'How lucky are we that we can go out and play? Anytime the going gets tough, I think of her'

Waterford star Niamh Rockett’s story of triumph over adversity is a remarkable one. But she looks elsewhere for inspiration.

PAIN IS NO barrier for Waterford star Niamh Rockett, despite the many roadblocks she’s encountered en route to where she is today.

But perspective is something that has definitely helped her along the way. Always has, and always will.

Niamh Rockett with her father Eddie Rockett Waterford star Niamh Rockett and her father, former Déise hurler, Eddie. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Day in, day out, she’s defying the odds. Ten years ago, she was told if she didn’t give up sport, she’d be in a wheelchair by the time she’s 30. And yet here she stands, one of the top camogie players in the country at 25. And there’s no sign of her stopping anytime soon.

Her inspiring story is one to be shared far and wide. The lows most definitely outweigh the highs; the gut-wrenching knee injuries, the endless surgeries, the devastating news from consultant after consultant. 

But Rockett knows it could be a hell of a lot worse.

We’ll get to her own rollercoaster journey but first, she’s conscious to emphasise how she counts her blessings for now and plays every game with a smile on her face. She savours every day. Every moment. 

Others can’t.

Rockett works as a PE teacher in Blackwater Community School in Lismore, and her mind automatically turns to a student: Caoimhe O’Brien.

A sports fanatic like herself, Caoimhe played football for Ballyduff. In a match one day, she felt pain in her knee while she was running. It turned out to be a cancerous growth.

Amputation followed and her condition worsened, but Caoimhe remained admirably positive. That attitude has definitely rubbed off on Rockett.

“She was sport-mad,” she recalls of Caoimhe, who has sadly passed away since. “For a young girl like that to have shown all that courage, it’s just brilliant.

“She was so inspirational, she always came into school on crutches, refused to go into a wheelchair, so headstrong, such an inspiration. I just think, ‘How lucky are we that we can go out and play?’

Niamh Rockett with Clare Hehir Facing Clare in 2017. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“Anytime the going gets tough or if I think, ‘We should have won that match’ or ‘I can’t go any more’, I think of her and I think that she came into school every day right up until she was going to pass away.

“Between my injury and that, I just never take it for granted.”

That’s a mutual feeling across the team, Rockett stressed when she spoke last week at a Camogie Association event calling on supporters to ‘Go Together’ as they aim to break 25,000 All-Ireland finals attendance.

“Look lads, it’d be a lot worse if we couldn’t run,” as one of her team-mates stated earlier that week when they were sent on a horrific running session to a few moans and groans around the group.

“It’s about being thankful for that,” the St Anne’s star smiles.

“There’s always people going to be worse than me and I draw inspiration from that. Look at the likes of Jamie Wall and what he’s doing, brilliant. Look how involved he is, that’s a complete inspiration.”

She might find her own inspiration from sad places, but others look to Rockett.

And it’s no wonder, considering her own triumph over adversity, her own battle back from the brink.

Plagued with injuries for years — arthritis in her knees in particular — it all came to a head in 2014. Her entire world came crashing down suddenly. Running for a ball in a league game against Meath, everything changed in mere seconds.

“I remember about five yards before the ball and then I hit into the player and I remember being lifted off the pitch,” she recalls.

“I can’t remember anything in between. Someone was slapping me in the face on the sideline. It was just the shock of my knee injury.”

Edwina Keane, Caitriona Cormican, Marian Quaid, Amy O'Connor, Clodagh Quirke and Niamh Rockett Calling on supporters to 'Go Together'. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The collision in question left her with a severe concussion, but more devastatingly for Rockett considering her past history, a really serious knee injury.

“My kneecap was after coming out of place,” she explains.

“I had arthritis in my kneecap as well. In behind my kneecap, I’d no cartilage. It was a double whammy of injuries there. It wasn’t a cruciate or anything. There were just so many things wrong with me knees.

“I had a big bandage on my knee at the time and I was playing through an injury. It was a freak accident.

“I didn’t run for 15 months after that.”

And the 15 months that followed were complete and utter torture, complete with two surgeries.

“I had surgery in Santry, keyhole surgery and MPFL reconstruction [to reconnect the kneecap to the knee]. I had keyhole surgery previous to that as well and the fake tan doesn’t cover the scars, sadly. Don’t look at my left knee!”

Thankfully now, out the other side, she’s able to see light in the situation.

She recalls another heartbreaking moment from years gone by. A conversation with a consultant where 16-year-old Niamh was told she’d be in a wheelchair by the age of 30.

“I’d be in a wheelchair by 30, and they wanted to break my knees, both of them and re-align them,” she nods, the pain still visible in her face to this day.

“Two consultants told me… the consultant in Santry told me if I continue playing I won’t be able to walk or run by the time I’m 30.

“He said there’s only one or two people in the world who had the amount of detailed knee problems I had between arthritis, reconstructions and everything. I was like, ‘Tell me someone I can talk to’ but he couldn’t refer me on.

Beth Carton and Niamh Rockett Celebrating Waterford's All-Ireland intermediate title win in 2015. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“There will be a day it’ll give up but I’ll just keep playing and trying my best 

“A lot of credit goes to Declan O’Sullivan, the Cork GAA physio,” Rockett continues, her appreciation for those around her shining through over and over as she later praises the team physio Kenny Murphy, who keeps her ticking over with knee programmes.

“It was never about coming back to play camogie. I’m a PE teacher and it was to have some quality of life, to maintain it and do PE in the rain, hail or shine and not be limping around.

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“I just couldn’t stay away. People say I’m stupid but I just love playing sport so much.”

There were many a times where she thought it was all over. Definitely in those 15 months, she stresses.

“Oh my God, it was really, really, really tough, mentally. I owe a lot to my family and friends for just picking me up in those 15 months.

“I played every sport; hurling, football, camogie, soccer, everything since I was able to walk… with school, Waterford, Munster. It’s your whole life. You’re going to be a PE teacher, and then you’re told you can’t run again, you can’t play again.

Where is my career going? Why can’t I play again? I have so much more to give.

“Mentally, it was just absolutely outrageous.”

She adds: “There’s a lot about filling the void when you retire and I never got the choice in that. I was just told you can’t run and there was no choice.

“I felt really, really hard done by. Whenever I do stop it’ll be my choice and I’ll know I’ve given it everything.”

For now, she’s happy to try everything and anything she can to keep her going. As are those around her.

“My mother produces these articles on arthritis,” she laughs. “There was a news article that broccoli cures arthritis and there was six heads of broccoli on the table for me to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Niamh Rockett and Caitriona Cormican With Galway star Caitriona Cormican ahead of their All-Ireland quarter-final tomorrow. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Irish mothers, any home remedy that’s going! Orthotics, everything… We’re after spending a few tens of thousands on my knee trying to get it good.”

After getting back with the club and slowly progressing back into the county set-up, 2015 brought better days for Rockett, and thankfully, she hasn’t looked back since. 

“Winning the intermediate All-Ireland meant so much that year — for my family, for myself, that was absolutely brilliant,” she grins. 

Here’s to more of that.

After an historic 2018 which saw Waterford reach their first-ever All-Ireland quarter-final, the Déise find themselves back in the knockout stages where they face Galway at Semple Stadium tomorrow [throw-in 7.15pm, live on RTÉ].

“Last year was brilliant but we want to go a step further,” as she said previously. ”We want to keep pushing on.”

A step further would be an absolute leap for Niamh Rockett, who’s just thankful to be in the thick of it all rather than watching from the stands.

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Emma Duffy

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