A LOT has changed in a year for Jennifer O’Leary.
In January, she was one of many high-profile Cork camogie players to retire, with four All-Ireland medals, six league titles and eight All-Stars to her name. But she, more than anyone, was the biggest star of all.
From Lislevane in west Cork, O’Leary settled with her husband in Armagh and spent last season commuting 240 miles to training. It was a struggle at times, but things would only get tougher.
In May, O’Leary’s mother, Kathleen, passed away, and five months later – just three weeks before the All-Ireland final against Kilkenny – her sister, Paula, unexpectedly passed away also.
But, O’Leary dug deep for those around her. For her family, her friends and for her teammates.
“It was a blur really, but camogie was my saving grace. It was a distraction because I knew how much it meant to everyone else, so I felt it would be totally wrong if I didn’t play in the final.
“Afterwards, when everything settled down, it hits you again but, when you’re in that moment, you just try and make the most of what you’re dealt with, and that’s the way I looked at it.
“It was an awful time, but I used it too as a determination and an inspiration to just give it everything because I knew it was going to be my last year. I knew too that Paula and my mum would be looking down and would be driving me on, so I just had to go out and play,” added the 31-year-old teacher.
STRENGTH THROUGH STRUGGLE
She wasn’t the only one with a cross to bare, and on the morning of the 2014 All-Ireland final, that was addressed by selector Matthew Twomey from Douglas. After breakfast, he produced a wristband for each member of the panel, upon which ‘Strength through Struggle’ was written. They were in this together, and when they trailed by five points at half-time later that afternoon, Twomey reminded them in the dressing room of the words imprinted on the wristband.
“Matthew had explained the motto and how everyone had their own struggle to be there that day, and how we each had our own story. At half-time it reminded us that we were in it together, because those words spoke true for so many people in that room. It really was very powerful.”
In the second-half, Cork proceeded to score 1-5 without reply, with O’Leary’s goal igniting the comeback which would see Paudi Murray’s side win 2-12 to 1-9.
On Sunday, O’Leary will be in Croke Park again, but this time she’ll be sitting in the stands.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss it, especially the build-up. But, I’m really looking forward to going in as a spectator. I really enjoyed my time playing with Cork, but there comes a time when you’re relieved not to have to deal with the hype and pressure any more.
“It’s going to be very close because Galway tend to try and slow things down and they’ll be trying to do that to counteract Cork’s pace up front. But, if Cork keep their spacing and stick to the plan, I think they’ll have the upperhand.”
September 12, 2015