Wednesday 21 February 2018

‘Some people write it down or keep journals — I write it on myself’

Camogie star Ashling Thompson has gained strength from adversity, writes Aisling Crowe

Ashling Thompson: 'Everybody has been through something traumatic in their lives.' Photo: Don Moloney / Press 22
Ashling Thompson: 'Everybody has been through something traumatic in their lives.' Photo: Don Moloney / Press 22

Aisling Crowe

Ashling Thompson has been soaked to the bone by the heavy downpours that rained upon her 
following a day five years ago, when that which came together fell apart.

'Life's a game but it's not fair, I break the rules but I don't care, So I keep doin' my own thing, Walkin' tall against the rain, Victory's within the mile, Almost there, don't give up now.' - 'Run This Town', Rihanna

Not with the slow imperceptible pace that Buddha taught. When things fell apart for Thompson, it was with all the horrifying force of a car ploughing into the back of her vehicle at 60mph.

One moment the Cork camogie star was sitting in her car, stationary outside her home. The next she was unconscious and when she woke up the neck and back injuries she suffered left a scar on her psyche. Unable to eat because of the trauma, she no longer had the strength to play the game that consumed her life.

In a halting voice, the 24-year-old recalls the dark clouds that never seemed to part to let sunlight through and the questions nobody could answer for her. "When you're playing sport since you were six or seven you can't understand, 'Why can't I play? Why does this have to happen to me?' It was utter devastation."

Her whole world and her family life is inextricably tied to sport. Her mother coached her at underage camogie, her father and her two brothers hurl for Newtownshandrum. Thompson excelled across many sports - camogie, football, athletics, soccer and basketball. Precocious and a fierce competitor, sport enriched her life until the moment when everything came to a sudden and violent halt.

Three years of frustration followed the accident, the pain of attending training sessions and the agony of watching from the sideline. Then Frank Flannery walked into through the doors of Milford camogie club and Thompson and the team would be changed utterly.

By simply understanding there was a person behind the player, and through realising that Thompson was suffering, Flannery parted the clouds and let the light shine on the passionate sports fan again. It's not possible for every coach to have such a startling effect but she believes coaches and managers have to realise players are people and although they dedicate their lives to the games they play, what happens in the world outside the four white lines can have a huge bearing on the games played between those lines.

The sports injury management graduate credits her Milford club's former manager with the final and hardest stage of rehabilitation and helping her arrive in a place that led back to the Cork senior team. Flannery took a side that had been beaten in a county final and a player who had been badly buffered by fate all the way to the All-Ireland crown in 2012. When he had to move on, James McGrath continued to lead them in the same direction and a second successive title. Three in a row is the aim for this year.

Mental health is the crisis this country refuses to confront head on. The GAA and GPA are attempting to fill a void they shouldn't have to fill. In light of her own experiences and suffering, Thompson, who hopes to gain a scholarship to Limerick IT to study sports nutrition or coaching, believes women should be offered the same supports to help them through whatever problems they may be faced with.

"There is nothing similar for women and there should be. There is definitely a need for it. Everybody has been through something traumatic in their lives. I've had a few traumatic experiences myself in the past and I think it is a massive thing. We are all equal, we are all human beings, we all go through similar things at times.

"People don't know what goes on behind closed doors and people would probably be absolutely shocked to hear of what some people go through. I think that it is a massive thing because if you're not mentally right in a game you are not going to play right, no matter how good you are. I'm a passionate believer in that."

This is not the only area Thompson sees inequality. As the daughter of a two-time All-Ireland winning Cork ladies' footballer, it is a battleground she knows has a long history.

"It's not an attitude reserved for camogie - it's every sport across the board that women play. I just don't think it is fair. We put all our time into it, it's a full-time job and our lives go into it so we definitely deserve the same respect back. We are all human beings and we all should be treated the same."

The story of her life is not locked away in a journal, stashed under the bed. It is written on her body - not just in the scars she bears from injury but inscribed in ink. Tattoos adorn her, and deciphering the meaning behind each symbol unlocks the code. The external reveals the internal.

A definite number eludes her but she thinks the tattoos number 10 or 11. The most visible and most prominent is an eye-catching sparrow on her left arm, intertwined with a flower and butterflies for her mother and two older brothers. A couple of stars have been added for her nephews. That tattoo was born out of the adversity of the crash and the devastation it wreaked on her life.

"Each one tells a story, they are not just there for the sake of it. Some people keep a journal or write it down, I write it on myself. That was part of the car crash - starting over, getting through the hard times. Turning over a new leaf and hopefully keeping it that way."

But she draws strength from it too. "If I look down at my arm if I'm in a bad place or even if I'm not playing well, I always look down and think, 'Keep it fresh, this is your time so make the most of it because life is very short.' I always look down and it reminds me to keep going and do the best I can."

The lash extensions are as permanent a feature of her identity as the tattoos. Without them, she feels exposed, undressed, so under her helmet they are a part of her match-day armour. She breaks the rules we have for our female sports stars. Society created an image of how women in sport should look but with her body art and false lashes, allied to her gift for hurling, Thompson challenges those assumptions of how camogie players should look.

"I love fashion. I love clothes. Rihanna would definitely be my main fashion icon. I love the way she is just different, an individual and doesn't care what anyone thinks. I think that's a good way to be - being yourself and being comfortable with that. It's how I lead my life. I'm comfortable with who I am and if people want to accept me that's okay, and if they don't that's okay also." .

Like her idol, Ashling Thompson is walking tall against the rain, doing her own thing.

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