'It's nice to know I still have a personality, that I wasn't just a hurler' - Shane O'Donnell on his Harvard stint
Gold streamers decorated the grass on the hallowed turf of Croke Park after Clare defeated Cork in September 2013 to win the Liam MacCarthy Cup. The stadium lights burned brightly as the Clare team enjoyed the final moments of a special day, surrounded by friends and family.
For most players, the occasion will serve as a reminder of their remarkable sporting achievement but for three-goal hero Shane O'Donnell, it isn't as simple as that.
In the aftermath of the victory, he was catapulted into the public eye. His match-winning display combined with his boy band looks and charm made the country stand up and take notice. Everyone wanted to know about the Éire Óg teenager. His face featured on the front and back pages of newspapers and the biggest shows on TV and radio invited him on as a guest.
In the weeks and months that followed, he was regularly mobbed by adoring fans, and on one occasion a Garda escort was required so he could leave a charity match safely. Ultimately, his life totally changed.
"My first thought on 2013 is the pressure I felt after. I didn't enjoy any of the attention after and that's what my mind goes to automatically," O'Donnell explained. "It was great for about three hours, then it was just an unpleasant experience. Everything changed for me, the trajectory of my life changed which is good. I'm very happy with where I am, but I couldn't do anything or go anywhere.
"I don't like being so negative and I don't want to dramatise it. I had some really cool experiences after we won but those experiences weren't worth not being able to live my life as normal. I just didn't enjoy it."
Fast-forward six years. O'Donnell is almost 25 and a lot has changed. He is sitting in the lobby of the Templegate Hotel in Ennis having just attended a Chamber of Commerce event to support Éire Óg. The hurler no longer causes a stir when he walks around Ennis but his friends joke that is because he has signed every jersey in the county.
O'Donnell is appreciative of what the game has given him but is enjoying not being the centre of attention. Like so many, he wants to give back what he can to his club and county. Having just returned from a stint in Harvard University, where he was continuing his PhD in microbiology, there's a renewed hunger for success within him and a deeper appreciation for hurling.
"For the first four months of the six I was there I enjoyed a complete break from hurling. But then I started to go back to it instinctively. I was watching league games and wondering what was happening at home. I was surprised by that because I don't watch games here in Ireland, I would never watch a hurling game. When we get knocked out of championship that is the end of my interest in inter-county hurling for the year, so I was surprised I was getting up early in the morning to watch games.
"If I couldn't find a link I was on Clare FM listening and had Twitter up in front of me. I was becoming that person that you might see in a video online, an estranged expat who hasn't been home for 10 years watching their county play.
"I'd always wondered if I would disappear off the hurling sphere when I stopped. I didn't, and I won't, which is nice to know.
"When I'm here at home I spend so much time hurling and training and I didn't appreciate it because I've had so many years of it. I realise now how much I enjoy it. I appreciate the entire structure with all my friends. I enjoy the tough training and testing yourself and pitting yourself against other people. When you step back from it and then consciously re-engage, it's enjoyable to be aware it's happening."
Harvard was an awakening for O'Donnell. When he arrived he avoided the Irish aspects of Boston. He warned his two Irish friends not to mention hurling and went about immersing himself in different cultures and making new friends.
"For those first few months there I was, just another person, another researcher like them. On a Thursday evening I was able to decide what I was going to do for the weekend and go off and do that and not have constant commitments. I enjoyed not being a hurler, making friends on the back of the person I am. It's nice to know I still have a personality that someone could get on with, that I wasn't just a hurler.
"I eventually told my new friends about hurling and my experiences back home and their take on it gave me a much more positive view on the whole thing because it was removed from everything. It was strictly about the hurling, the achievement itself and what I had done, not about the negative experience that happened after. It gave me pride and it made me embarrassed that I hid it from them."
When O'Donnell revealed he was leaving Clare to go to Harvard the reaction around the county was positive, especially as he would be back in time for championship.The university has such an impressive reputation that there was a huge sense of pride in what O'Donnell had achieved by securing a placement there. But he admits it took a while to understand what makes it so special.
"Harvard has a reputation of being an incredible place. In bricks and mortar it's not that impressive, I was slightly underwhelmed when I went there initially. The facilities are really good in the labs, the equipment, whatever you need done will be done, there are no funding issues. But when you are walking around Harvard Yard or trying to get to the epicentre of Harvard, it is underwhelming.
"Then I realised after a few months that it is the people in the college, the researchers you meet and all the people in the labs that make Harvard what it is and I started to realise that it really is an incredible place. The way the people think is so impressive, it's great to be around that and the ambitiousness of them is off the charts. They don't think anything is impossible. It's contagious and a really enjoyable environment to be in. Harvard is more about the people than the buildings and infrastructure."
While there, he kept himself fit by going to the gym and in the lead-up to his homecoming he practised his hurling as much as he could. The cold weather and lack of a training partner didn't help, but he worked hard to be ready for club and county.
O'Donnell has always had a wide variety of interests away from sport. He's a big fan of computer games and as a kid played competitive chess. He was in a club with his three brothers and they spent a lot of their youth trying to out-smart each other. Sport was always down the pecking order; along with hurling O'Donnell played a bit of rugby when he was young and although he attended training, he never informed his parents of the weekend games so he wouldn't have to go.
He never supported a team but did have a sporting idol - former Clare hurler Barry Nugent. There's comfort in that for O'Donnell because although he's not a sports fan he knows what it's like for the kids who idolise him.
Championship is just around the corner and beating Waterford in their opening game is top of the agenda for O'Donnell. There's a fear within the county of their 2013 winning team being a one-hit wonder and of his generation not fulfilling their potential on the pitch. O'Donnell is cognisant of that, more so now than ever.
"It's a competitive championship but there is always a belief that anything is possible. I'm really excited, especially because I missed so much of the league and I was watching those games and I was jealous of the guys playing. I want to perform and I'm looking forward to it. I perform best under pressure so I'm trying to find new ways to put myself under pressure, like knowing my new American and French friends will be watching it."
A new season awaits and a new challenge for the reluctant but undeniable star.
Sunday Indo Sport