There was a time when Camogie was everything to Sarah Fryday. A gifted sportsperson, she was only denied an opportunity to represent Ireland in cross-country running by budgetary cuts. She reached a final trial for a national basketball squad but was knocked unconscious. She played Senior football for Tipperary.
She gave up on being a dual player when losing her spot on the Camogie team however, because “Camogie will always take precedence”, as she said in an interview two years ago.
Camogie remains an integral part of who Sarah Fryday is and what she does, but the 23-year-old has a new perspective on life.
It started with a cruciate knee ligament injury in 2016. Recovery went well and she was targeting a return for June or July. Much of the advice she got though, told her that jumping back in to the deep end immediately might not be a good idea.
“So I thought the best thing to do was to get out of the country so as not to be tempting myself” she says now laughing.
Being immersed in Gaelic games, Fryday has always been involved in voluntary pursuits. She went to Lourdes with a community group when she was younger to help out. She had always wanted to do something in a poverty-stricken environment and decided on a three-week trip to Nansana, a town in the centre of Uganda, working for the Nurture Africa charity.
The focus is on healthcare, child protection, economic empowerment and education.
“The big thing with Nurture Africa is that they don’t give handouts. So education is a big thing. We’d go to the schools and talk to children in the equivalent of fourth, fifth and sixth classes about the risks of HIV virus, how to protect themselves from it, just general sexual education talks. ‘You’re still a kid, you need to be a kid.’ They’re so fixed on the idea of when they leave school, they have to start thinking about work, start thinking about family; particularly the girls.
“We’re trying to encourage girls to stay in school, to think about their future. Their whole future is family and rearing kids and looking after the husband. It’s totally a man’s world over there. They’re in shock when I’d be saying I’m 23 years of age and happy enough that I don’t have kids and am still working away in school. They’re looking at me like I’ve 10 heads.
“Now the rate of girls staying in school is increasing. Some schools have more girls than boys now. So it’s working.
“It’s the same with HIV. I think it used to be one in every 10 people was HIV positive. Now it’s down to about one in seven, one in eight. You can see those improvements with your eyes as well and it encourages you again to go back.
“Sometimes people come back and feel deflated that they didn’t do much as three weeks is a short time. I felt like that when I come home last year, wondering did I do much at all but one of the lads in the charity said you had to see the big picture. And going back this year, I saw the impact of what we had done last year.”
Fryday went back even though this time, it meant she would miss the opening two rounds of the Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Senior Championship. It was something she would never have considered 18 months ago.
Manager Bill Mullaney agreed with her newfound contention that there was more to life than Camogie. Once she accepted that there would be no walking back into the team, he would facilitate her in any way he could.
“I knew I wasn’t saying goodbye for good last year, I had to go back at some stage. I met so many people over there and the work they were doing was so good, I knew I’d be going back at some stage.
“Bill understood it was something I had to do. I knew if he asked me to choose, what I was going to choose. He was very understanding.”
And when she went back?
“It was like I never left; my home away from home.
“Last year we built a disability clinic. It was a small enough one because they didn’t feel they had a lot to cater for, as you wouldn’t see a lot of people with disabilities. They opened the clinic just after we left in July 2017 and there were hundreds of children with disabilities turned up.
“In Uganda, parents with disabled children believe that they’re cursed so they hide them away. When they started hearing from the different volunteers that this was just a disability that could be catered for, they started coming out.
“So this year, we built a new disability clinic. It was nice to see the one we built last year in full use. To see it being useful, is great and I’m looking forward to going back and seeing the same.”
Working and farming was very physical work but she revelled in it. Her mother has joked that she is looking to have some work in the kitchen and that she might call on her to do some plastering. Meanwhile, she also put her teaching skills to use in the schools, and in library sessions, but perhaps the greatest joy was in playing with the children.
“The school day there is 7 in the morning until 5pm, it’s awful long. So we try to get them out and play games with them because when they’re home, they’re working. School is the only time when they can be a child. And they’re so affectionate. You could bring out a stick of chalk and play hop scotch and they’ll stay out in it for two hours. They’d be kicking around a deflated ball – it’s incredible to see how much enjoyment they get. If we bring out a Frisbee they go nuts. It’s lovely to see that.
“It can be tough coming home, knowing what you’re leaving behind. You’re leaving and coming home to your lovely house, lovely university. The only difference between you and them is they were born in Uganda, you were born in Ireland. They’re as hard-working, they’re as friendly, they’re as motivated as any other person. It’s just the economic situation is completely different. It opens your eyes about how thankful you should be for what you’ve got.
“Another side of it is that the Ugandan people are so friendly, so kind, so hard-working. They are the happiest people, so relaxed and they have nothing. For the Ugandans, the most important things in life are having their kids in school and food on the table. When you think of what we stress about.
“So when I came home I took a step back and thought about the stress I was putting myself under for different things, and putting other people under stress. I learned a lot from it. There is so much more to life.
“When I was growing up, all the time I was a sportsperson. When you go over there you’re a teacher, a carer, a friend. It opened my eyes to different skills and characteristics I had that I didn’t even know I had. This is what I want to do, to help people.”
She arrived back home on Friday, and called into training at The Ragg on the way. She was togged out on Sunday morning and will be part of the squad for today’s top-of-the-table Group 2 clash with All-Ireland champions Cork.
Mullaney revealed after the dramatic win over Wexford that Fryday had sent a video of a group of children wishing them luck and shouting ‘Up Tipp’ beforehand. His admiration for her as a person is obvious but she will have to work her way back into the team now. A new mindset will help her do that.
“You play Camogie because you love it and enjoy it, it’s not a life or death situation. Don’t put yourself under too much pressure. When you do that, you play better and enjoy it a lot more than when you’re putting yourself under this mountain of pressure that there’s absolutely no need for. You’re young, you make mistakes, things happen – they go your way, they don’t go your way but you have to get on with it. I think when you take off that pressure you’ll play a lot freer with the shackles off.
“That comes from me appreciating there’s a lot more out there and that I’m playing a game I grew up playing because I loved it. So I’ve brought it back to that. When you’re in work and in college, that’s when there might be a bit of pressure but you can’t let a sport that you’ve grown up playing your whole life because you love it put you under pressure as well, as you’ll be burned out from it.
“You could have the match played 10 times in your head before you’ve ever played and it would drain you. You just have to do the work and then have confidence as a result of that.”
Fryday has won All-Irelands at Minor and U16 level with Tipperary and was brought into the Senior squad shortly after her 16th birthday. People waited for this gifted crop to strike it rich at Senior level. There have been glimpses but they have failed to make an impact on the Big Three. After a 13-point beating by today’s opponents in the Munster Final, they decided they needed to go about removing pressure from themselves as a group, just as Fryday has done as a player.
“You don’t know how good you are until you play Cork, Kilkenny and Galway and that’s been where we’ve been struggling the last few years. We’ve put it down to loads of different things over the time.
“This year, it was the same. We have a young team in there that are bringing so much confidence. Then you have the likes of Cáit Devane and Mary Ryan that have the abundance of experience. That’s stuff we all said before.
“After the Munster Final against Cork, where we got a bit of a trimming, we sat down and just had to reanalyse everything. We said ‘We have this, we have that but maybe we’re not up there yet, we’re not in the top three yet’ and once we took the pressure off ourselves, saying that we had to beat these, once we accepted that we’re not up there yet but we will soon, we started playing with a lot more freedom.”
Whatever happens today, Sarah Fryday will think of the people of Nansana. Don’t be surprised if they are thinking of her too.
By Daragh Ó Conchúir