Grace O’Flanagan happy to turn her focus to hockey after tough year

Trainee surgeon and Ireland goalkeeper looking forward to Olympic Games

Irish hockey international Grace O’Flanagan is encouraging people to sign up for this year’s Darkness Into Light, which takes place this Saturday, May 8th. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Irish hockey international Grace O’Flanagan is encouraging people to sign up for this year’s Darkness Into Light, which takes place this Saturday, May 8th. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

Having to vie with the mighty Ayeisha McFerran for a place in the Irish hockey team means Grace O’Flanagan would be entitled to regard herself as one of our more unfortunate international sports people. But since making her Irish debut almost a decade ago the 32-year-old Dubliner has played her own pivotal role in the team’s story, battling back from a life-threatening illness to do so. And now she’s working on featuring in the next chapter of that story which will take place in Tokyo this summer at the Olympic Games.

There was no moment she cherished more along the way than when she came on for McFerran in the 2018 World Cup final, but that magical fortnight in London might never have happened if it wasn’t for her own goalkeeping prowess in Johannesburg the summer before.

While McFerran’s penalty-stroke saves in the shoot-outs that gave Ireland victory over India and Spain in the World Cup quarter- and semi-finals helped earn her the goalkeeper of the tournament award, it was O’Flanagan’s save from India’s Rani Rampal in July 2017 that sent Ireland on their way to qualifying for the tournament.

McFerran was sin-binned and conceded a stroke when she upended Navjot Kaur at a stage in the game, which Ireland had to win, that India were already a goal up. O’Flanagan came off the bench, saved the stroke with her first touch of the tournament, kept out everything the Indians threw at her for the remainder of the game, Katie Mullan and Lizzie Colvin scored, and O’Flanagan disappeared under a sea of celebrating team-mates at full-time.

She smiles when she’s reminded of that day, one that ultimately led to a breakthrough for a team that has soared ever since. “It’s been a while since I thought about that one, but yeah, it was a special moment,” she says. “It’s nice when you’re sitting on the sidelines for so long to come on and have an impact, to feel part of it all. Definitely the heart-rate went up for a couple of minutes, but once I was standing between those posts I felt pretty comfortable. Yeah, a special memory.”

O’Flanagan was speaking at an event promoting the annual ‘Darkness Into Light’ fundraiser for suicide prevention charity Pieta, for whom she is an ambassador, this year’s drive taking place on Saturday, May 8th, but, by necessity, in a ‘socially distanced’ form.

She’s a good fit for Pieta. While she has been fortunate enough not to have been afflicted with mental health issues, O’Flanagan had to make her own journey back from the dark after she was diagnosed in 2015 with cancer having found a small lump in her neck. She was told there was a 50 per cent chance of it spreading to her lungs, her world turned upside down by the prognosis. As a medical student, she was under no illusions about how serious the battle ahead would be.

“All of a sudden, I went from being a healthy 26-year-old to maybe not being alive in five years’ time,” she said before of the ordeal, but her surgery was a success and she’s been all clear ever since.

Now, as a trainee surgeon, specialising in the head and neck, she’s attempting to give back after the care she received. The last 14 months, though, have been an enormous challenge.

“For the first six months of the pandemic, I had surgical patients with Covid before I moved in to a role where we were generally non-Covid-receiving. It’s definitely something we never experienced before, it was very much learning as we go.

“It has been a difficult year for healthcare workers, for the health service, for our patients and the general public. Thankfully, we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccines rolling out and numbers going down. That’s really positive and we are seeing the relief in hospitals.

“From a hockey point of view, it was difficult to manage that risk, the concern of picking up Covid in work and then bringing it in to the Irish camp. But the last few months I’ve been solely playing hockey. I didn’t want to leave my colleagues stretched or short-staffed so the easier thing was that I would focus on hockey ahead of the Olympics, especially because of the quarantine requirement every time we travelled. It would have been just too much time out of work had I been in and out.

“I’m definitely glad I’ve made that decision, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I think I would always have looked back and wondered ‘what if’ if I hadn’t given it everything I have, so that was my thinking going in to this. This is an opportunity I had to go for.”

*You can sign up for Pieta’s ‘Darkness Into Light’ fundraiser, sponsored by Electric Ireland, at darknessintolight.ie

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