Filling the days has become a challenge for Waterford’s Niamh Rockett.
The St Anne’s star is used to rushing from one thing to the next. Be it her role as a PE and maths teacher at Blackwater Community School in Lismore, to captaining the Deise camogie side, giving grinds to students, or working at home on the farm. The spread of Covid-19 has halted much of her gallop, just as it has for the rest of the country.
“I’m lucky my cousin has a weights room about ten minutes away,” says Rockett, adding that utmost care and social distancing is adhered to. I go there and do my gym programme and go out for a running session. I live on a farm so there’s plenty to be done there, between feeding calves, herding cattle, all that glamorous stuff,” she says with a smile, adding, “maybe Very can bring out a range of overalls for me to wear!”
“But I have found it tough because I like being on the go the whole time. With traffic and road works, my commute to school is about 40 minutes, there’s about 400 or 500 people there, and then I’m meeting up with friends, or going to the gym or doing grinds, or I’m with the team. I’ve too much energy. Right now, with work, I usually log on in the morning until lunch or two or three to help the kids out. We do online teaching, so there’s plenty of that to be done, along with doing corrections. I miss my routine though. It’s just being idle so much, I’ve never done so much baking!”
She beams when talking about minding her niece and nephews — Percy (5), Cal (3), and Maud (2) — but there’s no hiding how much life has changed. Perhaps it’s summed up best in how Rockett describes her #StyleOfPlay, encompassing her two sides: the camogie player with a competitive instinct, and the lady who enjoys the finer things.
“I’d be majorly into fashion. My mam gives me grief because my clothes are spread out between three rooms. Any time I come back, I have to sneak clothes back into the house, and if parcels come they have to be snook in or my mother will give out to me because I have too many bits. So she’s delighted I can stop my online shopping for a couple of weeks anyway.”
As for the Waterford team, managed by Fergal O’Brien and assisted by Dan Shanahan and Beth Carton, their pursuits have been suspended. As things stand, no one can say when competitive sports will resume on our island, and though Rockett knows there are more important things in life just now, she misses it.
“There’s always a bit of camaraderie and fun with the sessions. We’re FaceTiming or chatting on HouseParty and that’s great, but it’s just not the same. You just don’t know when this will end. You’re getting fitter and fitter but there’s no end date or start date to it. It’s mentally tough and I think a lot of athletes are struggling with it. I always work towards the first week of championship, June 15 or whatever date it is, and you’d always have a date in your head for when business starts. Now you don’t know when you’ll have championship, or if there will be one. It’s part of your identity, I suppose.”
That identity is something that has evolved inside her over time. When Rockett was a young girl, she was considered a tomboy as she lined out for the boys teams up until Under-14. Her father and brother, both named Eddie, lined out for the Deise and Niamh jokes that “dad wanted me as a boy, and he dressed me that way — I had astroturf runners! Any of the rest of the girls would have nice runners on. When you’re playing sport, boys say ‘why would you be any good?’, ‘you’re a girl’ or ‘you couldn’t be as good as anyone else’, whereas at home it wasn’t like that. My brother played for Waterford in football and hurling and so did my dad, so it was just like Croke Park out the back. It didn’t matter if you were a boy or a girl, you were getting the shoulders or the flakes, and nothing was taken lightly.”
“I started playing for the county at 15, and then you grow up a bit and I got more into make-up and clothes; I was getting wicked grief off the girls on our team because of the fake tan. I think it was a line from one of the Kilkenny girls: ‘look good, play good.’ That’s their line but a few of us go out with the bit of fake tan, and think if you look better you might play better!”
Attitudes towards camogie have changed in the county and both the men and women now support each other equally well. There is still a gap to bridge in terms of how well their set-up is facilitated, but Rockett explains how little they complain, and simply do it for the love of the sport.
In 2020, is it now cooler for a young girl to pick up a stick?
“Yeah, it’s crazy. Like I was going for diesel the other day and one of these young girls playing for Waterford underage came over chatting away, they recognise the senior players now. When I was growing up, I would moreso look up to male players like Paul Flynn or Ken McGrath, who were my idols growing up, whereas these girls now have female idols like Beth Carton who won two All Stars. They strive to be like them instead of the boys.”
Another idol from the great Waterford teams of the noughties is Dan Shanahan, the 2007 Hurler of the Year. He has added a bit of star power to the camogie set-up, and Rockett smiles when explaining his impact.
“Fergal does the fitness side of things and Dan does all the hurling, and then Pauline Cunningham is a selector, so there’s a great wealth of knowledge there. She knows all the club players too. Dan has been brilliant. We were missing the Gailltir contingent who were playing club so it was hard to show our full hand without them, and then training was suspended a week after we got everyone back. Dan was a bit apprehensive (before he started). It was the first (camogie) team he trained and we still give him grief over it! He’d be calling us ‘ladies, ladies’ and if he cursed in training, he’d be saying ‘sorry’. Now I think he’s after loosening the reins a bit more, he’s used to us. Fergal was telling us that Dan was saying: ‘if I’m explaining a drill can I, like, use their hurley? Can I show them in beside them, or is that inappropriate?’ Fergal was like, ‘it’s grand Dan, they’re used to it!’ These were the things going through poor Dan’s head before he came in, but now he’s definitely after settling in, so he has all the banter and jeering in now. We give Dan wicked grief over different things!”
Rockett’s injury history makes for grim reading. She has had three knee surgeries, had been told to retire, and was warned that she could be in a wheelchair by the time she’s 30. The Waterford star has battled on and is perpetually reinforcing her knees in preparation for competition. But as she noted recently, “there will be a day it’ll give up but I’ll just keep playing and trying my best”.
“Look, especially around now when you’re given a lot of hill runs and… I mind my knee a lot, I go to the gym maybe four days a week as well as training, just to keep muscle around it strong, so around this time it is really affecting me,” she explains. “I can’t really leave the muscles deteriorate, so I take it day by day. I might go out for a run today, preferably on softer ground so it wouldn’t hurt my knee as much, but I could go for a 5k run on the road and be in agony after it. Another day, it might not be as bad. Usually after matches it gets worse but you have to think to yourself, I’m after getting three operations on my knees already and I’ve arthritis in my knee, which I’ve had since I’m small. I inherited bad knees off my mam or my dad, but neither of them will take the blame!”
“It is a thing where I won’t get as long a career as I would like but I keep going for the love of the game, and it’s all about minding it and trusting the people around you. Some people might think it’s stupidity and think ‘why are you doing that if you’re doing more harm to yourself?’ but none of us really know what harm we’re doing to ourselves. If you love doing something so much, you don’t really see the harm it could cause or not. If I just decided to give up playing, I’d be like ‘Jesus, what could have been. Or could you have won an All-Ireland?’ That kind of thing. We won a junior All-Ireland in 2011 and I got injured in 2013 and 2014 — I didn’t run for 14 months and I was really depressed, not feeling good at all, my whole identity was gone. You were the next big thing, big star coming up in the county, your dad and brother played county and this expectation, and then you get this injury and you are told you shouldn’t play any more sports. It was a lot to deal with, so you have to re-evaluate how you look at things mentally: ‘is this going to be good for me in the long run?’ It’s still a bit of a touchy subject at home with mam, because she doesn’t play or follow sports, and she wanted me to be able to do my job and not to be going around in a wheelchair. But my dad would always push me to do sports and always look at the brighter side — the glass was always half full, not half empty.”
“Yeah, look, it’s a big decision, especially so young, and I had to say to myself that I’ll do everything in my power. There’s no such thing as me going onto the pitch and doing a half session or not doing a run. When I do something, I do it fully. And I know myself if I’ve done everything to the best of my ability, any operation I can do or any rehab or recovery, then I can’t have any regrets if I do get injured down the line. Another massive thing for me was when one of our students in school, Caoimhe O’Brien, passed away from cancer but she had to get her leg amputated. She had such courage and all she wanted to do was the simple things, and it just makes me think that you do everything to the best of your ability. At least you can say you did your best…”