Between how she felt, and what she was told, and what made sense, and what her heart said, and what she wanted, and being stubborn, and being crocked, and being warned, Niamh Rockett was stuck. There was no remaining cartilage in her left knee, and there was arthritis in the joint. She was 20. One specialist told her that if she continued to play camogie she could be in a wheelchair in ten years; being cruel to be kind.
That’s not the whole story: there’s a prequel. When Rockett was 16 she developed a limp. By then she had played representative hockey for Munster, football for Waterford, soccer for a southeast regional team and was already a camogie star. She had the kind of blatant brilliance that made everyone an expert. “I played everything. Anything I could put my hand to.”
The limp, though, was persistent and, after a while, it was alarming. When they went in search of explanations they were piled high: wear and tear, fallen arches in her feet, something hereditary. The most disturbing diagnosis, though, was that there was a malalignment in her knees.
“They wanted to break my knees and realign them. Thankfully, my father didn’t allow me to do that because I was too young. So we went off and got different opinions. I went to chiropractors, chiropodists, different consultants, physios – anything to avoid an operation at the time really.”
They found a way to carry on. And she did. By various means, they negotiated an uneasy truce with the limp. The bandage she wore on her left knee gained volume until it resembled a turban. Then, in a league match against Meath in 2014, the house of cards came crashing down. The Meath wing back tripped her with an outstretched leg, and on impact with the ground her knee cap was catapulted out of place. Rockett was concussed in the fall and came round in a state.
Between one thing and another, the reconstruction of her knee required three operations. For the next 14 months she couldn’t run. “I had kind of made peace with the fact that I wasn’t going to play again. They were trying to get me to go into goal, and get me to do different things – they were trying to accommodate me.
“I suppose that’s part of the reason why my recovery took so long as well, because I was just so upset. I thought, ‘What’s the point in trying to go back.’ Mentally, it had a big effect on me. I definitely would have been juggling my mental health around for a long time.
“My brother played football and hurling for Waterford. My father had played [for Waterford]. I used to be exceptional at all the sports I was at – that was just the way it was. To be told you mightn’t be able to play again, it was very hard mentally.”
The other complication was that she was studying to be a PE teacher in UCC. There were practical modules in the course that required Rockett to be active. At the time, she was on crutches, locked in a long recovery. The house where she was staying on College Road was mercifully close to the main campus, but she remembers one day taking 40 minutes to complete a walk that should have taken 15. If this was going to be her career, she needed a high degree of sustainable mobility. Was it reckless to even consider going back to camogie? That racket filled her head.
“Being a PE teacher, there were a lot of serious conversations at home – for my job, just things like that. How will I manage it? The PE department in UCC were very, very accommodating. Usually you’d have to do the running and swimming and what not, but they were very good to me. Instead of doing the sports I might be coaching on the side of it. They made allowances.”
The turning point was an introduction to Declan O’Sullivan, a physio in Cork who had worked with the senior hurlers for years. He brought her to the gym in Pairc Ui Rinn and started her on the road to somewhere. “He always said to me, ‘Look, I don’t know whether you’ll get back playing, but we’ll get you back to a stage where you can function.
“He gave me a big gym programme. I remember one day roaring crying down there because I had to learn how to run again. My run was all over the place. I hadn’t run in 14 months. But I’m stubborn enough. There’s a lot of will power and a lot of determination. The lads at home call me numb – ‘a numb bitch.’ They say I’m just numb to pain. I’ve broken my nose, I’ve broken my wrist. They say I love punishment, that’s what they think.”
When she returned to the Waterford panel, not everything could be as it was before. Rockett used to have “loads and loads and loads” of pace but the injury and the operations and the bitterly adversarial recovery had eroded it. She used to be one of the pillars of the team too, but that status was under constant review now.
“I came back and I was carrying a few pounds. I was probably lacking confidence. I was probably not in a good head space. I had to adjust a lot of things. I was dropped for games. I was dropped loads of times. It took me ages to get back on the team. You wouldn’t play well and the confidence would be going and you wouldn’t start the next game then. You look at other players – you would have been surpassing them before the injury and they were miles ahead of you now.
“When we got to the [intermediate] All-Ireland final [in 2015] I would have been a first-choice player, but I would have been the first person to be taken off as well.”
They won that final, and in a head-spinning moment of confusion, she was taken off in error; 30 seconds later, they replaced somebody else and put her back on.
When Rockett first came on to the county panel as a 14-year-old, Waterford were contesting junior All-Ireland finals. They lost two of them in a row before they finally broke through. Since they re-emerged as a senior team in 2016 they have been regular qualifiers from the round-robin phase of the championship, but without taking the next step. This summer, for the first time in 63 years, they reached the All-Ireland semi-final; Rockett scored 2-1 in the quarter-final, their top scorer from play.
[ Grace Walsh thankful that camogie was there for her and Kilkenny during testing times ]
As rank outsiders they rattled Cork in Croke Park. Rockett scored a brilliant point just before half-time to put them four clear in a low-scoring match, and she landed another beauty early in the second half to stretch their lead. Seven minutes from the end they were still in front. “Our panel was so small we were probably missing a few people ... like the way Cork made changes [off the bench] in the last few minutes and it injected a bit of pace. A few players came on and scored points and we were just out on our feet.”
Pre-season training has resumed. Rockett is gearing up for her 15th campaign. The injuries couldn’t smother her brilliance. In 2020, she won her first All-Star; this year she was nominated again. Her knee still complains, and she listens, even though she’s heard it all before. She’s 29 now. Flying. Still.
“I love the challenge,” she says. “I love being pushed to the best of my ability.”
Nobody pushed like her.