Ask any athlete which road they would rather never have to journey on, and chances are they will tell you it is the one to recovery. It is a path filled with long lonely days of rehab work, and while the shortcuts dotted along the road are tempting, they ultimately lead right back to the start.
For Naomi Carroll, her introduction to the comeback trail from a cruciate knee injury began last August. Clare and Meath were in the middle of an enthralling battle in the Ladies Intermediate Football All-Ireland Quarter-Final, and the Cratloe woman was taking the fight to the Royals. In the blink of an eye, things changed.
“I actually had come on as a sub in the game and was soloing down the right wing. I went to cut back in and my knee just went from under me. I distinctly remember that it popped out and popped back in again and I just fell. The physio came in and checked it and it seemed ok so I tried to get back up and go again but I just fell, and I knew then I was in trouble. I never had any major injury up to this point and even after the game I didn’t think it was as bad as it turned out to be. I went to the doctor and they did all the tests and told me the knee was strong and they were hopeful I would be back in a couple of weeks. A few physios said the same thing because the muscles around it were so strong but it was only when the MRI was done that it showed up how much damage had been done so that was really disappointing news to get” she said.
News like that is hard to take for someone who is involved in just one code, but for someone like Naomi, the blow was extra cruel. It came after a year that had seen her being part of the extended Irish squad that reached the Women’s Hockey World Cup Final, while she was also involved with the Clare ladies football squad. The Gaelcholáiste Luimnigh teacher admits it was a difficult reality to confront.
She said: “It was absolutely crushing and I can remember the day I was told. I was in school that day and I knew the results had been passed on to the doctor and they had been there for a couple of days. I had been ringing them to try and find out what was going on. I got the call after school and it was the worst news I could have heard. You don’t really know how to react because all that goes through your head is that it’s nine months where you can’t do anything”.
With the long road to recovery beckoning, Carroll’s naturally positive outlook was not going to be affected and she vowed that she would do whatever it took to come back as strong as ever. Being involved at an elite level in such a spectrum of sports would prove crucial for the 26-year-old as she had expertise and support to call on.
“Clare camogie and Clare football have been my backbone through all of this and from the very beginning, the camogie squad contacted me even though I was not involved with them last year. They asked me to be part of the panel and I made it very clear to them how useless I would be and that I would be nearly a hindrance as much as anything else but they were happy enough to have me. I have been at nearly all the training sessions and at this stage now I can participate with the rehab group and I can do most of what they are doing. Even at the start they had me helping out with stats and that kind of thing and it was lovely to be involved with a group” she noted.
It’s not the first cruciate injury to hit a high profile sports star in Cratloe, with All-Ireland winner Podge Collins going through the same journey after he suffered the same blow in 2015. Naomi says he was a huge support for her.
“Podge was really good to me when I first found out about it. I had actually gone up for surgery and it was cancelled on the day I was there initially. I contacted him and said this was horrible and asked what I should do and he met me in Cratloe gym. He went through some of the exercises from his recovery program and told me this was a blessing in disguise because I had six weeks to get myself right and that I would be thankful for it after the surgery. It’s an injury that people know an awful lot more about now and the recovery times for it are actually reducing. I was advised to take the full nine months so as to give myself the best opportunity to avoid it happening again. That aspect of self-discipline is so tough. I would be with the rehab group watching training going on and they would be telling me to concentrate on what I am doing. The more I do, the more I think that I could nearly go back training but you have to be so disciplined and listen to the professionals. When they say jump, you just ask how high” she smiled.
Naomi decided to document her journey in a series of blog posts and social media videos which captured the progress she was making while also providing her with something of a therapeutic outlet. She says it is something she has enjoyed doing.
“At the start I realised that I had gone from being so busy to suddenly having nothing to do for the first couple of weeks. I am used to being in team situations where you are accountable for your actions so I wanted to make sure that I was doing everything that I could do to the best of my ability. I decided to give it a go and then started putting the videos up and I found that it helped keep me motivated because I could look back on them and see that I was making progress along the way. I said if I was going doing it that I wanted to be totally honest and not make it sound like it was all rosy because it absolutely is not and there are days that I just want to give up on everything. I was reading back one of the blogs and I had said that rest was so important. I had nearly forgotten that because I am desperate for trying to fit too much into the week so to read that and remember that I had noted I feel good after rest helped me to re-focus” she noted.
With the finish line now in sight, thoughts are starting to turn towards her plans when the final marker on the road is passed. Naomi feels it will be a case of easing back into the full rigors of top level sport.
She said: “My first plan is to get it right. The camogie and football set ups have been exceptionally good to me so I hope to finish out the year with them and be part of the panels. After that I don’t know what the story will be or what is coming down the track, but at the minute I am just taking things step by step and try to enjoy what I am doing so that I get the most out of it”.
From the second the injury hit Naomi has had an infectious positive outlook, and that has shown no signs of wavering. This week will see her fly to Kolkata along with her boyfriend John as part of charity work with the Hope Foundation. She says the experience of the last few months has given her a renewed outlook on different aspects of life.
“I think I have a bigger appreciation for most things now and I think that I am now starting to branch myself out and do different things. I love sport and sport is my life so this journey has helped me to try and put a positive spin on the difficult moments. My boyfriend John has been really good through it all and when he found out about the injury he wanted to try and help me keep busy. He has actually been out there twice before and some students from the school also travelled over through the Immersion Programme to visit all the projects that are in place through the Hope Foundation. It involves visiting the slums and seeing how the children there live so it is going to be an eye-opening experience” she said.
When Naomi gets back to full fitness, there could be some sibling rivalries to be ironed out. Her brother Nigel recently completed a marathon in Vienna in a time of two hours 54 minutes. Naomi is not shying away from the challenge.
“I’d say it might take me a while to catch up with him when he is getting personal best times around the world. He’s been making incredible progress in the last few years and watching that is really inspiring. He went from having no interest in sport at all to running sub three hour marathons for fun, so I am looking forward to giving him a run for his money someday” she laughed.
You can listen to the full interview with Naomi below