“It was a very surreal moment walking out with the team at last years Commonwealth Games and getting asked to lead the team in front of a full stadium was a lovely and very humbling experience. Equally, going out to play in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day, that’s hard to beat.
“But the first year we won the county championship with Carrickcruppen was special, we were a long time trying and we weren’t getting very close but the first year we won it was very special because it’s the girls you’ve been playing with all along and we never thought we’d win it because we were so far away at one point.
“I don’t think I could single out one particular thing… there have been quite a few.” Caroline O’Hanlon reflecting on her greatest sporting achievement.
There really has been quite a few special achievements throughout Caroline O’Hanlon’s distinguished sporting career. She’s captained her county and her country played in World Cups and All-Ireland finals as well as winning All-Stars and Sportswoman of the Year awards.
O’Hanlon is one of the greatest athletes ever produced on these shores. Not just because of her dual sport status but because of the longevity and consistency with which she has competed at the top-level.
The Armagh native won her first cap for Northern Ireland’s netball side while still in school and is currently in the midst of her 19th season with the Armagh senior footballers. The three-time All-Star credits her enjoyment of playing and the realization that she’s in a privileged position as the reason for competing at the top-level in two sports for such a sustained period of time.
“I enjoy playing and that’s the bottom line,” O’Hanlon told Pundit Arena.
“I’ve been lucky that I haven’t had any serious injuries and you’re just always hopeful that next year you are going to win something major. I don’t ever say I’m going to play for this amount of time, I literally just take it a year at a time and if the set-up is right, the manager is right and culture within each group is right then you are happy to be a part of it and it’s enjoyable to be a part of.
“It’s always an honour to be there to represent your county or represent your country and there are not that many people who have those opportunities so I feel very lucky.”
However, while she may have been lucky with regards to injuries her time at the top can be put down to her skill, work ethic and talent which is evident when you look at her long list of achievements which include; three World Cups, a Super League title (Manchester Thunder), multiple NI Premier League titles (Larkfield), two Nations Cup wins (Northern Ireland), an All-Ireland final appearance (Armagh) and an Ulster Championship win (Armagh) as well as a host of individual awards including the 2014 Ladies Gaelic Footballer of the Year and the 2015 European Netball Championships Player of the Tournament.
It’s clear we are dealing with a special talent. However, it’s not only on the sporting field that O’Hanlon has excelled. She’s also a high achiever in her professional life. The Armagh star is a practising doctor and can be found more often than not in the local GP’s surgery near Dundrum in County Down.
Juggling not only one but two top-tier sports alongside a burgeoning medical career is not for the faint-hearted but O’Hanlon is thankful for her colleagues in the medical profession who have allowed her to pursue all of her life’s passions.
She admits that the high-stakes nature of both her sporting life and professional life helps because it enables her to focus fully on one thing at a time.
“I’ve been working as a GP over the last few years and my colleagues have been really great and flexible around my sport. They’ve been really supportive of me doing that and that’s been crucial. Obviously, if I didn’t have that flexibility it would have been really difficult but it lessens the stress because you have that support network.
“Obviously, sport is sport at the end of the day and people have a lot more stresses going on in their lives and certainly when you see that it does put sport into perspective but I’ve always found that playing at that level has helped me with studying and with work because you have that complete distraction. When you’re playing at that level your mind can’t be anywhere else so when you leave work and go to training you are fully immersed in training and equally when you are at work because it is very intense as well.”
O’Hanlon hails from an intense part of the North, the small village of Bessbrook lies in the heart of South Armagh, which has long been the epicentre of political discourse and violence in the state.
So when the international netballer was approached to be the flagbearer at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast it would have been easy for her to refuse to carry a flag that many of her community may not have recognised as their own but O’Hanlon viewed it for what it was, an honour and a privilege to represent all of the athletes and all of Northern Ireland, on both sides of the political and religious divide.
“I didn’t dwell on it, I just took it for what it was; an honour to be asked to lead out the team. I knew a lot of the athletes from the other sports and it was a very talented group so to lead out those fine athletes was a privilege.
“That’s what I took it as and I was overwhelmed by the support I got from home. Text messages, messages through family and friends. They were very proud of it and the club (Carrickcruppen) was very proud of it. I’ve played for Northern Ireland since I was 15 or 16 so I think we have to move past all of that.”
Nearly 20 years on from her debut and O’Hanlon is still playing for Northern Ireland and her presence was needed in Liverpool last month when she captained the side to a tenth place finish in the Netball World Cup.
With the Championship in full flight, Armagh felt the loss of their captain but the star midfielder returned to the fray just in time to record a huge upset win over Cork that secured their spot in the quarter-finals of the All-Ireland series where they will face Mayo.
O’Hanlon admits it has been an up and down season for the Orchard County following an Ulster final defeat to Donegal but they are in the last eight now and fully confident of taking on all comers.
“We’ve had a rollercoaster of a season really and we’ve had different setbacks with injuries and it’s been difficult at times. We knew as a group that we always had a performance of that level in us and the capabilities to beat the top teams in the country but we haven’t done it this year and I think that performance came at a crucial time.
“I was delighted for our management and backroom team because the work they’ve put in over the last two years, that performance reflects it and they really deserved that. I just hope that we can back it up with another performance because obviously, a one-off like that isn’t any use. We have to find that consistency to back up the good performances with great performances.
“There’s not a lot between the top teams and in Ladies football, how you start can dictate the match so we’re hoping to keep it close in the early stages and we’re confident in our ability coming off the back of the Cork game. We’re confident we can compete with any team in the country but certainly, Mayo in a knockout round will be as tough as it gets so we’ll need to put in an even better performance than we did against Cork to get over the line but I do think we are capable of it.”
Armagh take on Mayo in Pearse Park, Longford on Saturday with a 1 pm throw-in time.