Wednesday 18 September 2019

Rockett finds inspiration from a sad place after defying the odds

Waterford camogie star Niamh Rockett with her father Eddie Rockett, a former inter-county star with the Déise. Photo: INPHO/Dan Sheridan
Waterford camogie star Niamh Rockett with her father Eddie Rockett, a former inter-county star with the Déise. Photo: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Cathal Dennehy

Truth is, she really shouldn't be here. If Niamh Rockett listened to the experts, those with the qualifications to make an objective judgement on the state of her knee, the 25-year-old would be sitting in the stands in Semple Stadium tomorrow, cheering on Waterford in their All-Ireland quarter-final against Galway.

"I just couldn't stay away," she says. "People say I'm stupid, but I just love playing sport so much."

To understand the odds she has defied, you have to rewind five years to the cataclysmic change in her life - a ho-hum league game up in Meath when her world came crashing down.

Rockett had been plagued by injuries for years and as she ran for a ball she felt one of her knees give way, the resulting collision with a Meath player also leaving her with a concussion. Her kneecap was dislocated and, due to a lack of cartilage behind, it the damage was extensive.

Knees

She didn't run a step for 15 months. "There were so many things wrong with my knees," she says.

Two surgeries followed, one a keyhole procedure and the other a reconstruction of her medial patellofemoral ligament. By the age of 21 it brought to three the number of times her knee had been cut open. "The fake tan doesn't cover the scars," she laughs.

Riddled with arthritis in her knee, she tries every trick in the book to keep things in check - as does her mother. "There was a news article one time that broccoli cures arthritis and (that day) there were six heads of broccoli on the table for me to eat - breakfast, lunch and dinner. (We tried) orthotics, everything: we're after spending a few tens of thousands on my knee."

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Back in 2014, getting healthy was never about returning to camogie. "I'm a PE teacher and it was to have some quality of life, to maintain it and not be limping around," she says.

But there's always someone worse, and in recent years Rockett has kept in mind one person in particular. Caoimhe O'Brien was a student in the school where she teaches - Blackwater Community in Lismore - and a sports fanatic like herself.

One day O'Brien felt knee pain during a football match, which turned out to be a cancerous growth. She soon had to have her leg amputated but, as her condition worsened, the teenager kept the same positive outlook.

"She was so inspirational, she always came into school on crutches and refused to go into a wheelchair - so headstrong," says Rockett. "I just think: how lucky are we that we can go out and play?"

O'Brien passed away last year, and her attitude left a lasting impression on Rockett. "Any time the going gets tough or if I think we should have won that much or if I can't go any more, I think of her," she says.

Rockett returned to camogie in 2015, helping Waterford to the All-Ireland Intermediate title, and things have progressed for the Déise ever since. They reached the All-Ireland quarter-final last year, with Rockett believing nerves got the best of them during that loss to Tipperary.

But that experience should stand to them tomorrow, even if Galway are overwhelming favourites to advance in their Semple Stadium clash.

But regardless of the result, to be back on this stage feels like a victory. Over the years many consultants told Rockett to walk away from camogie, that she would be in a wheelchair by the age of 30 if she continued. But through rigorous rehab and careful, consistent maintenance she has defied their predictions.

"I played every sport since I was able to walk, it's your whole life and then you're told you can't run again, you can't play again - mentally, that's outrageous (to deal with)," she says. "There will be a day the knee will give up, but I'll just keep playing my best until then."

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