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Dublin: 7 °C Saturday 4 April, 2020

'I do what I have to do' - The ex-footballer who recovered from a leg amputation to run for Ireland

Alex Lee lost his leg in a freak tackle three years ago. He talks to The42 about battling back to represent Ireland at elite level.

Alex Lee on the track.
Alex Lee on the track.
Image: Alex Lee

ALEX LEE’S LIFE changed three years ago and became about a thousand second glances and double-takes. 

He took a Uefa B Licence coaching course and Clinton Morrison was among the candidates whose jaws hit the floor. He returned to school, where colleagues subtly paused to give him more space on steps and corridors while students furtively strained their necks to try and see it for themselves. 

“We had a new group of first years in and they hadn’t heard about my leg”, Alex tells The42

“I walk in one day with pants on and the next day I was in shorts, and they are asking, ‘What happened to you last night!?” 

It happened in 2016, playing a standard Sunday morning Connacht Junior Cup game for Mervue United, for whom Alex had played almost a hundred times in the League of Ireland’s first division.

“It was a 50-50 ball, but I knew straight away something was wrong, as my leg was pointing one way and my ankle the other way.

“I was roaring in agony so I knew it was different. From there you think you’ll be out of action for a few months, but it didn’t turn out that way.” 

He spent six weeks in hospital, had 14 surgeries, and left in a wheelchair after his right leg was amputated below the knee.

Alex spent a further six weeks in the wheelchair as he was being fitted for a prosthetic leg, before slowly learning how to walk with crutches and uncovering a steely, pragmatic resolve along the way.

“I remember taking my first steps with my prosthetic, I broke down in tears. I’d never pictured this scenario, but then I said to myself, ‘I have to start walking’

“Having confidence in yourself is having confidence in the prosthetic.

“I set myself small, large steps. At the beginning, I used to count steps and focus on how I walked. Now it’s second-nature, I get up in the morning and stick on my leg and walk.

“Some days I won’t think about it until a couple of hours into the day, whereas at the start it was constant. I had to concentrate on where I was walking, watching to see how I would negotiate around certain things.

“The mental side of all of that was very tough. I was a fit, strong 26-year-old and then I found myself in a wheelchair, unable to do anything for myself, and needing other people.

“But then I set yourself goals. Small goals, and I built it up.”

Among those goals was to return to teaching Irish and Geography in St Joseph’s College in Galway, which helped get a bit of “normality” back into his life. There were yawning voids to fill, though, mainly the hours-long evening gap where soccer training once was. 

In 2017 he got a new prosthetic, which at least allowed him to begin jogging and go to the gym. This wasn’t enough and in January 2018 he got fitted for a running blade. After running alone for two months, he joined Galway City Harriers, his local athletics club.

From there…lift-off. 

“When I had my amputation people would have told me, ‘Oh you could go to the Paralympics.’ People don’t realise all the hard work you have to put in to get there.”

11054527_856510124391879_5383177197324408594_n Alex playing with Mervue United in 2015. Source: Steve Alfred 2015

He put that hard work in, and his typical week features a trio of gym visits on mornings before school and two or three track sessions in the evening, along with physio and whatever else has to be done in the time in between. 

Alex’s ambition for this year was to get classified to be eligible to run in Para events, which he achieved with a trip to Italy in June. He then ran PBs in the 100m and 200m events during the summer, and has thus been selected to represent Ireland in those competitions at the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai next month. 

“It’s absolute bonus territory”, says Alex.

“My goal at the start of the year was to get classified and try to get my times down, and I managed to do that. Because of that, Dubai is the end result. To get to Dubai you have to get the qualifying times and then be selected by Paralympics Ireland.

“I didn’t know if it was realistic at the start of the summer, but I improved, got my times down and now it’s happening.

“People don’t realise the standard you have to be at.  There is a qualifying criteria, it’s not just a case of turning up.

“It’s elite-level competition: it’s not training once a week and turning up at the weekend.”

With athletics a full-time gig at the moment, his coaching career is on hold. His B Licence course had to be postponed for a year because of the injury, but he completed it in 2018 and is aiming to graduate to the A Licence course when he can.

He has plenty of coaching experience already – he led his school’s first years to an All-Ireland final, and would be coaching the Connacht Schools’ team next month had athletics not intervened. 

His passion for football has not been dimmed: he watched plenty of games from his hospital bed, went to watch Mervue as soon as he was discharged and still scarpers across to Anfield with his brother a few times a season. 

Liverpool’s style influences his own coaching, although says he is “a bit calmer than Jurgen Klopp.” 

Coaching, however, has been relegated in his priorities for now as Dubai hovers into view with the tantalising prospect of Tokyo beyond it. 

Not that Alex Lee has spent too much time worrying about the long-term: he’s learned that life is just about the next step. 

“People say to me, ‘I couldn’t have done what you did’ or that I’m an inspiration, but it’s not like I wake up every morning and decide ‘Oh, I want to be inspirational.’

“I just get up and do what I have to do.”

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About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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