Tuesday 24 April 2018

'I wouldn't be here only for camogie' - Cork camogie captain Ashling Thompson on her battle with depression

Ashling Thompson has become a crucial part of Cork’s camogie team
Ashling Thompson has become a crucial part of Cork’s camogie team

Daragh Ó Conchúir

"It was going to go one way or the other for me. It genuinely was."

If it wasn't for camogie, Ashling Thompson isn't sure she would still be with us. That is a jarring admission to hear from a hugely successful athlete who appears to have everything going for her.

The road to recovery has been tortuous at times for the 25-year-old from Newtownshandrum and it is ongoing.

She compares the promotional videos released from the last two launches of the Liberty Insurance Camogie Championship, and this year's Ashling is a different woman.

Indeed, she believes that only now is she realising her potential as a player, feeling freer and more confident than at any time since the car crash in 2009 that plunged her into darkness.

Thompson was ready for the Cork captaincy this year. She is comfortable with her high profile now. It is a profile earned by virtue of her All-Ireland successes at county, club and school level. The tattoos and piercings accentuate her recognisability.

But it is her willingness to be a spokesperson for mental health that really marks her out. This was not about craving limelight. It was about helping. The reaction on social media tells her that she has reached people, helped them.

So she continues to open up, for it serves a dual purpose. It is a cathartic exercise personally but also lets other sufferers know that while they might feel like no-one else is going through what they are, they are not alone.

Cork's Ashling Thompson in action against Ann-Marie Starr, Galway
Cork's Ashling Thompson in action against Ann-Marie Starr, Galway

"I felt it was important to say 'This is what happened to me and I have suffered for many years because of it'. I hope it makes people think 'If she can do it, I can do it'. The reaction was unbelievable," she says.

Thompson was always earmarked for stardom. She captained St Mary's of Charleville to a junior post-primary All-Ireland in 2006 and played as the seniors made it a remarkable double that season. She was a regular at underage level for Cork, but the crash threatened her very existence.

The back and neck injuries might have seemed relatively minor, given that her car was completely written off, but they threatened her ability to play. The horror of that prospect prompted a spiral into depression. She stopped eating. Sleep wouldn't come.

Over time, she returned to the pitch but felt overpowered by negativity. Then Frank Flannery came to Milford as manager. "He got to know me as a person behind the player. I felt like I totally belonged, whereas before. . . attitude, boyfriends, everything was getting in the way," she says.

As she continued to battle her own demons in 2012, Thompson suffered a tragic body blow when her partner committed suicide. It was a devastating shock and she almost shut down.

"I had just come out of recovery from the crash and was back into full swing and then he committed suicide. It was a complete knock and it left me totally vulnerable then again," she says.

"But I stuck at it. I had the girls and I had my management. Because Frank cared about me so much. . . I was at training one day and nobody knew. He told me to sit out because I couldn't even function. He came over and I literally bawled. It was like talking to my father.

"That's why I decided 'This is it for me. If I don't do whatever I can to make myself better - it's do or die now Ashling.'

"I mightn't have been here today only for making that turnover. Because it was going one way or the other for me. It genuinely was."

It was tough love at times but Flannery got the balance right. Because she didn't care what happened to her, she had no discipline. Flannery took her off, kicking and screaming at times, whenever she picked up a yellow card or spoke back to a referee. Over time, she learned.

Milford won their first county championship. The Munster title followed and then the All-Ireland. Having experienced so many setbacks when cloaking herself in negativity, Thompson realised that viewing life in a positive fashion seemed to bring about spectacular results.

She was player of the match when Milford retained the titled 12 months later and in September, starred as Cork got their hands back on the O'Duffy Cup. Clubmate Anna Geary was the skipper and following her retirement, Thompson has inherited the armband.

"I'm a very protective person in general, whether it's family or whatever. So with the Milford girls, I always came across as a leader on the field and the dressing-room, along with a lot of other girls. I was a pure diehard," she says.

"They knew it meant everything to me because Milford was where my recovery started. Three or four years ago I never imagined myself ever being captain. It's crazy to think about it."

She will try to lead by example but has found herself giving speeches now. She is self-deprecating about their content, admitting that her vocabulary might not be Dickensian - she might even use words that make no sense.

Her message is always clear, though, because it comes from the heart. The passion is there for all to see.

With so many established stars having called time on their careers this year or unavailable through other commitments, this is the most inexperienced Cork side in years.

Their presence accentuates Thompson's mothering instinct and in a way, becoming one of the veterans has released some more of the shackles that were holding her back.

"Now I feel like I have to look out for the girls. We really do get on very well. We've great craic. It feels like I'm playing with a club team, like it's a tight-knit family."

The self-employed sports therapist is enthusiastic about the summer, and sees no reason why Cork cannot retain their All-Ireland title, even with the loss of Geary, Jenny O'Leary, Joanne O'Callaghan, Angela Walsh and Co.

They won't take Offaly for granted at Páirc Uí Rinn tomorrow, though. The Faithful only lost by three points to Galway, and defeat here would leave the Leesiders on the precipice of disaster, with Wexford still to play.

"That's how we like it. I'd prefer the tough group. If you're not good enough to come out of it, you're not good enough to win the All-Ireland," says Thompson.

No more bottling things up for Thompson. Good for her and good for Cork.

Irish Independent

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