by Daragh Ó Conchúir
GALWAY ace Rebecca Hennelly spoke earlier this year about the physical and mental trials of coming back from two consecutive cruciate knee ligament injuries that robbed her of a significant chunk of her sporting life.
The courage, desire, dedication and capacity to withstand pain that is required to rehabilitate such a serious injury a second time, not to mention putting yourself through the potential risk of a repeat is unimaginable for most.
Yet there is a breed of individual like Hennelly, like Cork footballer Colm O’Neill and more, willing to put themselves through all that such a journey entails.
These people exist away from the limelight of Senior level too. Aoife Higgins is only 24 but it is nine years since she made her debut at adult level for Westmeath.
She was a central cog when the Lakesiders made the glorious breakthrough to win the Nancy Murray Cup for the All-Ireland Junior A Championship in 2012 but did not play in the Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Premier Junior Championship until Westmeath’s one-point loss to Carlow in the opening game of this year’s renewal on June 19th.
That was almost three years to the day since she suffered the injury playing for Lough Lene Gaels on June 24th.
She was operated on in August, returned to training in March but on June 23rd, she marked her one-year anniversary in the grisliest, darkest fashion imaginable when the knee gave in once more, again on club duty.
“I did a lot more coming back the second time” says Higgins.
“I did my physio up in Santry and it’s very structured up there. It was a bit of a drive, going up every second week for months but they’re very good and they do all the tests so they make you confident going back that the knee is strong and that’s half the battle.
“Now I don’t think about it too much. The odd time I get a twinge but for the most part it’s good.”
Westmeath are reaping the benefits of their work at underage level and have a steady production line of talent coming through.
It is something Higgins is proud of and as club secretary, has a keen interest in the wider health of the game beyond the marquee team. During her time on the sidelines, she helped county PRO Michelle Kirby and also threw her hand to the fixtures. So she has a holistic view taking in the entire landscape.
“The likes of Meath and Kildare, seeing how much they have come on in the last two years… I suppose Offaly is the real dream team the way they have come up through the ranks.
“It does take time. We’ve got brilliant Minors and U16 teams coming on so the future is bright.
“The standard of underage Camogie in Westmeath really has come on. Even for Féile, which is always a good indication, Raharney have done very well in the last few years. In the skills, we’ve had two All-Ireland winners in the last five years. That has given the county a great boost.”
The pharmacist returned to the fold after 30 months in January. That first Championship game was against Carlow and it is they that stand between Westmeath and a coveted appearance at Croke Park.
“There’s only a puck of a ball between any of the teams in the semi-finals. We drew with Armagh.
“That was our first game (of the group stages) against Carlow and the rain was so heavy. The pitch was very bad. The game could have gone either way. We know it’s going to be a battle.
“They are a very tough team. They had a brilliant League campaign. We’re gonna be up against it but if we can play our best hopefully we’ll come out on top.
“I can’t put into words what it would mean to play in Croke Park with the girls you’ve put in so much time with. They become your family and you’ve given up so much to do it. It would be great.”