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Our Sporting Lives with Caroline O'Hanlon: 'Ladies' All-Ireland final was phenomenal. Hopefully female sport will get recognition it deserves'

Armagh GAA and netball star Caroline O'Hanlon on balancing sporting commitments with her career as a trainee GP... and how the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia are on her radar

By Declan Bogue

The next time you feel you are being pulled in six different directions, consider someone who genuinely is, such as Armagh's Caroline O'Hanlon.

A month ago, she was announced as the new signing for Manchester Thunder netball team in the televised Vitality Superleague. The 2014 champions have made a serious statement of intent in acquiring the services of the former UWS Sirens Centre.

They have gained a serious operator. The Carrickcruppen woman has extensive experience in the Superleague, playing for Northumbria before her spell with Sirens. But she has managed this all while pursuing a career as a GP trainee and playing Gaelic football with home club Carrickcruppen St Patrick's and is one of the finest inter-county players as an elegant midfielder with Armagh.

Larkfield is her domestic netball club and she fits in a regular roster of games for them, but as she looks further into 2018, the Commonwealth Games is on her radar for March and April.

Queensland, Australia is a long way from the south Armagh fields where she initially made her first steps in the sporting world.

"We were in the quarter-finals of the World Championships and we finished seventh in the last Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. We are currently ranked eighth," she explains.

"It depends on the draw like a lot of team competitions and it depends on how you open up."

Eighth is the highest-ever ranking for the Northern Ireland team, and while she targets a sixth-placing as realistic, all the teams above them are comprised of full-time professionals.

Another handicap for the NI team is that they have to do all the fundraising for themselves to get to Australia, which is a serious burden. O'Hanlon's initial sporting experiences were in Gaelic football, hanging around the Carrickcruppen fields. Her father, Charlie, is a farmer who was part of the St Patrick's golden spell of three senior Championships in 1978, 1979 and 1982.

He even played for Armagh for a spell, while her mother, Marion, is one of her greatest supporters.

When she attended Sacred Heart School in Newry, she caught the beginning of a sporting revolution in the school that shaped and influenced her. She has one sibling - sister Joanne, who didn't have the same platform and fell away from sports.

At 33, she has been to the fore in her sports and is one of the most thoughtful contributors to debates about what it is to be a woman at the top sporting level.

An occasional radio pundit for RTE, in October she was there for the ladies' All-Ireland final giving her analysis, as the finals drew the largest attendance at any female sporting event in the world in 2017.

"It was phenomenal," O'Hanlon recalls of that day.

"Just the noise whenever they came out. I have been there several times up in the Press box and then playing, but the noise was something else.

"I suppose it was emotional in that it was something you could be very proud of, a female event getting that level of support and coverage, and the TV coverage that TG4 gave it as well."

She adds: "We are trying to advertise the sport all the time and promote it and it is brilliant that it did get that recognition and we can build on that.

"It was a good game, there was a lot of good press afterwards and even the documentary ('Blues Sisters') that the Dublin team did to follow it up with.

"There has been a good follow-up and hopefully it will build and that female sport gets the recognition it deserves."

Her schedule is eye-watering, but certain concessions to her sporting life have been made.

"I'm a GP trainee, on the GP registrar, so I'm in the third year of that, this is the last year," she explains.

"The training agency has allowed me to go down to part-time hours for the season. So as of December I'm down to reduced hours which is great because we are in preparation for the Commonwealth Games."

She continues: "I was full-time until September so I was playing with Sirens and you were coming back, maybe a match on a Monday and you had to fly first thing on a Tuesday morning and drive from the airport to work.

"It worked alright during the season, but you were just exhausted come August, September, whenever the football season was coming to an end. It wasn't sustainable."

As such, a social life is one that is fashioned from her sporting commitments, and she's fine with that too.

"The nature of it, they are team sports and the GAA is obviously in the community, it's our identity as such. Our social life revolves around a lot of that," she states.

"I enjoy it, I enjoy going to watch sport, different sports and you meet lots of people through it. It is a sociable thing, training with people, meeting new people and going to matches, going to Manchester you are meeting a lot of new people from all walks of life and different perspectives.

"Ultimately if it is something you want to do, then you make time for things. If it was a burden, you wouldn't do it."

Such is her commitment to learning, she recently turned up at a GAA coaching day hosted by St Columban's School in Kilkeel where she kept her eyes peeled on the pitch-based classes ran by Tyrone strength and conditioning coach Peter Donnelly to pick up any nuggets of information.

"Most people who play sport at a high level have a certain level of obsession with it, you have to," she reasons.

"I saw the advertisement and they had an interesting line-up. I wanted to see the people involved as they were well-renowned in coaching, just to pick up tips."

The main motivation was to see how what was being taught could be applied to her own teams across two sports.

"You do have a curiosity. Obviously female sport is improving all the time. Those coaches are at the top level of men's football. It would be interesting to see Peter Donnelly, what methods he is using with the men. It's all about acquiring experience," she says.

"You don't have the same level of exposure as the men's coaching so it was just to see what way they were teaching, what the techniques were and was it that different from what we do."

Her life is dictated by the rhythms of training and matches, raising funds and awareness.

She pays tribute to the Carrickdale Hotel in Ravensdale, who have sponsored the Armagh ladies for coming up to 15 years now. However, she bemoans the need to fund the associated mammoth costs of the Northern Ireland team going to Australia for the Commonwealth Games.

While she is in Australia though, she might just check out the growing women's Australian Football Rules, which has become professionalised in the last decade, with Mayo and Carnacon legend Cora Staunton recently recruited by Greater Western Sydney Giants.

O'Hanlon would be another marquee signing. She leaves the door open for a season or two down under.

"You never say never. If a good opportunity arose, a good proposal, then you would consider it," she states.

"I'm very busy with work and netball and football is my focus at the minute.

"I don't know, I have no desire at this minute in time, but I suppose never say never."

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