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'I had a few cries and a few breakdowns. There were dark moments but I look back on it as an achievement'

Cora Staunton on her remarkable recovery from a career-threatening injury, a whirlwind 12 months, and what the future holds for the Mayo great.

NEXT MONDAY MARKS a year to the date since Cora Staunton suffered a career-threatening quadruple leg-break in an Aussie Rules match Down Under.

4 May 2019 is a date she will always remember — for all the wrong reasons.

aflw-giants-cats Cora Staunton has had a whirlwind 12 months. Source: AAP/PA Images

37 at the time, there were plenty of doubts from others: ‘She’s done.’ But not Cora. The Mayo great’s journey since has been nothing short of remarkable, battling back to play a starring role for her Greater Western Sydney [GWS] Giants side this season.

It’s been a rollercoaster.

“This day next week, it will be a year since I broke my leg,” she told The42 from her Mayo home yesterday. “In some ways, time has flown, and then in other ways, when you’re in rehab, it didn’t obviously feel like it was flying.”

Back on home soil a little over three weeks and with plenty of time to spare through the current situation, it’s allowed Staunton the opportunity to take a step back and reflect on everything that’s happened since that horror injury.

In action for a local side in her off-season, she broke her right tibia in two places, her fibula and her ankle. Devastating at the time, of course, but she’s grateful to be out the other side now.

“I’m blessed and I’m very lucky that I’ve come back from the injury,” the four-time All-Ireland winner reflects, with a decision to be made on a return to Oz for 2021 on the cards over the next few weeks.

Thankfully, I’ve had absolutely no repercussions or anything from it. I feel as healthy and strong and as fit as I did this time last year, if not fitter and stronger. I don’t have any lasting pain or anything, my leg is back as normal as it was before the injury.

“In that way, I’m very lucky that I’ve been very well looked after. It’s been a very difficult journey. For the first six, seven months, you’re trying to get back and there’s a lot of hard work.

“I know it’s been a remarkable recovery — people are saying, ‘Oh God, you done really well to come back.’ Yeah, I understand I have — but it’s possible, and I always knew it was going to be possible.

“Once I sat and talked to the surgeon two weeks in, I knew it was going to be possible. I knew it was going to take a lot of hard work. I just probably reflect on it being another challenge or obstacle that you had to get over.

When you’re a bit older, at my age, it’s probably been very rewarding. I do look at it and say, ‘Jesus, I done well to get back from that,’ but it was my job. I was always going to do it. 

Evergreen Staunton puts her incredible recovery down to others, not herself. She has serious praise for her “phenomenal” strength and conditioning coach at the Giants, and her physio. She just followed the plan she was given.

“That said, it was hard and there were times in that period I probably had a few cries and a few breakdowns and everything else, wondering if I would ever be able to hop on one leg again, or ever able to walk without a limp,” the Carnacon forward concedes.

cora-staunton-with-roisin-flynn Staunton made her club football return for Carnacon last October. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“They’re frustrating times, but you get by them and once you’re able to do it, that’s another box ticked and it’s another challenge overcome. It probably made me understand that I’m resilient, strong-headed and made me even more mentally-tough.

But I have to give credit to the club, and not to myself. Whatever I was told to do, I done it the best I could and worked hard. Yeah, there were dark moments and there were times I was wondering what I was doing but I look back on it as an achievement.

While family, friends and team-mates helped her through those dark moments, she looked to others for inspiration too.

Mayo star Tom Parsons was one person she kept a close eye on, after his horrific knee injury in 2018. Parsons’ journey back certainly helped her through, while another source of influence was Hawthorne AFL player Tom Mitchell.

“I would have been in contact with Tom [Parsons] and there was a guy in Australia I would have been in contact with — Tom Mitchell. He would have had a similar break to me in the January of last year, a couple of months before me.

“He was coming back for the next season after winning the Brownlow [Medal, MVP award] and then he had a double-leg break in the pre-season in January. One of the girls got in contact with him, our captain actually knows him and he gave me a call.

“We had similar injuries. He probably had a little bit of a harder recovery than me, he had a couple of setbacks, I was lucky I didn’t. He helped me from a mental point-of-view, listening to his journey and stuff and a couple of different techniques.”

“Again, I’ll probably go back to my strength and conditioning coach,” Staunton adds. “People would say to me, ‘Oh, you certainly had to use a psychologist or someone to help you through mentally to get back on the pitch.’ I never used a psychologist or anything like that.

“My strength and conditioning coach was the one that did little things like that that I didn’t even know she was doing with me to help me with the fear of getting back out and playing and being tackled again.

“Certainly, there were people that you looked to for a little bit of help — more around the mental side. Yeah, Tom Parsons was certainly one and Tom Mitchell was another one that I would have followed their journeys. And continue to follow their journeys now that they’re both back playing.”

tom-parsons Staunton looked to Tom Parsons for inspiration. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Thankfully, Staunton is back to her best too. Well, she was, before the worldwide sporting lockdown. After donning the Carnacon colours as early as October, she made a goalscoring return for the Giants in a pre-season match in January, just eight months after her career-threatening blow.

The 38-year-old went on to enjoy another stellar campaign — her third — in the orange jersey, rising higher than ever before with a career-best four-goal haul in early March before everything came to a halt shortly after due to the Covid-19 crisis. 

“The season as a whole hasn’t been a bad season,” Staunton smiles. “It was a little bit up and down for me at the start, but that was always going to be the case coming back from such a big injury.

As it went on, I felt I was getting stronger and stronger. If this hadn’t happened, I’d love to have seen myself playing another few rounds because I did feel I was getting stronger as the season went on, and my confidence was building.

“I hope to get a little bit of football here with the club if it happens this year. I’d like to see what it’s been like because I haven’t really played football — bar a quick spell with Carnacon last year — in the guts of 18 months or so. I’d like to get a spell at that and see how it goes.

“As of now, the leg is 100% and thankfully I have no lasting repercussions from it.”

As the curtain came down on the AFLW season, the Giants made the cut for the revamped finals series, but were beaten by Melbourne in their first outing. Hours later, everything was called off. 

As the coronavirus situation worsened in Oz and proceedings came to a premature close, Staunton and her Irish team-mate, Yvonne Bonner of Donegal, never feared that they wouldn’t get home. The club were in constant contact about it, and did everything in their power to facilitate a smooth return to Ireland despite the duo’s laid-back nature.

We were both meant to go home some time in May, then obviously all this happened and we were like, ‘No, sure we’ll just wait and see.’

“We had never any doubt that we weren’t going to get a flight or anything. They were saying, ‘Just tell us when ye want to go home,’ and both me and Yvonne said, ‘Whenever ye can get us flights on time, end of March-early April.’”

One or two flights were cancelled, but eventually the Giants had it all sorted and the details sent on to their Irish imports. “They looked after everything, it was probably a lot more hassle for them than it was for me and Yvonne. All we had to do was agree yes or no whether we wanted to go home or not.

cora-staunton-celebrates-with-fiona-mchale-at-the-end-of-the-game Staunton won four All-Irelands in action for Mayo. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“When everything happened, there was a lot of panic over there like, ‘Oh God, you have to go home or you’re never going to get home.’ But there’s Irish over there that I know, and there’s till flights going. It’s probably a little bit harder now but there’s at least a flight a day going for Sydney home.

“The club are very good, and at no time was I panicked that I wouldn’t get home. If our girls had stayed around Sydney and things were normal enough, I wouldn’t have come home until the middle of May, but they all went back to wherever they’re from so there was no point in us hanging around then.”

Likewise, Staunton landed home to the west with bag and baggage three weeks ago. A “pretty boring” fortnight ensued due to self-isolation, but she’s back to a bit more normality now. 

The one thing she’s certainly missing is her day job — she works in health promotion with the Mayo Travellers Support Group — and routine, but that will all come again.

“The last week or so has been a little bit easier, but it’s still obviously a lot stranger than it is any other time I’ve came home,” she notes. “Normally I’d go straight back to work and club training, meeting people and you’re normally very busy when you come back home but this time is obviously a good bit different.

“You don’t have that much interaction, you don’t have training, and you don’t have work so it’s probably a little bit of time for just relaxing, keeping the body fresh and probably doing work that you never get a chance to do.

I do find it strange because I’m not one that’s very good for sitting down and not doing anything. At times, I do find the days long and you’re trying to fill it with over-training and probably things that I don’t need to be doing too much of at the moment.

“It’s strange but that’s the world we’re in now. We just have to wait and see what the course will be over the next few months and from my point of view, whether there will be any club football, and will things return to normal any time soon.

“You just have to deal with the situation as best as you can. You won’t lie, you do find it difficult but I’m sure everyone else is in the exact same boat.”

She’s certainly taking things day by day at the minute. 

Her future in Australia is to the back of her mind, and Staunton is taking this time to rest up before making any big decisions. The day before she left Australia, the 11-time All-Star met head coach Al McConnell for a coffee and a chat, and he made it clear that the Giants want her back.

The option is there if I want to go back and play in 2021. I said to him, ‘Al, I’ll go home and rest for a while, give the body and mind a rest, it’s been a huge 12 months for me personally.’ He had no problem with that and we said we’d have a chat when the sign and trade period comes.

“He basically said the ball is in my court, the Giants want me back, it’s up to myself now if I want to go back. We just left it there.”

aflw-crows-giants Facing Adelaide Crows in March. Source: AAP/PA Images

“Obviously with the way things are at the moment, the AFL men’s will probably dictate a lot of what happens for AFLW next year,” she explains. “I know from being in contact with the girls and with Al in Australia, AFLW 2021 will go ahead.

“The sign and trade period of girls re-signing or trading to another club should be happening now, but that’s postponed until sometime in May. It could be postponed longer depending on whether the men’s season gets back. It will probably happen mid-summer, and I’ll probably make a decision mid-summer whether I want to go back or not.”

A couple of months’ rest at home will do no harm, along with possibly, some club football. She’s stayed in touch with McConnell, but they don’t really talk football or her individual circumstances.

“He’ll just give me space to make my decision,” she concludes. “The ball is fully in my court. If I want to go back in 2021, they’ll have me back.

I’ll weigh up how my body and my mind is for 2021, and I’ll probably make a decision sometime mid-summer. I was hoping that obviously I’d be training and playing with Carnacon, but who knows if that will happen this year. It’s very hard to know.

“I’ll see how the body and mind is over the next couple of months and whether I’ll go again for another year.”

That’s the million-dollar-question, indeed.

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Emma Duffy

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