Sarah O’Donovan: Routinely tackling the impossible

Mark Pollock, Jamie Wall and Louise O’Hara are just some of the role models that have inspired Sarah O’Donovan as the 31-year-old pursues a return to the top tier of camogie with a different county and a team made up largely of players 10 years her junior.

Sarah O’Donovan: Routinely tackling the impossible

It doesn’t take long chatting to O’Donovan to realise she is an open door to challenges.

An All-Ireland winner at senior, junior and minor level with Cork, she was captain of the Ireland team that competed in the European U19 soccer championships in 2002. She holds a law degree and covered All-Ireland finals in all the Gaelic games categories during a previous incarnation as a sports journalist.

An opportunity to compete in the nascent Women’s National League with Cork City brought the initial chapter of her camogie career to an end.

But a new job saw her link up with St Vincent’s in 2014 and having shone as they reached the county final, Shane O’Brien extended the invitation. It would be a longer-term project but she was up for it and her chief counsellor provided the green light.

“I felt very fresh but I asked my Dad (John) what did he think, because he’s the person you ring when you make those sorts of decisions. He said ‘What does your gut say?’” recalls O’Donovan.

And that was that.

It was a huge year for the Dubs, with the reduction of a 37-point margin against Cork in 2014, to five the following March, as good an illustration as any of progress. O’Donovan was one of two All-Star nominees from the squad, the other being her Vincent’s clubmate Ali Maguire.

If ever she even thinks of how difficult training might be, her job as engagement and communications leader for the Mark Pollock Trust quickly evaporates the self-pity. Pollock is the man who won two Commonwealth Games medals in rowing despite being blind and was the first blind man to race to the South Pole.

He suffered a catastrophic accident on July 2, six years ago, that left him paralysed. It was cruel but the Down adventurer was never likely to fold, just because he’d been dealt a bum hand.

He established the Mark Pollock Trust to raise funds aimed at spinal cord injury research and ultimately, at chasing down a cure for paralysis. The Run in the Dark international running series, of which O’Donovan is project manager, is at the centre of this fundraising.

Meanwhile, Pollock raises awareness by breaking down barriers for paralysed people. Right now, he is in training for the Giant’s Causeway Sportive on September 10 and is threatening to co-opt O’Donovan to the cause. She’s hoping she might be preparing for the Liberty Insurance Senior Championship final.

“While I’m getting up, he’s already in the gym. When you’re complaining your body is sore because you took a belt in training or a game, he’s somebody doing a much tougher day.

“Some evenings before training you’re thinking ‘This is a slog’ but he’s going ‘Get out and enjoy that’ and you go ‘Yeah, yeah I should, because I can’ and that’s a massive thing.

“He would put any man to shame in terms of his commitment levels to sport.

“I enjoy working for Mark because of what he has managed to do for the last six years. People forget he has only been paralysed for six years but he has created this massive movement. That’s a hugely positive thing.

“It also helps that he’s an incredibly witty, committed, driven character. It’s just a great job to be in.”

O’Donovan’s first brush with paralysis came via former Cork underage dual star Jamie Wall, a promising talent who was paralysed two years ago. She was visiting Wall in Beaumont when an email landed from an employment agency explaining that the Mark Pollock Trust were looking for someone just like her.

“There was a serendipity about it, though not necessarily a nice one. Jamie couldn’t believe that there could be such a connection. In terms of what Mark is doing, the research that he’s doing… for me, it was about having hope, that Jamie could have such close contacts.

“When I did the interview with Mark and he asked me what my motivation was, initially my motivation was that I could be a support to Jamie because I would be working in the exact arena where he needed support.”

So Pollock and Wall are inspirations but beneficiaries too. Dublin have profited from her presence as well. Sometimes O’Donovan wonders what the hell she is doing as she looks around at all the 20-year-olds but then she’ll see Louise O’Hara.

O’Hara is 37, one of just three Dublin players to win an All Star. More than 20 years in the fold, she remained committed despite the very worst days, despite starting her own business and even resuming her international netball career.

“Louise is stronger than she was last season. She is coming off a season playing netball and played for Ireland in the European Championships in Newcastle.

So she’s been combining it all for six months and is extremely fit. She’s just so strong. She’s a firm fixture still in the half-forward line.”

Knowing she has another six years “at least” gives her hope that she will be around when Dublin make it to the next level.

As O’Donovan has always believed, and is reminded of by those around her all the time, nothing is impossible.

For more information on the Camogie Association’s Our Game Your Game campaign visit www.camogie.ie/ourgameyourgame.asp #OurGameYourGame

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