How to juggle intercounty Gaelic football, netball and being a doctor

Caroline O’Hanlon divides her time between Armagh, Manchester Thunder and medicine

Caroline O’Hanlon is now in her 17th season with the Armagh women’s Gaelic football team. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Caroline O’Hanlon is now in her 17th season with the Armagh women’s Gaelic football team. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

‘From Ballydoogan to Bessbrook to Belfast to Belle Vue and Back’ might not be the snappiest of titles for a book on her sporting life, if she ever finds the time to write one, but it was the gist of Caroline O’Hanlon’s two-day itinerary earlier this week. And her schedule isn’t getting any lighter. “It’s kind of got in to crazy season,” she laughs, “but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

O’Hanlon is in her 17th season with the Armagh senior Gaelic football team and she’s been playing netball for Northern Ireland for 15 years, captain of both sides, so she’s more than accustomed to a crammed diary.

Even by her standards, though, the spell she’s in at the moment is especially hectic with five games in nine days for Armagh and her British Superleague netball club Manchester Thunder, not to mention having to squeeze in training for both sports. And the small matter of her job as a trainee doctor.

Last Sunday she was on National League duty for Armagh away to Sligo in Ballydoogan. Then it was briefly home to Bessbrook before getting a Monday morning flight from Belfast to Manchester where Thunder were playing in the Superleague at their Belle Vue arena. Live on Sky too.

We all have the same number of hours in the day, it’s just a matter of how we use them

Back home, training with Armagh, training with the NI netball squad, who are preparing for April’s Commonwealth Games in Australia, working as a trainee GP. She returns to Manchester for another Superleague game on Friday before heading home for Sunday’s National League meeting with Tyrone at Armagh’s Athletic Grounds. Then it’s back to England for another televised netball game, this one away to Loughborough Lightning in Leicestershire on Monday evening. And on it goes.

Keep both going

Reluctant as you are to ask her the question she has been posed innumerable times, it’s impossible not to.

How on earth do you do it – and why?

“Ah, I just love it,” she says, after returning home from training with Armagh at 9.45 on Tuesday night. “Tough as it can be at times, I never wanted to give up either football or netball and I’ve been lucky to have been able to keep both going. We all have the same number of hours in the day, it’s just a matter of how we use them.”

“I suppose anyone who plays sport wants to play at the highest level and the chance to play with Thunder this year was too good to turn down. I was delighted to have been approached by them, they’re a really strong franchise, consistently one of the top teams over the last nine or 10 years, they make the playoffs every year. When they come knocking, you’re not going to turn that down because opportunities like that are not going to be there for very much longer,” says O’Hanlon, who turns 34 in August.

GAA was always in the blood, O’Hanlon’s father Charlie enjoying considerable success with their local club Carrickcruppen in the late 1970s and early ’80s, his daughter wearing the same colours for as long as she can remember. And then she took up netball in primary school and that has remained part of her life ever since as well.  

She’s the conductor for whatever side she plays for, one of Gaelic football’s finest midfielders (and the 2014 Player of the Year), and a world class centre in netball, explaining why a club as ambitious as Thunder signed her up.

Caroline O’Hanlon (right) has been playing netball with Northern Ireland for 15 years and is captain of the side.Photograph: Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images
Caroline O’Hanlon (right) has been playing netball with Northern Ireland for 15 years and is captain of the side.Photograph: Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images

She had two previous spells in the Superleague with Northumbria and the Glasgow-based Sirens, but former champions Thunder are bigger guns and she’s hopeful of finishing the season with silverware.

“Thunder have a lot of full-time staff, it’s a very professional set-up and very ambitious. And they’re exciting times for the sport, the league in Britain is semi-professional now and Sky’s coverage has had a huge impact. Our game on Monday was on three Sky channels – Mix, Action and the Main Event. That’s massive. It just shows the popularity of it. I know there was no football on that night, and that was a key factor, but even so, for any female sport to get that kind of publicity is huge. Even back home, the amount of people who tell me they watched a match is amazing.”

Frustrations

“The change since I started out is unimaginable, really. Television has been massive for ladies’ Gaelic too, that’s been key in the growth of the game. So much of our sport is accessible now, through all kinds of forums, whether it’s live streaming or, like with our netball World Cup qualifiers, you could watch them on the red button on the BBC. That’s fantastic exposure, if it’s on television it’s ‘successful’, so people will have a look.”

With Northern Ireland, though, there are frustrations. “We had a really good 2017, we’re boxing well above our weight in terms of financial backing. All the other countries, even within the UK, have full-time coaches. Our coach has a full-time job, and has to try to do the job to the same standard while part-time. And it is a full-time job at that level. And we’re now trying to fund raise to go to the Commonwealth Games, versus other countries that are getting funding.

“So we’re actually having to think about incorporating fundraising in to our schedule as well as training. So that’s pretty difficult, an unnecessary distraction when you’re playing at that standard and have had the success that we’ve had. We won silver at the European Championships in October, we’re eighth in the world, so we’re higher than Scotland and Wales, we’ve qualified for the World Cup, yet we’re still struggling to get funding. So yeah, that’s a bit frustrating.”

But there’s no lack of support, she says, in her working life. “I work in a GP practice, I’ll be part-time until after the Commonwealth Games, so that’s been a great help. I work three days a week, but they’re really flexible and supportive, if I need to change days around I can. And Thunder have been so supportive too, which makes it a lot easier and a lot less stressful. I’m able to carry on playing for Armagh, which is so important to me, I don’t have to relocate, I can keep up my work, so it’s good.”

Supportive

Time off, need it be said, is a rarity. “And when I have it I usually end up watching sports,” she laughs, Manchester United one of her passions. Which made meeting Paul Scholes while she was on Thunder duty recently a particular thrill. “His daughter Alicia plays for our under-19s, she’s very good, she’s on the England under-17 squad. He comes along to a lot of the training and all her matches, he’s so supportive which is brilliant. It was great meeting him.”

Another occasion which she marks as special took place last month when she was honoured at the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards, given a special recognition award for her achievements across two sports. The citation would have been biblical length, much like her list of honours.

But there’s no stopping her. The schedule remains jammed. Or, as she puts it herself, “a wee bit busy, aye.”

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