Camogie is a huge part of my identity and it’s only recently that I stopped wearing a wee hurl around my neck.
It’s been replaced now by a miraculous medal from my mummy, a letter C and a medallion that my boyfriend gave me, but for many years I competed at World and European Championships with a little camogie stick around my neck.
I got the original one when I was eight – a present from Santa – and then whenever I was 14 I lost and replaced it. It’s still in my jewellery box.
Camogie is where I learned my love for sport and, if I’m honest, I’ve always loved it more than running and I’m absolutely determined that whenever I finish running, I’m going to go back and play for my club Portaferry again.
I grew up with camogie and hurling from when I was very small.
My daddy (Chris) played for Down and Ulster but all my mammy’s family played too and my granny Kathleen was the chairperson of our local club in Portaferry.
She’d be out in the garden pucking the ball with us and then, whenever there was anything on down in the club, she’d have us down there helping out. I’d have been cleaning the changing rooms and making sandwiches from when I was no age.
My aunt Edel Mason, my mummy’s sister, was another big influence.
Me and my big sister Máire used to follow her down to the local pitch. She’d be taking frees and ‘sidelines’ and we’d be the little ball-girls in goals, pucking them back out to her.
Edel played camogie for Portaferry and Down, and later transferred to Dunloy and played for Antrim which was a big conflict for us. Imagine us having to cheer for Dunloy!
So while people would also think the camogie comes from Daddy’s side a lot of it comes from mummy’s side too. The Masons and Mageeans are two big GAA families in Portaferry.
I was always trailing around in Máire’s shadow. She was two school years ahead of me and is now a doctor in Belfast but, back then, I was the little sister dragging the hurl behind her with the helmet tied to it.
Another huge influence on me was Elizabeth Collins. She was my camogie coach from when I was five or six, all the way up through underage in Portaferry.
She also coached us in school (Assumption Ballynahinch) because she was also our biology teacher. She was a fantastic coach and taught us always to respect our opponents.
She was probably before her time in realising that I had a lot of training loads on my body, because I was doing training and playing camogie for club and county and running during the week.
Elizabeth took such good care of me. In matches she’d say ‘you’re coming or you’re going in nets now,” and I’d be pleading with her to stay on but she watched me so carefully to make sure I stayed injury-free.
I played midfield of course, just ran around everyone, but I like to think I wasn’t just there as a runner! I was pretty good and the freetaker and I competed in the Skills Competition at the National Feile.
I won an Ulster schools’ Allstar, following in my sister’s footsteps, and that was a dream. At underage, we went to many a national Feile and when I captained our club minor team to win the county championship – we beat Ballycran by a point – that was a big thing. Myself, Niamh Mallon – who was the year below me in school – and my friend Nicola Morland were the babies on that team and we’ve been friends all the way up because of camogie.
I didn’t actually take up running until secondary school when my PE coach asked me to join the cross-country team.
I only joined an athletics club when I was 15 or so and playing camogie really helped me with athletics because I was strong.
I was training with the club seniors at 14 and played for them at 16 which you’re not allowed to do any more I think. I played for the county at minor level and really wanted to play senior for Down but I just had too much going on.
It got to the stage that when I was leaving school and going to university I had to make a choice.
It was really hard to give up camogie and I swore when I started running that I’d never give it up because that was my real love, but I also realised that my potential in athletics was probably much greater – especially because I was going to get the chance to run for Ireland.
Before I gave up I played a championship game in Portaferry and, two weeks later, competed in the World Junior Championships in Canada.
I still remember telling the Down minor manager that I wouldn’t be playing county next year. I was moving to Dublin to study physiotherapy. I went down there as a runner and that’s what I’ve been since.
One of the things I missed, apart from actually playing, was the team and social element of camogie.
There were two sides to that of course. I sometimes questioned whether other people on the team were putting in the same amount as me because I was tough, but I definitely missed the team aspect a lot when I left it.
I especially missed the great fun you’d have. I can remember the songs we’d sing on the bus. These were the girls I grew up with. It was all about your friends and your parish pride.
Athletics is very different.
On the pitch, if you made a mistake or missed a lift, you had teammates who could make up for it. On the track I have just four minutes to make my mark. It’s all down to me.
If I screw that up then I’m done, there’s no coming back from it. There’s that little more security in a team sport that I miss.
But my training group, Team New Balance Manchester, is sort of like a team now. I travel, train, eat and live with five of them and we’re a mix of nationalities. Being part of this team gives me that sense of belonging that was probably missing since my days with Portaferry.
I have two hurls here in the house in England and try to teach them about camogie and let them have a go but, to be honest, their hand-eye coordination isn’t great!
I tell them it’s a cross between the physicality of lacrosse and the skill of hockey but that’s not even right so I pull up YouTube clips to explain it to them.
When my little sister Nuala, who’s studying nursing over here, comes to visit she enjoys a wee puck about and she’s actually started to play again in the University of Liverpool which I’m delighted about.
I try to stay in touch still with what’s going on at home, with the club and the county and I really love the fact that you can watch National League games online now through streaming. That’s absolutely brilliant and I stick it on and show it to my housemates.
I go on training camps all around the world and am often in airports or up mountains trying to get online to follow camogie.
Twitter is great because you get feedback so quickly and, if I can’t get a signal, I message my daddy looking for updates. He gets in touch with Niamh Mallon’s parents immediately – they’re the source of all information!
I’ve been lucky enough over the years to be invited to some All-Ireland finals by my own county board and the Camogie Association but, to be honest I usually have bought tickets already. If I’m in Ireland at the time I’ll go because you get not one but three finals and it’s always a fantastic day out.
I really do want to go back and play for Portaferry after I’ve finished running, if my Achilles and legs will let me do it. I look at some of the girls who played there in the past, some of them into their late 30s and into their 40s and I think if they can do that then so can I.
I’d absolutely love to return and give back to my own community because I had so many people there growing up that I learnt so much from – not just about sport and camogie but about myself.
There’s a tennis club near me here in England with a wee wall and every so often I get my stick out and nip down there and puck against it for a half-hour. That’s like my little me-time. It’s like my version of therapy!