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Dublin: 8°C Wednesday 23 September 2020
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'There's bigger things happening, this is just an injury' - Surgery in Oz and hoping to get home to Ireland

Mayo and West Coast Eagles star Grace Kelly has had a whirlwind few days.

Grace Kelly on the ball for West Coast Eagles.
Grace Kelly on the ball for West Coast Eagles.
Image: AAP/PA Images

IT’S DEFINITELY MEMORABLE anyway… I’ll remember it, that’s for sure.

Grace Kelly underwent knee surgery in Australia today. A long way from Mayo, the star forward who enjoyed a stellar debut season with West Coast Eagles was lucky to get it done at all through the ever-evolving Covid-19 pandemic.

The 25-year-old suffered a knee injury in her side’s Aussie Rules clash with Gold Coast — their last, with the AFLW curtailing the season in a bid to finish it before it was all called to a halt — a little over a week ago, and everything has been an absolute whirlwind since.

Originally diagnosed as medial collateral ligament [MCL] damage, Kelly was originally relieved to hear that she was unlikely to require surgery and faced into a four to eight-week recovery stint with no dreaded damage to the anterior cruciate ligament [ACL].

But the injury was more complicated than initially thought, and things changed. 

***

Back to the moment itself at Mineral Resources Park, West Coast’s home ground.

“I remember the clash well,” she tells The42 over the phone from Perth on Sunday morning, explaining how her team-mate went for the ball as Kelly neared. The former got her hands on the Sherrin, and an opposing Gold Coast player popped up to tackle from behind.

“I started sprinting to try and get the ball over the top but I caught her leg when she was tackling. My knee went inwards, and yeah, not really a pretty sight…

“It was sore at the time, but I was saying to myself, ‘It’s just a dead leg.’ I ended up kind of hobbling off the pitch, I don’t really know how because my MCL is completely detached, unfortunately.

I did think, ‘Oh, it’s just the initial shock of it, it’s just sore at the start.’ Unfortunately, it’s worse than I thought it was.

The team doctor confirmed an MCL injury there and then after a physical examination, while she underwent an MRI scan immediately afterwards. A few days later, the knee appeared loose and as the images returned, Kelly was sent for a check-up with the surgeon.

“He said that it was completely detached, it was too loose,” she recalls.

“Also, from the collision, I had fractures on the outer side of my knee and I actually did a grade one PCL (posterior cruciate ligament) strain as well. The fractures and the PCL will heal themselves, it’s just the surgery on MCL.

Screenshot 2020-03-23 at 13.50.47 Source: Grace Kelly Instagram.

“They gave me two options: do the surgery and everything would be fine, obviously after recovery and rehab, you’d come back stronger with a more stable knee. If I didn’t have it, I could have did the rehab and all of that but I’d have laxity in the knee and it would be unstable.

“They said I’d end up having to have surgery anyway in the long run, so it’s best to just get it done. I just wanted to get it done straight away. The quicker you do it, the quicker you’re out on the pitch.”

Speed in this particular situation is of optimum importance. For many other reasons.

Last week in Ireland, hospitals in several counties cancelled all elective surgeries until further notice as they prepared for a spike in Covid-19 cases, and as luck would have it, immediately after our phone call yesterday, Western Australia prepared to do the same.

I think surgeries here in Australia, we don’t know how bad the virus will get here so they might be stopping here as well,” she said moments beforehand. “They were on the ball there with getting the surgery done straight away.

“I’ve never had a surgery before, but I have to have a shower tonight and tomorrow morning before it, with two bars of soap. I don’t know if that’s to do with the virus or… I’m not quite sure! But I’ll be clean and hygienic anyway going in.”

She laughs, and looks on the bright side, as she discusses the protocols amidst the coronavirus and medical difference between Australia and Ireland.

If I went home and decided I wanted to do the surgery at home, I’d have to go into 14 days of isolation first. I looked, and I don’t think they’re doing surgeries at home and I’d be waiting a long time. I knew I’d get it straight away here.

“The surgeon, he does surgery with all the West Coast Eagle men’s team as well. I wanted to get it done straight away, so I’m delighted in that respect.”

While her parents had just cut their visit short so they could get home through the madness, her younger sister and team-mate Niamh stayed put with Grace.

They’ll have to stay Down Under for some time after the surgery, as the six-month recovery period begins.

Likewise, there have been some developments with regards travel from Australia since, but the pair were hoping to get home safe and sound in the next few weeks. One thing in their favour is this would be deemed essential travel. 

“It’s a bit of a pickle. My surgeon, he said that ideally, you’re not meant to travel for four to six weeks but I was like, ‘I don’t really have that option. Because of the virus, I want to get home ASAP.’

Screenshot 2020-03-23 at 13.21.09 Niamh (left) and Grace Kelly. Source: Niamh Kelly Instagram.

“He’s giving me two weeks. There’s implications; if you fly after surgery, you could get blood clots. He’s going to give me blood thinners for the flight. Hopefully I get out in two weeks’ time after the surgery. That is the plan anyway, hopefully airlines are running.

“After the surgery, we’ll sit down and go through the flights with our coaches and people that are looking after us here. Fingers crossed everything will be fine in that regard. It’s all go.”

There’s little time for wallowing, with plenty of distractions on hand to keep her ticking over mentally through this worldwide pandemic.

I don’t think it’s properly sunk in… well, it has, but with everything else going on, there’s bigger things happening. This is just an injury, I’ll be back before I know it. I’m lucky, I have Niamh looking after me here.

“I’m getting all the news in Ireland,” she adds, “everyone is locked up in their houses, not speaking to their Mums, not speaking to their partners, it’s crazy! Video calls and everything.

“At West Coast, we’ve been given a lot of talks about it. Basically, they’ve been telling us not to go in groups anywhere, just be with the football team as much as you can. You can socialise, but don’t go near too many other people.

“But when I’m walking around Scarborough, the place where we live, there’s a lot of people on the beach and they’re going about their usual business — but I’d say things will be shutting down. It’s always on the news, discussions about closing schools and that. The numbers are rising in Perth as well, it’s kind of scary.”

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And of course, that shutdown also followed suit just after our call.

Despite the gut-wrenching ending, Kelly — a primary school teacher by trade — thoroughly enjoyed her debut season in the Australian league.

The Mayo sisters played  central roles for West Coast, a new team for 2020, and helped them to a first-ever AFLW victory. The entire experience was brilliant, she says, and while there’s a question mark over a potential return in 2021, the focus switches back to her first love.

“I really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed playing with the team, and learning so much from the staff members. Each game that you play, you’re learning more and more. The feedback that they give you and the visuals, it’s incredible to look at; all your stats and how you can improve each game.

I just love all of the sports science in it as well, and the physicality. I really enjoyed it, and Niamh did as well; getting to know the game and the lifestyle out here, it’s pretty amazing, the weather and everything. 

“But I’m looking forward to being back, and seeing the Mayo girls and management again. I know I won’t be playing Gaelic for a while with my knee, but just to give what I can. Work on my upper body for a while, and try and bring what I’ve learnt here across to the girls and get stuck in with Mayo.”

grace-kelly On the ball for Mayo last summer. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

She’s well aware there’s a longer-than-expected road ahead, but Kelly is fully prepared to tackle it head on. She’s crossed hurdles already, and she’ll do it again. Even though some of them may be out of her control.

But as the saying goes, control the controllables. And she’ll do just that as she starts her recovery journey on the right foot.

“They said six months but probably like most other Gaelic players that get injured, I’d like to be back before that,” the Moy Davitts star says as our conversation winds down.

And hopefully play with Mayo, you never know. I’d love to cut that in half to be honest with you, but we’ll see how it goes.

With plenty of time on her hands, potentially, in isolation back home, that could happen: “I’m just going to work hard. West Coast are going to give me a rehab [programme] and they’re going to be in contact, hopefully, with the physio at home.

“I can get going with that in the house hopefully, in the garage whenever I can. Hopefully I’ll be back sooner than six months.”

“These injuries happen in every sport,” she concludes. “It’s just part of sport really, and the ups and downs of it. Hopefully I’ll get back stronger.”

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About the author:

Emma Duffy

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