Caroline O'Hanlon: Quest for perfection driving NI captain and GAA star

Caroline O'Hanlon
Caroline O'Hanlon gets on the ball for Armagh Ladies and Northern Ireland netball team
2019 Netball World Cup
Dates: 12-21 July Venue: M&S Bank Arena, Liverpool
Coverage: Every match from 15 July onwards will be broadcast by the BBC

Caroline O'Hanlon is a true force of nature - whether it be for club, county or country, in netball or Gaelic Games, this superhuman sportswoman excels.

On the netball court for Northern Ireland, Manchester Thunder and Larkfield and the GAA field for Carrickcruppen and Armagh.

That's enough to juggle with but add in a busy appointments list as a part-time doctor and you have a diary that leaves little room for social events and reflection.

All this with a 35th birthday in August and you realise we are talking about an amazing athlete, in any sport or anywhere.

A long list of honours have been gained and further reward for thousands of hours of slog and sweat comes in a special fortnight, starting on Sunday.

First up is donning the orange of Armagh in the Ulster Senior Ladies Championship final and then skippering Northern Ireland at the Netball World Cup in England.

Caroline O'Hanlon celebrates after Armagh won the National League Division Two title in 2015
O'Hanlon celebrates after Armagh won the National League Division Two title in 2015

"Fitting everything in is all about planning in advance, although it is only possible with great employers who facilitate me with all the travel and time off," said the Newry woman.

"The variety of the two sports and different teams helps me to avoid burn-out and the continuous cycle means I don't get that hard pre-season.

"There are complementary skills - ball handling, agility and speed are all transferrable and the physicality of GAA is now helpful in netball as that element of the game has increased in recent years.

"It's going to be an exciting couple of weeks and similar to 2014, when I played for Armagh in the Ulster final and then represented Northern Ireland in the Commonwealth Games.

"We won the Ulster title that year so hopefully this will follow a similar path."

Queen's University are Belfast is among the long list of teams Caroline O'Hanlon has represented
Queen's University in Belfast are among the long list of teams O'Hanlon has represented

A love for netball flourished in primary school with O'Hanlon already "born into" GAA - she emerged as a talent at Carrickcruppen and captained the side to their first Armagh club title in 2010.

Her county debut came 10 years earlier and her Orchard career now spans almost two decades, with highlights including an All-Ireland final appearance in 2006 and leading Armagh to that provincial triumph five years ago.

Armagh go into the Ulster final at Clones against a Donegal side that hammered them in the 2018 decider.

"We didn't do ourselves justice last year - everything that could go wrong did go wrong and everything went right for Donegal," added O'Hanlon.

"We haven't had too many of those days. It was one to forget and a truer reflection of our quality came in the All-Ireland quarter-final when we had a narrow loss to Donegal.

"We've improved no end - we're going into the game very confident and if we play to our potential we have a good chance."

Confidence high

Three All Stars (a place in the All-Ireland team of the season) are among her individual GAA awards, while she was also named Ladies Gaelic Footballer of the Year in 2014.

She just keeps going - take a 48-hour period in March where O'Hanlon started by helping Lisburn side Larkfield win the NI League final.

She then travelled to England and starred as Manchester Thunder moved top of the Netball Superleague before flying back home and playing for Armagh in the Ladies National Football League.

More impressive displays for Thunder earned her the Player of the Month award for March in the Netball Superleague.

O'Hanlon was key for the team at centre as they went on to clinch their first Superleague title since 2014 by beating Wasps in the Grand Final at London's Copper Box in May.

Delight for Caroline O'Hanlon (right) after Manchester Thunder's victory in the Grand Final
Delight for Caroline O'Hanlon (right) after Manchester Thunder's victory in the Grand Final

Overcoming champions and top-ranked side Australia in their World Cup opener will be a much tougher task for her Northern Ireland team on 12 July.

It is followed by group games against Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe as the Warriors make the short trip to Liverpool under new coach Dan Ryan.

This will be O'Hanlon's third World Cup appearance and the principle target is bettering Northern Ireland's best finish of seventh in 2011.

"You go to the World Cup to play against the best teams on the planet and Australia are the best, so who better to start against and see where we are at," she said.

Keeping focused

"We're not going to be intimidated by them - we'll go out and have our focus and targets in that game and stick to our task.

"We'll be targeting wins against Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe - we beat Sri Lanka at the 2011 World Cup but they have a 7ft shooter so they will be challenging.

"Top six, that's been our goal since Dan's come in. We aspire to break into that top six and I believe we have the talent in the squad to do it.

"I've had a great year so far, winning the league with Thunder, and I'm hoping to bring that success into the World Cup."

O'Hanlon sighs when I mention the word retirement - "I think about it quite regularly," is the response but a decision will be left until after the World Cup.

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Dual star O'Hanlon happy to be role model

Her international feats were recognised last year when she was Northern Ireland's flagbearer at the Commonwealth Games in Australia.

The GP will once again skipper the netball team and her numerous stints as captain in various sides mark her out as a natural leader and role model.

So what makes O'Hanlon such a good captain? The answer explains her longevity in elite sport with a mindset for aspiring sportswomen to emulate.

"Dedication and determination," she says, "I just try to work as hard as I can and continually improve.

"In every training session and every match I strive to be better than the last one, and I hope that the players around me will try to do the same."