week ahead and the upcoming season.
Rena has faced a very difficult decision when it comes to calling time on her inter-county career. September has meant, for a decade or more, at least one - and in many years a second - trip to Croke Park to play in the biggest games of all, alongside teammates, coaches and supporters who have built a special bond.
"An All-Ireland is so much different to just another match, especially in the women's set-up," she says. "The men will play their semi-finals in Croke Park. For us, it's the first and only game of the year there. And even a little thing like that means there's a huge jump in the media coverage, in the excitement, the build-up to the game.
"There's always a lot of hype around the men's semi-finals in hurling and football. In the women's set-up, it really only makes that jump for the final and suddenly you are there and the excitement, the pressure, all the bells and whistles - it's not like anything else you experience."
Having been there so many times, Rena learnt to deal with the pressure. Those in the game have talked about her calm, methodical approach to big pressure occasions and how it helped those around her when she was captain in both codes.
"You just learn to strip it right back," she says. "You speak to people before the game, talk it through, focus on the game and the job you have to do. There can be a lot of distractions, it's important to be able to put those to one side."
Rena has seen camogie and women's football make huge strides over her career and she puts that down to a number of factors.
"There's been a lot of work done within the two organisations. But more than that, there's been a huge cultural shift. Families are getting smaller and parents want their kids, whether it's boys or girls, to have an equal chance, to get the same backing in whatever they want to do.
"And that's really important. Attitudes in the GAA have changed a lot. The girls are no longer being put out on the back field. And it's not just in sport, it's in all walks of life."
Rena is very much for equality in the GAA. Except, maybe, in one aspect of the modern game.
"Would I like to get the same level of attention as the men get? Probably not. There are pressures that the men face that the women do not, much more media attention. And it can be very harsh at times."
There won't be another year of championship combat. Still fit and fortunate with injuries considering the intensity of her decade-long dual career, Rena could push herself for another year and one more chance of adding to a record medal haul that may never be equalled.
She recalls how her form and appetite for the game wavered when she came out of college and started her career, how it was a "difficult time", finished with the relatively care-free days of youth, suddenly faced with juggling work and sport. Rena found her way back to years of success and enjoyment in the game. But there are points in life when you have to recognise that change is happening and it's time to make hard decisions.
Rena Buckley will still be involved in her local club and the wider game. This summer, she will be working with the Kellogg's GAA Cúl Camps, getting involved with some of the 140,000 kids around the country who will be playing Gaelic football, hurling and camogie.
As a young girl herself, Rena "idolised" Sonia O'Sullivan, the Cork super-star athlete who was, in many ways, the perfect role model. And she takes the idea of being a role model herself - as a former captain of her county in two codes and the most decorated GAA star of all time - very seriously.
"It's fabulous to see kids getting involved in the GAA, or any sports to be fair," she says. "I know what playing with my local club and for my county did for me, what I have gotten out of the game. If you can pass on some of that love for the game, be someone that kids can look at and think, 'I could do that,' then that's fabulous."
Rena does tend to make light of a title and medal haul that would fill the average team bus. She says she was lucky to be involved in what has been a long, golden age for Cork camogie and football teams that have known (almost) nothing but success.
The golden age may continue, with the Rebel County able to depend on the kind of conveyor-belt of new young talent that the great Kilkenny teams of recent years specialised in.
Rena Buckley, for the first time in a very long time, will be watching from the sideline.
It seems it's now time for her to take back some time for herself, her friends and her family. But even as she opens a new chapter and tries to finally figure out "this work-life balance thing" she won't be straying too far from the pitch.
There will be more than 1,200 Kellogg's GAA Cúl Camps running across the country this summer. For €60, children will take part in a week of activity, nutrition and fun, and take home a training top, jersey and back-pack. Book at kelloggsculcamps.gaa.ie.