Monday 27 May 2019

Fit-again Frazer desperate to make new Ireland memories

Megan Frazer was a teen star at cricket and soccer but admits to preferring hockey because it challenged her more
Megan Frazer was a teen star at cricket and soccer but admits to preferring hockey because it challenged her more

Cliona Foley

Megan Frazer is still haunted by the moment. In her mind's eye the Irish hockey midfielder can still see it unfolding in slow-motion.

It is June 2015 and she is one-on-one with the Chinese goalkeeper in a shoot-out to decide qualification for the Rio Olympics. China are ranked seventh in the world and Ireland 14th, yet they've had them on the ropes, just failed to capitalise on a dozen penalty corners and seen a late Frazer goal disallowed after video review.

The score after five penalties each (she scored one) is 3-3 and now it's sudden death.

Hockey penalties are no longer straight flicks. The attacker starts with the ball on the 23-metre line and has eight seconds to score. It is a moment of psychological warfare between you and a padded giant and, as Ireland's specialist drag flicker, Frazer was first up.

She dribbled forward, faked once and then went for her shot . . . she can still see the ball hitting the inside edge of the right post and deflecting out. China scored first time up. Olympic dream shattered. Witnesses say Frazer physically shook with the shock.

Seven months later the team returned to train at the very same venue in Valencia.

"Even walking back onto the pitch again, half of us were in tears. People will think 'it's just sport, like, get over it' but . . ." Frazer muses, her voice and concentration trailing away.

How did you put it behind you?

"A few too many drinks," she murmurs, confessing it was a full year before she could even speak of it. "We all kind of went our separate ways, had a bit of time apart and I was a bit unprofessional with my diet and stuff. I was just so disappointed and unmotivated."

It was the nadir of her hockey career yet things, personally, would get a lot worse, as revealed by the scatter of scars on her right knee.

For Ireland, the pain of that Olympic heartbreak has been exorcised by qualifying for their first World Cup in 16 years, which started gleefully in London's Lee Valley hockey centre yesterday with a shock 3-1 victory against the US, Frazer getting game-time after starting on the bench.

It was just as well too because there have been plenty of times where Frazer must surely have thought she was cursed. The golden child of Irish women's hockey a decade ago is now a 27-year-old with a tiny nose stud and a soft Derry accent. She was a teen star at cricket and football and was part of Northern Ireland's under 17 soccer squad, but admits to preferring hockey because it challenged her more.

Her school - Foyle and Londonderry College - had no hockey success before or since but, in her senior year, they won the Ulster Senior Cup, and she won Player of the Tournament when they lost the All-Ireland final.

She played senior for Ballymoney and Ireland before her A-levels and went straight to a scholarship in the University of Maryland, the same college as ex-Irish captain Lindsey McVicker.

The campus was "one third the size of Derry and terrifying and horrible the first few weeks because I was 18 and it was my first time away from home."

But she quickly loved it and the feeling was reciprocated when she helped the Terapins to two NCAA titles in four years and won a national Player of the Year trophy, scoring the winner in one final with two minutes left in double over-time.

Little wonder her teammates' parents half-adopted her, constantly feeding and hugging her at post-match tailgate parties and sending her 'care packages' during exams.

She returned to do a post-grad in bio-medical engineering in UUJ and picked up some work as a coach but, in Ireland, she says that is "definitely not a sustainable lifestyle unless you can get into a good school. Even then, it's just 'hours' after school. You can't coach nine-to-five."

In August 2016 Frazer joined Mannheimer HC in Germany's semi-pro league but three months later came another moment seared into her brain.

"Ach God, sure I'll never forget it. Tuesday the 18th of October at 8.47pm, in the last 15 minutes of training. I tore the ACL, the MCL and lateral meniscus. The 'Unhappy Trio', as they call them."

Some players return from cruciate surgery within six months but, at that point, Frazer still didn't have full extension of her knee. An MRI revealed scar tissue on the ACL, so more surgery was needed in March 2017, and still she wasn't right.

For every step forward in her rehab at Northern Ireland's Sport Institute (SINI) there were often two or three back.

Last year, when her teammates were qualifying for the World Cup by winning the World League Two and then crucially beating India in World League Three, she was still in the horrors of a lonely and endlessly-frustrating rehab.

She didn't run for a full 13 months. "When you're used to legging it around the pitch for years, that's hard," she says.

The mental anguish was almost tougher than the physical stuff, and when she did resume running last January there was still pain and swelling, but two more MRIs showed nothing and she returned to Mannheim.

The German season is September to October, followed by a big indoor league and then outdoors again from April to June. The club was patient and supportive but up to six weeks ago she was still in pain.

So she had a third surgery in early June to remove more scar tissue and bone fragments which seems to have finally worked. She managed to get in four games before Mannheim's season ended, culminating in a league semi-final.

She hadn't played for Ireland since July 2016 so her return "is all a bit last-minute". Yet insiders say that having even a half-fit Frazer is worth the gamble for national coach Graham Shaw. She got game-time in friendlies against Chile and Italy in the past fortnight before yesterday's welcome appearance against the US. Ireland play India on Thursday and their final group game is a 15,000 sell-out against Olympic champions England next Sunday.

Frazer echoes the team mantra: "We have the ability to beat anyone on our day. I think England will be really frustrated to not beat us by a lot, so that will be the plan, to frustrate them."

She's diving back into the deep end but to a team that is no longer overly dependent on her. "There's four quarters of 15 minutes so, as players, you're rotated so much more and expect to be busted when you come off," she notes. "You have to be really dynamic and versatile now as a player because of the movement and intensity."

Getting out of their group is Ireland's immediate ambition but not the summit of it. And when this chapter is over, Frazer faces a new one of her own.

"I'm going back to study physiotherapy in UUJ in September," she reveals with a grin. "I found my recovery so interesting that now I want to study it!"

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