As the sound of an oncoming car grows louder, Naomi Carroll knows to step up into the ditch. She accepts this minor inconvenience any time it interrupts her running programme, as everyone is having to adjust while normal life is suspended. Making do and getting by in any way possible, that’s the mantra. For Carroll, that means lining out cones on a country road, and clocking up the mileage to keep herself in shape for sport.
The Cratloe native, who has excelled in various codes from camogie to hockey and soccer to Gaelic football, laughs when describing her makeshift workouts. “Yeah, running up and down the country road, doing interval running or speed work or some aerobic work. If a car or a tractor comes along, I have to step into the ditch. It’s funny, I see the same cars passing every day, and they must think I’m very unfit because I’m always stopped when they’re going past! It either inspires you to run more and keep going, or to stop altogether. Then you have the neighbours looking out and commenting on your running technique!”
Facing down challenges is nothing new for Carroll. In 2018, she missed out on a place in the World Cup squad with the Ireland women’s hockey team, not to mention their captivating journey to the final. Then in August of that year, she tore her cruciate knee ligament, and so the woman whose identity was wrapped up in playing sport was now being tested to its fullest.
“I was a reserve for the World Cup squad and I was very disappointed. Then I tore my cruciate playing for the Clare footballers, so that was a great day,” she says with an ironic smirk. “That was an All-Ireland quarter-final against Meath, and we lost! Because I was so used to training and being answerable to someone,” she adds, “or having something to attend, this was so different now that I was just by myself. It is an injury where you are on your own really. I decided to set up an online blog just to document my progress and to set goals. It kept me focused because posting it on a blog made me accountable. So that really helped me. If I was training with a team, I’d have to be there a certain amount of times per week. So I knew if I wrote down goals and achieved them, then I was making progress. My surgery was cancelled the day I was supposed to have it, and I felt like everything was going wrong. It was from then that I started documenting it. In my head, I was thinking that ‘how I’m feeling now, I don’t really want to have to feel like this again, I want to do everything I possibly can to get myself back in shape, and it wasn’t a waste of a year — that it stood to me.’”
She still gets messages from people on Instagram, a combination of positive feedback and people detailing their own battles with the injury. Podge Collins, her clubmate who had the same issue in 2015, was a good sounding board while rugby international Josh van Der Flier “contacted me and sent me a load of advice which is nice, especially from someone who had just gone through it”.
After surgery in October 2018, Carroll returned to the field nine months later after following all medical advice to the letter of the law. The Gaelcholáiste Luimnigh teacher credits the Clare football and camogie set-ups for keeping her involved in 2019, before calls came from the hockey scene — initially from the indoor set-up, and then later for the outdoor selection.
Before the world was stopped in its tracks by Covid-19, Carroll was due to go to South Africa for a training camp before hopefully getting picked for the Olympics, which of course have now been postponed until 2021. Another challenge to overcome.
For now, it’s about keeping in shape and remembering what got her here in the first place. Be it running down a country road or having your GPS stats tracked in a high performance environment, every player has a story. Carroll remembers where hers began, and those first steps into the sporting world. She is part of a generation of talent that came from Cratloe around the same time — All-Ireland winners in Podge Collins, Conor McGrath, Conor Ryan, Liam Markham and Cathal McInerney, several of whom she played with.
“I started playing with the boys in school,” Naomi recalls. “My best friend Maire McGrath in school was involved, her brother Conor was very involved, and her parents Joe and Eileen had a big influence on me. We started going down to the boys training and then we started playing camogie with a team in Limerick for a number of years, Na Piarsaigh, even though we’re from Clare. I started playing with Limerick as well underage. There was a Clare camogie team too, but we played club in Limerick so we got trials for them under-14, and we both got picked. We played with Limerick then for a couple of years and it was actually a football story as to why I got transferred back. But Maire went back a year before me and we ended up playing against each other then. We marked each other one day and killed each other.”
Naomi in green, and best friend Maire in saffron and blue?
“Yeah, in Sixmilebridge, and we didn’t talk after it! It was actually hilarious and we were only just talking about it. This is funny: I was going through on goal and she took me out. I can’t remember if we lost or if it was a draw, but then I remember I had to go straight up to Dublin for hockey training and I was raging. We probably talked the next day but we had been killing each other, and then we laughed about it maybe a week after. She would have been the reason I started playing, and their family would have brought me along too. My family didn’t have a huge sporting background but my mam loves all sports now.”
“I played up until under-16 lads with all of those lads so it was really cool seeing them all do so well, and seeing them win All Stars,” she adds. “Considering how small our parish is, it’s great to see everyone do so well at sport.”
There’s little doubt about how proud Carroll’s parish are of her too, having watched her pass the 100-cap mark for the international camogie side, represent a number of clubs in the same code, not to mention win silverware with the Banner County.
A young player at the time, she still recalls Munster camogie glory in 2012. “We were playing against Cork in The Ragg,” she says. “I’d been playing for a couple of years (at this stage). I remember one of our teammates gave us a speech at half-time, Deirdre Murphy, and she was one of the more experienced players on the team. She spoke with us and it stood to us in the second half, and it was a day none of us will ever forget. I hadn’t won anything senior by then and I don’t think any of the others had, and with all the training to come back with silverware was outstanding. I remember we were all shattered after it, it was a close game and we were so relieved and over the moon.”
Where and when the next journey begins is uncertain just now, but Carroll will be ready to hit the ground running — as anyone driving through the country roads in Cratloe will tell you.