Old wars still being fought as O'Leary comes full circle
Clare dual star believes camogie, ladies football and GAA need to unite under one umbrella body
Every few months the number of girls dropping out of sport at a young age is highlighted in the public sphere, discussed and bemoaned. But there are few solutions offered to stem the flow or even voices heard from female athletes who have been down the dropout road but found their way back.
Clare dual star Carol O'Leary is one of those players who took time out from elite sport in her late teens. But she returned to play at inter-county level and has never looked back, still lining out at the top level almost a decade later.
"I left the Clare senior camogie panel soon after joining it; I just wasn't enjoying it, I'd started college and I lost my way a bit," explains O'Leary.
"I didn't know what my priorities were at the time. I went from not going out after my Leaving Cert results because I had no interest, to going to college and having no life balance.
"It's really hard when you are young and not confident in what you are doing and you don't think you are going to be the best player. Away from that you are trying to be all things to all people. I ended up failing first year in college too.
"I was surrounding myself with people who had totally different aims and goals than what I had, and because I wasn't true to myself I didn't know what I wanted. I was probably a bit naive and I just went along with it.
"I realised that I needed to think about what was important to me and ask am I surrounding myself with the right people."
Although at that time she wasn't playing at inter-county level, O'Leary kept playing with her club and they won the county senior camogie title and intermediate football championship. She was asked onto the Clare football panel and that was the turning point for her.
"I went from being all about the crack to wanting to be something and to be competitive. Getting on the Clare football team was the first step for me to finding out who I was and what I wanted to be," she says.
"I remember going to the first football training, it was spinning class. I knew one person and I puked in the bathroom. I thought, 'What am I doing here?' but thankfully I stuck with it. I went on to get a 1:1 degree, one of the highest results in the year and went on to become a science teacher. I loved my course but in that first year I just wasn't in the right mindset."
O'Leary's introduction to sport came at an early age: her father coached the under 12 camogie team in her club Newmarket-on-Fergus and she tagged along to training. It wasn't long before she was lining out first for the club and then for the Clare team. While representing her county in a primary schools game, she was put in at corner-back and she has never budged, playing there for every grade at underage level and also senior.
A couple of years after leaving the Clare camogie panel, O'Leary was asked back in. John Carmody was the manager and very quickly the team went from not winning a match at senior level to winning the Munster 'A' championship. Clare camogie was in a good place; however, a dip in form followed and there were some barren years. But they are out the other side again and drawing with All-Ireland champions Kilkenny a couple of weeks ago is a testament to that.
"Everyone is saying well done and it's annoying because we wanted to beat them, and while everyone is congratulating us, we aren't finished yet. It was a great result but we conceded some simple scores that we weren't happy with. We have a job to do against Galway next. We have to win if we want to get out of our group."
Next Saturday when the Clare camogie team are approaching half-time in their crucial game against Galway, the ball will be thrown in at Páirc Uí Chaoimh as the Banner hurlers take on Tipperary in the All-Ireland hurling quarter-final. It's another example of the lack of joined-up thinking that frustrates the girls involved.
"We are playing our do-or-die game on Saturday. My own family would love to support the Clare hurlers but they will be in Ennis to support me," says O'Leary. "When there are so few games in the championships it's disappointing that they can't fix them at different times."
Of course it's not the first time there has been fixture clashes that have frustrated O'Leary. In 2015, Clare's Munster football final was scheduled for the same time as the first round of the camogie championship, forcing her and three other dual players to choose between their teams. "I was asked yesterday what my worst moment was, and I've lost enough finals to beat the band, but my worst moment was definitely that day when I was forced to pick between my football and camogie team," O'Leary says.
"It was tough and terrible and I couldn't prepare well because there was so much going on. We were training eight times a week, it was so frustrating. I picked the football and we lost to Waterford by two points.
"These things don't help keep girls playing and involved. It's so disappointing when you see under 21 championship games being played in November - the most dedicated player in the country doesn't want to play then, or minor championship played before the Leaving Cert. None of these things help."
Venues are always a problem for teams, but Clare are working hard to secure and sustain their own ground. They train in a pitch just outside Ennis; development work is ongoing there as dressing rooms and a clubhouse are being constructed and they hoping that it will get to a standard where they can play games there.
"It's great to have access to Fr Mac field and Clare County Board have been doing great work to get it for us," says O'Leary. "Having that facility is the next step for us. If we want Clare camogie to be able to compete with the top teams, we have to have the resources and facilities available to us. It would be nice to have a home, for our confidence and identity.
"It's great that our county board has that vision; while we are building for now and want to be competitive now, we are also building for the future. It will be great for games like club county finals, there hasn't been a county final played in Cusack Park since around 2010."
As it stands, camogie, ladies football and the GAA are all separate associations so there is limited communication at the top level and even less joined-up thinking. Issues with fixtures and venues are commonplace and the gulf in player welfare between male and female players is huge.
O'Leary, who juggles being a teacher and a farmer, is involved as a player and coach in her club, and also as an administrator in the men's and women's side of Newmarket-on-Fergus GAA. She would like to see all the associations come together under the one umbrella.
"We have a lot of the same people involved in the different clubs and we have the same values," she says. "All the girls who play on our football team play on our camogie team, except Chloe Morey who plays for Sixmilebridge. It would decrease a lot of the issues and clashes that we see all the time."
Since the WGPA formed in 2015, it's helped improve the situation for the players on the ground in terms of player welfare but there is still a long way to go. The recent government grants issued to county panels have been of massive benefit.
"Each county panel got €8,000, so we had access to sports psychologists, to nutritionists, strength and conditioning coaches, great facilities like tracks," says O'Leary. "Some teams might take these things for granted but they weren't things we had access to because of limited funding."
As one of the older players on the Clare squad, O'Leary feels a responsibility to speak out and represent the next generation. She's come full circle herself by sharing her story others will undoubtedly be inspired to never give up. O'Leary has made her mark.
Carol O'Leary is the first player this year to feature in the WGPA's #BehindThePlayer series, which explores the lives of players both on and off the field of play. See Carol's video profile at www.wgpa.ie or on WGPA social media channels
Sunday Indo Sport