By Daragh Ó Conchúir
A search of Katrina Mackey photos neatly captures what the Douglas dynamo is all about.
A big-game player with a host of goals and class points on the grandest platforms, including her nine Glen Dimplex All-Ireland senior camogie finals, the images confirm what the mind’s eye recalls about a player in her 15th season at the highest level.
There she is having gathered possession, hunched over to protect the sliotar as a defender closes in, about to slip the tackle and embark on another lightning run. Other shots show her mid-slalom, about to glide past defenders trying to stand her up.
Then she is stretching her legs in open territory, sliotar on bas, prompting fear and mayhem in opposition defences, numbers converging, attempting to close her down.
This was how Mackey introduced herself in 2009, when she and her twin sister Pamela were called into the Cork panel after Douglas had won the county championship the previous season.
And it is what she is still doing, as evidenced in her glorious equaliser in last year’s All-Ireland final against Kilkenny. Unfortunately for the Rebels, Denise Gaule had the final say with a dramatic winner, a little bit of payback for those extra time Julia White and Orla Cotter points in 2017 and 2018.
Mackey did end the campaign with her sixth All-Star (Pamela has four) and along with five All-Irelands, she is one of the most decorated players still playing. She missed this year’s League after suffering a bruised lung and bruised ribs in the first half of the first game against Dublin (she had already raised a green flag) but clipped over four points from play on her comeback in the Championship opener against Galway.
That she remains one of the most dangerous forwards in the game, having turned 31 in March and with such mileage on the clock, can be attributed to embracing self-improvement and discovery in every aspect of her life. That just naturally crosses over into camogie.
“I think I’ve always been like that,” says Mackey. “Over the years there’d be different managers coming in, different coaches coming in. Liam (Cronin), this year, I think he’s brilliant. He’s tactically excellent and he’s always open to players coming to him and giving their opinion and their feedback. He wants that.
“You’re not going to agree with everything everyone has done but I think you’ve got to be open to new ideas. Since I first came in in 2009, the game is completely different. It’s a million times better. It’s gotten faster, everybody is fitter, stronger. The skill level has increased. If you’re not willing to take on new knowledge, you’re going to be left there.”
She thinks of how scrawny she was coming out of minor and shudders at how she’d have coped coming into the modern game with such a lack of conditioning.
“I found even the 2012 All-Ireland against Wexford, I couldn’t believe how physical they were, and strong. I wasn’t strong enough. I had to go away and do a lot of gym work. That definitely stood to me. I’m a completely different player to ten years ago.
“But then there’s a lot down to management too. There wasn’t a strength and conditioning coach as such until Paudie (Murray) came in. We have Wesley O’Brien now. He’s excellent. You’re learning so much from them. That area has improved players massively.”
An organic chemist by profession, Mackey is currently on the lookout for a job having lectured and conducted research in UCC.
No one from her debut season is still around. One by one, Mary O’Connor, Gemma O’Connor, Rena Buckley, Briege Corkery, Aoife Murray and all the rest bid adieu, and even Pamela has taken a couple of years off before returning this term, but Mackey never thought about stepping away.
““The years do fly by. I can’t believe that was 14 years ago. I honestly think it’s almost an addictive part of your life. At the end of the season, you could be tired and might take a holiday – I took a few months before Christmas this year and went travelling – but I enjoy the thing so much. It’s part of your life. During the off-season then, you miss the camaraderie and the friendships. I always at the start of the year was mad to go back in January.”
Mackey’s Twitter feed is littered with high performance mottos and lessons but during that trip to Asia, which was clearly balm for mind, body and soul, there were numerous photos, be it taking Muay Thai lessons, wall climbing or hiking through sand dunes.
“Patrick and I went to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and then we ended in Bali. The holiday was great, something completely different. You kept yourself active. Every country there was something new to do. And you were meeting different people as well and learning about their culture. It was a complete break from hurling. You’re just a small fish,” she says with a laugh, having been blown away by the sheer number of people and non-stop nature of Bangkok compared to Patrick Street or the Grand Parade.
“I would say I’m a curious sort of person, so I love learning new things, seeking out new cultures, new knowledge and I have always done that.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is the Cork-Kilkenny rivalry. The stakes have always been high but rarely, if ever, have they jousted in a quarter-final as they do today at Croke Park (1.30pm), before the hurling semi-final between Clare and Kilkenny.
Remarkably, Mackey has never not played in an All-Ireland semi-final in her previous 14 championships at this level. And 2012 was the last time one of Galway, Cork or Kilkenny didn’t reach the last four, the Stripeywomen missing out on that occasion.
The relationship between the two has been spikey on occasions but Mackey admires the current champions. What’s more, and this is confirmed as her voice transmits almost wonder, and certainly excitement, she is savouring the prospect of another rollercoaster ride one the grandest stage of all.
“It’s a really healthy relationship, I think,” she says of the historic rivalry. “We get the best out of each other. They’re a top-quality side, with brilliant players down through the years and obviously the current team as well. I think we get the best out of each other and do relish playing each other. It’s great.
“Any opportunity you get to play in Croke Park is brilliant. There should be a good enough crowd there as well. That’s going to make it even better but it’s any young player’s dream to be going out on to Croke Park and any time you get that opportunity is a privilege.”