Comeback Girl

Advice from Clare GAA star after cruciate injury and chasing a spot on Ireland's Olympic hockey team

Naomi Carroll talks to The42 about her comeback from the dreaded knee injury.

LAST UPDATE | Apr 6th 2020, 9:30 PM

CLARE DUAL STAR Naomi Carroll was on her way to undergo surgery for a torn cruciate when she was informed that it had been cancelled.

pamela-mackey-tackles-naomi-carroll Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO Naomi Carroll in action for the Clare camogie team. Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO / INPHO

The secondary school teacher suffered the dreaded knee injury while in action for the Clare ladies in the 2018 All-Ireland intermediate quarter-final against Meath.

It happened shortly after she was sprung from the bench. She tried to round an opponent with a sidestep before an awkward movement sent her to the turf. There was no major pain at the time, but something didn’t feel right to her.

“I felt my knee buckle,” she recalls to The42. ”It clicked out and clicked back in and fell to the floor like a sack of spuds.”

After getting some treatment on the pitch, Carroll tried to play on. But her knee refused to stop buckling and so she withdrew herself from the game.

The initial X-ray failed to show any tear on her ACL. There was some suspicion of medial damage but a two to three week lay-off was the expected recovery time. 

It was only after having an MRI on her knee that the true extent of the damage was uncovered. A physio warned her that a separate test showed evidence of a torn cruciate but it was the result of the MRI that really cemented the diagnosis.

Having already come through that setback, Carroll now had to face another delay in overcoming her injury.

“I was all ready to go, dressed in my gown,” Carroll says, remembering the moments before her surgery was called off.

“So there were two different reasons [it couldn't go ahead]. The anaesthetist wasn’t happy with it because there wasn’t enough prehab done and the different medications.

I found out on my way down to surgery. That was worse than doing the cruciate.

“I’m a secondary school teacher and I have a great relationship with work. I needed the two weeks [off] because that’s what they recommend after it and they got a sub in for the two weeks.

“My Mam is my rock and she came up and I was coming down in the car saying, ‘how am I going to explain this?’ So I had to ring the principal and they were incredibly understanding and I’m letting down the whole school and this poor substitute.

“It had a knock-on effect for everything else.”

naomi-carroll-and-xantal-gine Presseye / Rowland White/INPHO Carroll on the ball for Ireland in a 2016 friendly. Presseye / Rowland White/INPHO / Rowland White/INPHO

Carroll was proficient in a few different sports growing up. Football and camogie were always in her life while she has also represented Ireland in both soccer and hockey.

After deciding to focus on hockey in 2017, she missed out on making the Ireland squad who reached the World Cup final the following year. It was certainly unfortunate for her to lose out, but she attended the homecoming as the nation celebrated their silver medal heroes.

The timing of that disappointment, coupled with the sequence of setbacks in her cruciate injury, left Carroll struggling to see how she could get her sporting career back on track.

“At the time, I kept telling myself I was being dramatic. Everything was so bad and so hard. My family were brilliant and were really careful in trying not to talk about my knee and not to talk about hockey and definitley not to talk about the surgery.

They tried to spur me on and keep me going and remind me of everything. But I was training five or six days a week and everything revolved around sport in some way. For them to talk about different things was very hard.”

Like any extensive injury, the light at the end of the tunnel eventually emerges. And Carroll encountered a few things along the way that sustained her through the recovery.

Her family bought her a puppy named Charlie while she also started working with life coach, Marian Byrne. In addition, she had an important conversation with Clare All-Ireland winner — and fellow dual star — Podge Collins.

The pair met in a gym in Cratloe when Carroll was feeling particularly disillusioned about her situation. Collins had endured ACL pain himself in the past, and was able to give her some advice about how to prepare herself for the rearranged surgery.

“He was brilliant,” she says of Collins. “I was really down and so disappointed. He kind of said, ‘it’s a blessing in disguise.’ He did the six weeks prehab and he said coming out the other side you’re confident that you’ve done everything you can and it actually speeds up the recovery and getting your muscles back.

He just gave me a different perspective of it because going into the gym that day, I was thinking, ‘what’s the point?’ Maybe I’ll just leave it off. And he went through different exercises with me that he had done. He was brilliant and he helped me come up with a plan for the six weeks coming up to it [surgery] then and it was brilliant.

“I played with him when I was younger and my physio said Podge had done it [the cruciate] before. [His father] Colm Collins would have coached me before as well.

podge-collins James Crombie / INPHO Clare star forward Podge Collins. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

The surgery eventually took place in October of 2018, and by the following September, Carroll was back playing club football and camogie.

She also picked up the hockey stick again to represent the Limerick-based club, Catholic Institute. They secured promotion the EY Hockey League [EYHL] last season and a fully fit Carroll was helping them retain their place in the league this year.

She was also making great strides towards making the Ireland squad who made history last November by qualifying for their first-ever Olympics.

After making the Ireland indoor squad, she was invited to a few training sessions with the outdoor squad. That firmly puts her in the shop window for Olympic selection.

Carroll was in Donnybrook’s Energia Park for that sensational two-legged Olympic qualifier victory over Canada that was settled by a dramatic sudden death shootout. While she was proud of Ireland’s achievement, she was equally eager to book a spot on the plane to the Tokyo Games.

“It was class to be there but when you’re watching you just want to be involved,” says a determined Carroll.

Of course, all of Carroll’s ambitions in sport are on hold for the moment due to the coronavirus. The 2020 Olympics has been postponed until 2021. And on the day we chat, she is supposed to be arriving home from a training camp in South Africa.

The impact of Covid-19 also means that Carroll, who is a Maths and Irish teacher at Gaelcholáiste Luimnigh, is working from home at the moment. She has Junior Cert and Leaving Cert classes on her timetable.

“It’s difficult for everybody but I’m lucky that I just have myself whereas the people with families at home, they have an awful lot to do. It is definitely more demanding than it is going in and doing your day job.

“We’ve had huge support from our management and we’ve had meetings at the same time.”

Hockey is Carroll’s main focus at the moment, but she still has a strong connection with the Clare football and camogie squads. She even starred in some promotional camogie videos by Littlewoods Ireland recently.

“Some of the students and teachers have seen it and that’s our aim,” Carroll says about the positive impact of those videos.

“It’s around that age that the drop-off starts so if we can keep the ball rolling and keep them playing, that’s a huge part of it.”

The rest of her sporting calendar remains unclear for 2020. But having an extra to fight for a place on the Ireland squad could turn out to be a real blessing for Carroll.

“I’ve a really good relationship with both of the coaches with Clare. They understand that obviously 2020 is an Olympic year and they knew how hard I worked to get back fit and to even have a chance to be seen, so they’ve both been really supportive of that.

“Training towards that has been my goal and they see how important that is.

“When I was injured, I was taking everything to heart. If training didn’t go right or a match didn’t go right, I’d be quite right.

 ”Whereas now I’m thinking, ‘you’d have given your right arm to be able to do this now.’ So keep going along and keep enjoying the process and you’ll improve.”

Dual camogie & Irish hockey player Naomi Carroll was speaking after starring in Littlewoods Ireland Style Meets Substance Short Film – ‘Sporting Sisters’

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