Ashling Thompson is a symbol of a new Cork dressing room, a fresh face and voice of a team in renewal.
But she is a symbol of much more than that. To many, she symbolises hope.
Ever since opening up on the RTÉ TV show Thank GAA It’s Friday last year about her battle with depression, Thompson has become a public figure.
It says a lot for the road she has travelled that the 25-year-old is comfortable in the spotlight now, emboldened by the reaction of people nationwide.
Speaking about how camogie helped her step back from the precipice is a cathartic process but it is the messages of thanks from other strugglers that strengthen her resolve.
This year, as captain of the Cork camogie team, there have been many more revealing newspaper and radio interviews. A recent cover shoot for a lifestyle supplement of a Sunday newspaper brought her to another audience again.
She is a modern woman. Vulnerability almost consumed her but she is strong now — mentally and physically. Athletic, tattooed, opinionated. A self-employed sports therapist. Beauty adds to the marketer’s dream.
There is not a trace of bullshit though. If you were Ashling Thompson’s PR handler, you could be tearing your hair out at times because she doesn’t wrap her views in a nice red bow. She has come too far to be bothered with political correctness or marketing speak. You ask a question, you’ll get an answer.
It frustrates her at times that she cannot find the words to articulate what she is thinking. She jokes how, when in full flow in the Cork dressing room, she might provide a new word for the men and women of Oxford to consider for their dictionary.
With the Milford woman, who captains Cork in the Liberty Insurance All-Ireland senior camogie final against Galway tomorrow, everything is direct. On and off the field.
Asked about the ‘coin toss’ controversy that dogged camogie this year, she doesn’t blink. “To be fair, the rules are set in the first place. It was written down black and white so you can’t really blame anyone for that. It should have been faced head-on when that rule was made. Clearly it was a rule that was ridiculous.
“I can’t see how they didn’t think that would ever happen. Clearly, there’s a high risk of it happening, where two teams will draw even on the same points. “I know rules are rules but at the same time you don’t want to be making a laughing stock of anyone. I think it was great for the Camogie Association to turn around and let the two teams play.”
As for Wexford’s appeal of their semi-final defeat by Galway, sympathy but short shrift.
“I suppose with the Wexford appeal, throwing it out was the right thing to do. I feel sorry for Wexford. But I’d never think to appeal it because you could literally appeal every game in the country then. It does make camogie look bad in a way, but then again there’s two sides to every story.”
Mistakes happen, she allows, and the important thing is for everyone to learn. It’s all about evolution.
They know all about evolution in Cork. After Thompson’s Milford clubmate Anna Geary lifted the O’Duffy Cup last year, Paudie Murray lost a huge chunk of his squad. Jenny O’Leary, Angela Walsh, Geary, Joanne O’Callaghan and Sara Hayes are just some of the multiple All-Ireland winners unavailable this year.
Thompson could never have given it up. It was her time away from camogie after a car crash that drove her to consider suicide. And it is camogie that made her realise that she had plenty to live for.
So, she became the leader of New Cork, a team still possessing experienced operators in Gemma O’Connor, Aoife Murray, Briege Corkery, Rena Buckley and Orla Cotter, but now infused with the energy of raw, hungry youngsters.
“I love it. It kind of lets me voice my opinion a lot more, I have a good old voice! I love being a leader, I love guiding them and I love when people look to me for guidance because I know I can give them proper guidance.
“Sometimes, you might lose the plot or say the wrong things, but they always know it’s from the heart and I mean well.
“I feel like I’m a veteran now, whereas last year I felt like I was a little sheep, you know? I looked up to a lot of them whereas I’m the leader now, not just as a captain but the younger players look up to me for experience.”
Cork have lost to Galway twice this season, in the league final by three points, having trailed by 11 at half-time, and by 0-2 in the opening round of the group stages.
“We’ve learned a lot from our defeats. We had a really bad defeat in the league final, played terribly. We didn’t even show up against Wexford (in the championship), may as well have stayed at home. But it’s important to have those losses, to learn from those mistakes.
“You need bad beatings to knock you down a bit to know how to pick yourself up in a game if you go down.”
She has seen the inexperienced players grow and flourish, people like Laura Treacy, Méabh Cahalane, Amy O’Connor and Orla Cronin. The squad has a club feel to it that she relishes.
The growth will be tested in Croke Park tomorrow but Thompson has no doubts about where the game will be won and lost.
“Upstairs. We have done what we can to prepare, Galway have done what they can to prepare and I think it comes down to who’s mentally weaker. If one of us goes down in the game, who will throw in the towel first? That’s where hunger and desire comes in. But it’s 100% mental, I think.”
Most All-Ireland final captains will tell you that they dare not think beyond the game. No speeches prepared, no visions of receiving the trophy from the president. You must not let your mind get ahead of itself.
Thompson doesn’t believe in telling lies, in feeding a message, in presenting a front. Why spin a line? She’s human. She has dreamed.
“I have probably thought about it since the start of the year. There are nights I have gone sleepless, just totally engulfed in that kind of emotion of standing in the Hogan Stand lifting the cup on behalf of my county and on behalf of all the girls.
“I think we have worked so hard this year. We have fought through every battle we could possibly fight through so I think if we do win it, we deserve it. Besides what happened in the past with Galway, they beat us twice but so what? It was a learning curve.
“But yeah, I’ve dreamed of it a few times and to see that it could be a reality is a massive motivator for me.”
One of many.
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