Amazing Grace on frontline for Irish women’s Tokyo bid

by Stephen Findlater

Grace O’Flanagan admits Ireland’s low-key results from last week’s uncapped series against Great Britain provide a strong reality check for the summer ahead.

Ireland beat GB for the first time in March in Belfast but the return series saw the Bisham Abbey hosts in rude healthy, running up 3-1, 4-1 and 7-2 wins in addition to a 0-0 draw.

And the goalkeeper says they were “losses that will keep us in check and keep us hungry” ahead of bigger challenges ahead, namely June’s European Championships and the Olympic Games a month later.

“The scorelines were harsh at times and we learnt a lot of things we need to work on,” O’Flanagan said on Wednesday.

“Overall, we are feeling positive. We did get a draw so when we implemented what we are trying to do.

“Mostly, we are really happy to get those games in. They are a really valuable learning experience; we have been trying a few different things out and given the few international games we have had over the last year, we are taking the opportunity to try people in different positions and different tactics.”

Many of those changes have been enforced with Lena Tice and Megan Frazer rested due to injury while twins Serena and Bethany Barr along with Zoe Wilson are ruled out long-term.

Fellow goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran also set to return to the fold in the coming days ahead of a couple of games against Scotland next week following the conclusion of the Dutch league season.

O’Flanagan was speaking to the media in her role as an ambassador for Darkness Into Light, having gained a unique insight into how the pandemic has affected each aspect of her life.

A doctor by trade, she had taken a year off hockey after the 2018 World Cup silver medal before getting back into gear for the Tokyo 2020 campaign.

Work, though, soon became very much the focus, working on Covid wards for six months before moving into a non-Covid setting.

Through it, she has seen directly some of the ravages it can take on people’s mental health and her patients.

“I see a lot of patients with mental health issues coming into hospitals in crisis,” she adds. “The reality is most of us know someone who struggles from mental health issues, most know someone affected by suicide. That’s the importance of Darkness into Light and Pieta, helping them.

“The idea of 200,000 people coming together at one time for sunrise to show support, to show we are standing up for mental health issues, to show we are fighting against suicide is a really important message.

“I have always been lucky with my mental health; it is something I do pay attention to. I seek help when I need it and have really good support networks. 

“Thankfully, I have been able to look after that aspect well but we do need to raise awareness for because it can catch people. 

“It is not necessarily a physical illness that can bring it on or any particular event. Mental health issues can arise out of nowhere.”

Recently, she has stepped back from the frontlines to focus solely on her hockey and an attempt to force her way into coach Sean Dancer’s plans for Tokyo. 

She knows it will be tough with places at a premium but she will leave no stone unturned to try and pin down a spot.

“I didn’t want to leave my colleagues stretched or short-staffed so the easier thing was that I would focus on training especially considering the quarantine issue every time we travel. It would have been just too much time out of work had I been in and out.

“I’m definitely glad I’ve made the decision [to step back from work temporarily]; this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, 

“I think I would always have looked back and wondered ‘what if’ if I hadn’t given it everything I have. 

“I’m enjoying every minute of it; I am looking forward to getting back to work. But this is an opportunity I had to go for.”

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