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Dublin: 18 °C Sunday 12 July, 2020

'I remember saying - I don’t know if I can do this - it felt like hitting the wall'

Ahead of the AFLW season kick-off, Cora Staunton sits down with Maurice Brosnan in Sydney to chat about her injury comeback and her hopes for the year.

Cora Staunton reflects on her Australian adventure in a Sydney cafe this week.
Cora Staunton reflects on her Australian adventure in a Sydney cafe this week.

“I CAN STILL hear that crunch,” Cora Staunton says.

It is nine months since she suffered a scarcely believable quadruple leg break. She broke two bones in her tibia, one in her fibula and another at the start of her ankle.

An intramedullary nail and five screws were inserted into her leg shortly after. Nerve damaged killed movement in her big toe, which remains covered by plaster. There are several striking scars spread along her leg and despite it all, an even bigger grin stretched across her face. 

Now she sits in a Sydney café, a stone’s throw away from the Olympic Park. It’s not far from Blacktown International Sportspark, where the GWS Giants begin their season against the Gold Coast Suns on Saturday.

Staunton will start that match at half-forward. That marks the official comeback from what was undeniably a career-threatening injury. The road to this point has been challenging and strenuous, but the end remains way off in the distance.

The injury came in the 2019 post-season. Due to her inter-county retirement and relative inexperience in her new sport, the Mayo woman elected to prolong her stay in Sydney and play with a local club to sharpen up her AFL abilities.

The plan was to participate in the odd training session, play a weekly game and tour the country in between. The plan drastically changed after her second game.

“I just had the ball in my hand and I went to sidestep someone Gaelic football style,” Staunton recalls.

“As I did it, my foot got planted in the ground. Then someone came to tackle me low and I couldn’t move my foot. As it was stuck in the ground, I got tackled at the wrong angle and her weight came down on my leg. All I could hear was that crunching noise.

“Even when I hit the ground, I still wasn’t aware of what happened. I was lying there and tried to get up. So, I pushed off my left leg, my good leg. As I did, I tried to put my right leg down and all I could see was it dangling in the air. I let out a scream, more so from the shock than the pain.

“I fell back down and tried to get up. The same thing happened. My ankle and leg were twisted a way that was not normal. The captain of the Giants the time, Fridge we call her, she was playing with the opposition. She just started holding me and said: ‘Don’t look. Do not look.’”

It took 25 minutes for an ambulance to arrive and an hour later the full extent of the damage was revealed. In a semi-conscious state, the Mayo legend was wheeled away so they could straighten the leg. Two days later, she underwent surgery. The swelling ensured any plans to get on a flight home had to be shelved indefinitely.

Now the goal was rehabilitation rather than refinement. Suddenly, Staunton’s aim wasn’t to get better, it was to get back. In order to do so she had to embrace pain. Nerve-induced and sleep-depriving pain.

“I got out of hospital on the Tuesday. The journey from the hospital to home was a 45-minute journey and I barely made it. Trying to get back into our apartment, I was in extreme pain.

“I remember my leg was swollen about three times bigger and fully bruised. The first week, I was on lots of medication. At the same time, I didn’t want to be. I wanted to try and start doing a few bits. I needed to know what level of pain I was in. That medication zonks you. It just kills your energy and I had no appetite, so I was losing weight.

“There is only a certain amount of pain you can control but I tried to wean myself off. After day seven, I was off all medication and ready to go for rehab.”

Two weeks after the initial injury, the 38-year old came of crutches and hopped on a bike for two excruciating minutes. Throughout it all the club had been in constant contact. S&C coach Simone Freeman and physio Kay Joyce had conducted detailed research and returned with a blueprint.

“They were amazing. Sim spent so much time with me. I was rehabbing six times a week. Probably four hours a day with warm-ups, stretching and everything. Out of those six days, I was with her four times.

“The other two were on a cross-trainer on my own. They put a huge amount of time into me.

“At times, it meant pushing me beyond my mental capacity and sometimes, my physical capacity. I suppose when you spend so much time with people they got to know when I was in bad form and when to push me, or not to push me.

“Over the last two years, they’ve got to know me anyway. They knew I could train through pain, which I did for the first 18-20 weeks. I was quite stubborn and able to be pushed. Without their help, the medical help here, I don’t know where I would be. If I flipped it and I was at home, I think it would be a real struggle to get back. I’m not saying I wouldn’t get back but…”

cora-staunton-celebrates-with-fiona-mchale-at-the-end-of-the-game Staunton starred for Mayo since her teen years. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Her Gaelic football career brought four All-Irelands and 11 All-Stars. In soccer, there was a FAI Cup medal and Champions League football. In 2013, Staunton made her rugby debut with Castlebar and scored seven tries.

Throughout it all, her attitude towards injuries gives a glimpse as to how she achieved such stunning success.

There were broken noses and jaws through which she persevered. At the end of January 2008, she had an operation on her ACL and made it back for Mayo’s Championship opener that June. An unsurprising feat considering she tore it in 2003 and played away undeterred for five years.

Every time there was a timeframe for recovery, Staunton would half it and add a month. She takes a long sip of coffee and rolls her eyes as she recalls talk of a 12-month return. That was never going to cut it.

With the help of the Giants staff, the Carnacon clubwoman worked from the ground up. Thanks to the nerve damage, that was quite literally about baby steps. Learn to walk again. Learn to jump. Run. Fall. Tackle. Fail and do it all again.

“Hopping, skipping, going up stairs. I would get really frustrated because I couldn’t do it. The first time you are failing at basics. The second time, it wouldn’t click, but by the third time, it worked. You are being taught all these things again, you end up learning how to do them better than you ever did before.”

As she speaks it is clear the fire still blazes within Staunton. Her peers also recognise it. That’s why when the Giants playing squad had to pick four players to form the leadership group for the upcoming campaign, they selected the Irishwoman. An insatiable demand and drive for more.

Greater Western Sydney head coach Alan McConnell recently hailed her ability to use doubts as motivation, even his own. Staunton laughs when asked about it, admitting some of it was manufactured for that very reason.

“It wasn’t as if Alan openly said he doubted I would ever come back, there was comments that I just took as if he doubted me.

“The club had organised the surgeon. They wouldn’t let anything go ahead until they knew who was doing it. Ten days after the operation Al was dropping me home. I mentioned, ‘the surgeon was really good.’

“He replied ‘we will see how good he is in October.’

“’No,’ I said. ‘I know he was really good.’

“I took from that he was doubting me. You have to have things to use for extra motivation. There were one or two things you hear. Small comments. ‘It is an injury where you don’t know how it can go.’ I need people doubting me because it is huge motivation. To say I proved them wrong.

“That is the way I am wired. In training or matches, if someone said something negative to me, I would very much come out to prove them wrong. Like anything, if I can’t do something I will learn very quickly. That is my psyche.

“If a coach says something negative to some people, they probably go into themselves and are afraid to try it. I am the opposite. It is an upbringing in sport when you are under pressure all the time. You have to deal with it. The more negative criticism that comes towards me the more driven I become.

“You have other challenges in life, not even sport. Shit happens. You can either lie down and wallow in your pity or just get on with life. In different parts of my life, whether it was my mam dying or my best friend dying, I suppose it makes you mentally stronger for dealing with things like this.”

That motivation was a much-needed tonic in the face of a monumental mental challenge. In the immediate aftermath of the injury, an overwhelming sense of guilt washed over Staunton as she came to terms with missing out on club action with her first love, Carnacon.

“It was the first thing I thought of. I had finished the season with the Giants and decided selfishly to play on. It wasn’t that I was missing any club games but still, I decided to stay out here.

“We had a rough couple of months before that. Our club manager died at the end of March. I knew how big a year it was going to be for us. He had been over us for the whole time really. Then that was such a knockback to the whole club. It floored us. His daughters play with us. One of them is my best friend. It was just a massive year for them.

“Five weeks after he dies, this happens to me. It is just another kick in the teeth. I felt guilty really, because I felt I was selfish staying on and trying to learn more about AFL.

“All my years playing, I’d say I have missed three or four games. It was just my initial reaction. I felt so bad. That was a driving factor to try and get back and help in some way.”

cora-staunton-dejected 'Shit happens. You can either lie down and wallow in your pity or just get on with life.' Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Injury brings isolation. Coaches and physios can’t be constant company. There is time in the pool alone. Time in the gym alone. Alone on the pitch. Alone on that AstroTurf that resides in a cage at the Giants training facility.

Then, in September, she got to go home. 10,000 miles from the only company she had during the entire process. That was a different kind of solitude. The sort that nearly breaks you.

“Jesus, the loneliness of it. Being on your own, I found that the most challenging. I probably found it tough over here, but I had Sim with me the majority of the time. I went home for just under 10 weeks and had to still follow the programme five times a week. That was very, very hard. Not initially, it was a change of environment and I was home, which was nice. But it became torture.

“In October, it is pissing rain, you have worked 9-5 and after you have to start rehab. It is dark, running around in shite. Out on that pitch for two, two-and-a-half hours and then do a gym session. All by myself.

“I found that unbelievably hard. To get motivated to do that most days, it was terrible. I was due to come back in late November and towards the end, I remember emailing Sim. I wouldn’t really have a conversation with our coach Al about it. He’d ring and I would say ‘I’m fine. Everything’s grand.’

“I didn’t want to have an emotional breakdown with him, but I had it with our strength-and-conditioning coach then. I remember saying: ‘I don’t know if I can do this anymore.’ I have never done a marathon, but it felt like hitting the wall.

“I was out doing rehab and fighting with my mind to stay on the pitch, to keep at it. Once I came back out again, I was such a state. So worried. I didn’t know where I was at with my leg. I was having pains in my knee and stuff like that.

“How far behind would I be? Where was I at? These things started creating anxiety. We will have 2km time trials, am I going to be at the end? Will I be able to go into contact?”

Gradually, she progressed. Took her first hit and gave one back. Conversions with players in a similar situation helped with the mental side of things. There was a phone call from 2018 Brownlow Medal winner Tom Mitchell, which proved beneficial. The Hawthorn star suffered a similar injury in training and understood the psychological scars that came with it.

Throughout our conversation, Staunton’s gratitude to the Giants is striking. Amidst all the talk about AFL recruitment and players opting out in GAA, she is adamant there is one thing the association must take from the Australian game.

“I think the GAA need to look at it — how they care for their players. This thing of ad-hoc expenses. I’ve been out of it for two years, but are teams still not getting expenses? Training on second-rate pitches? Out of pocket and not getting food out of it. Some teams might be, but not every ladies’ team is treated the same.”

This will be Staunton’s third stint in Australia and the obsessive drive that defined her career is still evident. But it is not overbearing either. There are few silver linings from such a traumatic injury, but if there is one, it is the fact that playing sport should be a blessing, not a burden.

It is this mentality that she will carry forward for 2020.

“For myself personally, it is still about being better than I was last year. Improving. But I suppose, my injuries put things into perspective. I didn’t know if I would ever get back. I really want to enjoy this now. 

“When you play sport at a high level for a long time, it gets serious. In GAA, everything was so serious and there was always pressure on me, from a very young age, to perform. I don’t feel as much pressure here. Obviously, you are competitive and want to win. You are frustrated and pissed off if you don’t. But I want to enjoy games this year.”

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About the author:

Maurice Brosnan

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