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'It's more than an All-Star, it's recognition of years of heartbreak' - Rockett's difficult road to the top

As a teenager, the Waterford ace was diagnosed with arthritis and told she would be in a wheelchair by the age of 30.

NIAMH ROCKETT WAS once told she’d be in a wheelchair by the age of 30 if she continued to play sport at the rate she did.

Two weeks ago, at the age of 28, the Waterford camogie captain won her first All-Star and was officially recognised as one of the best players in the country.

Niamh Rockett & Mary O'Donovan Niamh Rockett (left) with her fellow Arthritis Ireland Don't Give Up campaign ambassador, Mary O’Donovan. Source: Arthritis Ireland.

Living with arthritis, Rockett’s inspiring story and rollercoaster road to the top is well documented at this stage, but for those unaware, we’ll take a quick look back first.

Rockett was a prodigious talent, playing hockey, soccer, football and camogie as a youngster, and starring in all four codes through her teenage years. At the age of 15, she was called up to the Déise inter-county team, having enjoyed club success with her beloved St Anne’s. It was indeed her club manager who noticed her running with a limp, and the uphill battle started from there.

A doctors’ visit led to keyhole surgery and a recommendation to have both of her knees broken and realigned. Then came the arthritis diagnosis, and the “wheelchair by 30″ warning. She was just 16 at the time.

“Obviously I was very, very upset,” Rockett picks up the story, speaking to The42 to mark Arthritis Ireland’s Don’t Give Up campaign. “I soldiered on for another little while bandaged up.” She saw chiropractors, physiotherapists, specialists; anything to avoid surgery.

A severe collision in a 2014 league match against Meath in Navan stopped her in her tracks, her entire world coming crashing down in one moment between a devastating kneecap injury and concussion, which left her sidelined for 14 months. 21 then, she knew she had to tackle it all head on.

“I knew my knee was getting worse and when I went to the doctor that time, he told me, ‘Look, you’re diagnosed with arthritis now, there’s no cartilage behind your kneecap, it’s just bone on bone.’ He advised me to give up sport. That in my profession as a PE teacher, it just wouldn’t suffice and I wouldn’t be able to do what I wanted to do.”

But pain is no barrier for Rockett.

She defied all odds and powered on after going under the knife.

A standout player for Waterford through the few years, she’s captained her county with pride of late, and hit new heights in 2020. Rockett scored 3-4 from play and produced several impressive performances as the Déise reached the All-Ireland quarter-final stages.

She was recognised with her first All-Star, and Waterford’s third — Beth Carton and Lorraine Bray are the previous winners — two weeks ago, making for an unforgettable night.

With celebrations in full flow at home, it was a proud evening, and the award was made all the sweeter given her story and what she, and those around her, have gone through together.

“We had bottles of champagne flowing,” she grins. “Every one of my family and my friends have some part to play in my success.

“I wouldn’t see the All-Star as an individual accolade, I kind of see it as a thank you nearly to all my friends and family that have done so much to me over the years, whether it was my father bringing me around, he’d travel the length and breadth of the country to be at every single game, match, challenge match, anything. He’s just been my number one supporter.

“My mother, who has been there for me when I couldn’t sleep at night, when I was up all night with pains in my knee. Bringing me to the doctor, driving me to the gym, here, there and everywhere. All my sisters and my brother as well, they just supported me so much, and they always were the first person to put the hand around the shoulder if you had a disappointment and the first person to congratulate me when I won something.

“It’s the things behind closed doors that people don’t see, they might just see Niamh getting an All-Star and that it’s brilliant because of her injury, but it’s everything that all my family and my friends did. Jesus, I wouldn’t have ever got anywhere near it only for I have such positive people around me.”

At that moment, the memories come flooding back. She recalls several conversations with her Mam suggesting that she give it all up.

She remembers living on College Road while studying in Cork, and a 15-minute walk taking her 40 on crutches after surgery, with her stitches opening and bandages destroyed, in absolute misery. “Niamh, is this worth it? Is it really going to be worth it in the long-term?” her understandably worried, but always supportive, mother would ask. 

Rockett persisted, her deep love for camogie shining through as she exhausted all avenues in the hope she would have no regrets in her career, confident in the knowledge she tried everything and gave her best. Her mam, and everyone else around her, backed her each and every step of the way.

“My mother and my father, they had split up but they’d be ringing each other constantly discussing my knee and what was best for me. She came back to me at one stage and goes, ‘Look Niamh, I really think you should give up sport. This is no way to be living. You’re so upset and you’re so down.’

“It’s that kind of thing, when you’re at home and you’re crying in bed, your knee is throbbing and no one can help you, that people don’t see. They see the success, they don’t see that.

“I have obviously captained the Waterford team and winning the junior All-Ireland and intermediate All-Ireland was absolutely brilliant, some of my favourite moments, but it’s so nice to have an individual accolade to go home and show my parents and say, ‘Look, it was worth it. I got there in the end.’ If I never win anything again, just to have that there for them is brilliant.

“Your family and friends and boyfriend make so many sacrifices and they’re so happy for you. It means so much to me, it’s more than nearly an All-Star, it’s recognition of years of heartbreak and to get it was just unbelievable. I think it was the chocolate on top!”

She has good days and bad days with arthritis, but thankfully, has learned to manage it more, and has been guided along the way by physio duo Kenny Murphy and Declan O’Sullivan, both of whom she can’t speak highly enough of.

Lockdowns have been difficult with gyms closed, as she’d do three or four separate sessions away from training to help her through. She took to running the roads, like many others, the day before we spoke, which proved a bad decision.

“The knee just swelled up straight away and it hadn’t done that in a few months,” she frowned. “I didn’t get much sleep now last night. “But then again, I mightn’t get any problems for another couple of weeks or months, touch wood.”

Exercise has been so important as Rockett manages her condition, and she’s keen to get that message across.

A lot of people may think that those with arthritis can’t play sport, but she’s living proof that they most certainly can — even though it didn’t feel like it at the start.

“I would have been very sad and really down at the time when I did get diagnosed with it because sport is my whole life, my whole identity. I felt that there was so much more I had to give to sport, and a lot of pressure — I suppose mentally as well when people are bigging you up to be the next best player, the next big thing, you’re on south-east teams for soccer and Munster team for hockey, and that’s just whipped from underneath you.

“It was very, very hard. My father played, my brother player for county teams, I really wanted to push myself and see how much could I do or how much could I get through. My boyfriend says that I have such a high tolerance for pain, that I’m just numb.

“I’d have to be really, really, really bad [to complain]. I think that’s when people think, ‘Jesus, she’s really, really bad now when Niamh is saying there’s something wrong with her.’

“Yeah, it is really manageable. There can be tough days and it can be really, really hard, but thankfully I’ve had a lot of success playing for Waterford so I don’t think I’ll ever regret it.”

Source: Arthritis Ireland/YouTube

She’s delighted to be that role model for Mary O’Donovan — her fellow ambassador for this campaign, a Leaving Cert student and club player who was diagnosed at just 13 — and others.

“Just talking to Mary, it meant so much to her that there’s someone else out there that she knows that has arthritis and is playing.

“When I was diagnosed, the doctor told me there were only two people in the world with my type of knee problem. Other people had arthritis, other people were playing sport, other people weren’t, but there were only two people in the world with my specific knee problem. I felt so alone that I couldn’t talk to anyone or didn’t know anyone else [with the condition].”

When asked if she had any advice for her younger self, Rockett has no shortage of it: Push yourself, as you did, but try and be more positive and optimistic. Enjoy every minute of your sporting career, you never know what could happen.

“One other thing that kind of makes me sad looking back is how sad and alone and just down I was,” she adds. “I’d distance myself from my friends and from my team-mates.

“I’d always say just keep in contact with your friends, open up and talk about it if you are feeling down or a bit sad. I know at this stage of my career now I have enjoyed a lot of success and I have captained Waterford but there’s a lot of years where I struggled, and struggled with coming to terms with it.

“If I knew then what would happen, it would have been a lot easier but I wouldn’t have been dwelling on it too much. Just open up and talk to other people, I spent years where I just didn’t say anything to anyone, which was tough physically and mentally.”

At the peak of her powers in both senses now, the newly-crowned all star is ready to go again with Waterford in 2021. As Gaelic games folk across the length and breadth of the country await the green light, Rockett can’t wait to get back at it under new management.

niamh-rockett Rockett at a Camogie Associaition shoot in 2019. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

She pays a glowing tribute to each and every one of her team-mates, confident they can come back stronger and go further than last year, always aiming to build on the excellent progress made recently.

The plan is to push on, the dream is to one day lift the O’Duffy Cup.

Rockett, more than anyone, knows that persistence pays off. Never say never.

“I think it’s all of our dreams to win a senior camogie All-Ireland,” she concludes. “That would be just the pinnacle. I said it before in an interview that myself and Claire Whyte would have the junior, intermediate and senior, and there would be a search party out for us, I’d say.

“If we won the senior All-Ireland, I think we would actually just go missing. We’d just give up. I’d tell my mother then, ‘Yeah, look, I’ll retire now Mam, I’ve done it now!’

“That would be brilliant, and just recognition for the girls. They’re such a phenomenal group and it was such an honour to captain them because they are such a brilliant group.

“I’d love to see the recognition for some more players for how good they are. I know the Corks, Galways, Tipperarys and Kilkennys, they’re all brilliant and the players are getting recognised, and there’s loads of our players. They’re as good as anyone in the country, we just need to push on from the quarter-finals to really showcase it.”

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Don’t Give Up is an awareness campaign developed by Arthritis Ireland to highlight the importance of exercise and physical activity for young people living with a chronic condition, like arthritis.

According to Arthritis Ireland, it is important for children and young people with  juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) to keep active, and to keep their joints and whole body healthy. Physical activity helps to develop muscles to support their joints.

About the author:

Emma Duffy

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