Kilkenny camogie star Grace Walsh is currently working on the frontline in St Vincent's Hospital
Her focus should be on preparing for the rigours of championship camogie, but Grace Walsh is currently playing a key role in a bigger battle - Ireland’s fight against the coronavirus.
At this time of year the Tullaroan player would have switched her attention from the National League to the chase for the O’Duffy Cup, but as everyone knows 2020 hasn’t been your typical year. While lockdown measures have meant sporting life has been put on hold, the Covid-19 pandemic means Walsh has moved from the backs to the front line.
Walsh, a nurse based in St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin, has traded pitches for PPE as the country gets to grips with life in lockdown. Despite the rigours of the job, she has remained upbeat throughout.
“Obviously we’d prefer that the coronavirus wasn’t around but we have to deal with it,” she said. “There’s a bit of moving around (in the wards) which is hard at times but in the hospital everyone is in it together, keeping the spirits up.”
She was quick to deflect praise for her work; for Walsh it’s something which has to be done.
“It’s strange to see people calling us heroes,” she said. “For us it doesn’t feel like we’re doing anything more than what we’d do on a day-to-day basis. There is extra caution; you have to be more careful with your PPE, but it’s our job and anyone who’s in it loves what they do.
“Life seems fairly normal for me, midweek at least,” she added. “I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have work. I had to self-isolate myself for a week and I nearly cracked up!”
While work has kept her busy, coping with the lockdown side of life hasn’t been without its challenges - especially when the camogie campaign should be in full swing.
“Midweek feels fairly normal, but the weekends are when the fact we’re in the middle of this pandemic really hit home,” she said. “I can do my own training but I can’t go home to my family and I can’t go home to train with Kilkenny.
“There’s a reason a lot of us train in a team sport. People who play at inter-county level are competitive and want to keep fit. From that perspective it’s easy to keep training and to do your bit, but it’s hard to keep up the intensity on your own - I don’t know how individual athletes do it!
“You feel you don’t get as much out of it as you would with your team-mates. You’re taking it seriously when you’re with the team, but you’re also having the craic. You’re with your friends three days a week, if not more, so it’s made for strange times.
HAPPIER TIMES: Grace Walsh with her family following Tullaroan's win in the 2019 IH county final
“It’s hard not being able to go home too,” she added. “I’m lucky that there’s a great walk close to where I live that I can do in the morning, but I could have it done early before work. Then, when I get home it’s like ‘what do I do now?’. You want to do your training or one of the classes, but if you do it one go you’re left wondering what you can do for the evening.”
In this unprecedented time of lockdown, it’s about getting creative for players with the extra time on their hands.
“Usually I wouldn’t know what a day off is like without having to drive somewhere,” she said. “I work every second day, so at this time of year the days I’m off I’d usually be driving home to Kilkenny for training and to see my family before driving back to Dublin for work the next day. All my housemates are working from home, so we do have time with each other in the evening, but with nothing going on it’s like we’re running out of things to talk about!”
That additional time has allowed Walsh to focus on herself.
“Since the pandemic we have a lot of time to focus,” she added. “Everyone needs to work on their mental health; they need to do it when they have the spare time. I’ve been reading books and I’ve been practising guitar - I got lessons as a Christmas present. It’s about relaxing and doing things you’ve never done before.”
While these extra activities are a great way to unwind, the additional time is also giving players the opportunity to work on their own game.
“I was chatting to (her brother) Tommy and he said at times like this you’ll see people working on their fitness and their first touch,” she said. “That’s something you can always work on, but now’s the time to try something completely different - a new skill you wouldn’t usually do on the pitch.”
While she wouldn’t reveal what extra flicks and tricks she is working on, Walsh did tell of how she has been taking time to make some mental changes.
“I didn’t feel camogie was going that well for me last year and that I needed to work on myself a little during the offseason,” she admitted. “That was something I tried to do and since January I feel like a new person.”
Taking that opportunity to reflect has been good for Walsh, even if it came without game time. She was recovering from injury when Kilkenny started the National League but shortened league campaign - after matches against Clare and Offaly in February, the March 8 loss to Cork was the Cats’ last game - denied her a swift return to action.
“It was annoying as I wasn’t happy with how last year went in general,” she admitted. “At the start of the year I was raring to go, then I had to take a few weeks out through injury. I was only back in full training for about a fortnight when the coronavirus pandemic kicked off, so it was back to training on my own!
“While it was initially frustrating it turned out to be a good thing,” she said. “Last year I found I was so stressed, worrying about my own performance and being too hard on myself. Now I look back and think ‘we’re in the middle of this pandemic’ and there are other things to focus on. I love camogie and I love sport, but it’s not the be-all and end-all - why get myself bogged down over things like how I’m going to perform in training which, in the grand scheme of things, are so small. When it comes to something like this (the coronavirus) lives are being lost. I think this time is going to be an eye-opener for a lot of people - it will make them realise what matters in life. Sport is huge, and it’s such a great thing to bring people together, but now I realise the reason I play camogie is because I love the game, playing with a group of girls I’m friends with. So when we do get back I’m determined to enjoy it.”
Enjoying the game can also extend beyond club and county boundaries, as Walsh has found already.
“I was asked to take part in a breakfast challenge on social media to help raise funds for Saoirse Ruane, a young Galway girl who was diagnosed with a rare Osteosarcoma tumour in her tibia. Through it I got talking to one of the Galway players, Lorraine Ryan, who messaged me to thank me for supporting the event. I just said to her that the next time we’re all out on the pitch together, even though it’ll be on opposing teams, we’ll all be smiling as we’ll be happy to be back and happy to do what we love. I know I won’t be putting that pressure on myself anymore - I’ll be going to enjoy the game because I love playing it.”
The additional time away from the game has given the Kilkenny player an extra perspective. Going into the 2019 season Kilkenny, having reached five of the last six All-Ireland finals but lost four, were seen as something of a hard luck story. The question was could they relieve pressure to win one final. As far as Walsh was concerned no stone was left unturned in that bid to win back the O’Duffy Cup, but the personal pressure the players put themselves under may have been their undoing.
Walsh and her Kilkenny team-mates left no stone unturned in their quest for championship glory in 2019, but Galway proved too strong in the All-Ireland final
“Last year was incredible,” she said, sounding positive about Kilkenny’s 2019 season even though it ended in All-Ireland final heartbreak against Galway.
“Training went excellent and people were enjoying it, but even though things were managed so well we were probably putting a little too much pressure on ourselves to win, which can mean things aren’t as enjoyable as they should be. Hopefully once we get back things will have changed a bit.”
When things do get back up and running those changes will include a new management team for the championship. Ann Downey has stepped down, with former selector Brian Dowling taking charge. While their onfield time with the panel has been curtailed, Dowling and his selectors Tommy Shefflin and Ray Challenor have been working overtime to make sure the Cats keep ticking over.
“I couldn’t compliment the lads enough for all they do as some of them are still working through the lockdown,” said Walsh. “They’re facilitating us, giving us a variety of training programmes like running and strength and conditioning. Fitness instructor Donna Dunne has given us access to her classes online, which has been brilliant to do at home - I did them when I was in isolation was a huge help.
“We haven’t had Zoom calls for training but have used them to keep squad interaction going, so we’ve been doing quizzes and things to make sure it’s not all serious.
“The management team have been keeping in touch with us through the WhatsApp group as well as making individual calls to make sure everyone’s looking after their mental health and that everyone is staying fit and safe.”
Keeping in tune, both physically and mentally, can be tough when no official start date for the resumption of games has been announced. Whether camogie faces a condensed championship or none at all remains to be seen, but Walsh is of the opinion a decision to scrap 2020 shouldn’t be made too hastily.
“It’s hard to know what will happen in terms of a championship as people will want to allow crowds but follow social distancing,” she said. “The most important thing will be health - no one wants to put anyone else at risk.
“It’s hard to see 2020 without any kind of championship, while it’s also hard to see club games without county matches or vice-versa. I don’t think any rash decisions should be made now; time will tell. Things are settling down in hospitals, as long as everyone sticks to the guidelines put in place by the HSE and we get through the phases properly then hopefully we can get through this without any setbacks.
“When it comes towards autumn and winter people might really want to play games - we play club at that time and I enjoy playing in the winter months, it’s one of my favourite times to play.”
For now players have been kept busy in other ways, with many lending their support to charity events across the country. It has only served to heighten the idea of how they looked upon as being role models.
“The GAA community has been incredible throughout this entire situation,” she said. “From the #doitfordan fund raisers to the way clubs have rallied around to support their communities. It’s been fantastic.”
And that positivity reflects on the players, who are staying upbeat about a return to the pitches. There are bad days, Walsh concedes, but the key is to look to the future. Games will return one day.
“It is hard to be positive all the time,” she said. “It can be tough when you can’t get home to see your family but you’re allowed to have days like that.
“Everyone is entitled to say now and again “I’m having a bad day”, but the important thing is to try and remain positive and to keep the spirits up,” she added. “At the end of the day lives are being lost and families are being crushed. We are so lucky to be here, stuck at home and not in hospital.
“Camogie, hurling and the GAA are incredible, but the reason we play is to enjoy it,” she finished. “If it’s not there for a few months it’s not the end of the world - it will be back.”