GB and England women’s star on the painful loss of her father, Frank, who died peacefully in October
Dad was never scared of dying. An intelligent man, he was walking around and even spoke up until a couple of minutes before he passed away. He was so brave.
It was a beautiful, sunny day. I was with mum and my brother, Rory. We were all there at home. The day before I had been playing for Wimbledon at University of Birmingham, weirdly, and mum had only got back from a walk 10 minutes previously.
Mum said it would be a perfect Sunday for a game of Gaelic football. Then we asked him what he preferred out of Gaelic football or fishing, another of his great passions. “Fishing was personal, Gaelic football was my team sport,” he said. Those were his final words.
It was so peaceful and we’ve been holding onto that ever since.
I look back now that we won a Commonwealth Games gold medal, but it was on the final weekend in Birmingham when things had taken a turn for the worse.
Dad had turned up for England’s semi-final against New Zealand, but what no one had noticed was that he had jaundice. Mum was already at the venue and had started panicking. We were very grateful that the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, up the road from the university, had one of the best liver wards in the country.
When I saw dad, it was obvious that something was very wrong with him.
For the rest day, between the Commonwealth semi-final and final, I toyed with going in to see him. But we felt it was best not to pay a visit. Only a few of the girls knew about what was going on. It’s easy to say now, but I knew that dad would have wanted me to focus on my hockey. In a way, I turned off the emotions.
I had to put it to the back of my mind ahead of playing Australia. And so, while I focused on the final, dad was to watch the gold medal match unfold on mum’s iPad from his hospital bed.
After an initial scan, doctors thought that the tumour was contained at the head of the pancreas. However, during the operation they found it was all over his liver. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
It was a rollercoaster time for us. Having thought that the cancer may have been averted, we were now hit with being told he had Stage 4 and nothing we could do.
He had to wait six weeks to discuss chemotherapy, which would only prolong his life, and it wasn’t likely that the hospital would have offered it anyway. Pancreatic cancer just seems to ravage the body, but dad made the decision not to go through with chemo.
From the Sunday of the Commonwealth Games final to dad passing away, it was exactly 10 weeks. We had enough time to come to terms with it and, bless him, dad was just amazing from the word go.
He even said to the doctors at one point, ‘I don’t understand why people go ‘why not me’ when cancer happens to one in two.
He never wanted to go to the hospital at any time. We kept him at home and we didn’t get to the point where carers came to the house. He had this incredible mindset and it really helped as a family.
Everyone always sees mum as hockey is her sport and she always comes to everything. Dad was more of a quiet support at matches. He wouldn’t necessarily cheer but I always knew he was there; he just loved watching the sport and reaching the level I’m currently at.
Dad was a bit of a sporting legend in Ireland and was always so proud of what I had achieved.
With him being Irish, I did always wonder how he felt for me to play for England but it was never an issue. His daughter was playing for the country she loves, was born in and one they decided to live in.
He was a huge support mechanism as I went through the England and GB ranks. And, considering the sportsman he was, I never felt any pressure from him to achieve. That wasn’t his nature.
He used to say that as long as I was working hard and putting myself in the best position but, more importantly, enjoying it then that was just fine. Why would I put myself through it otherwise?
They even decided to buy a motorhome when I was in the England junior programme. They didn’t really like hotels and so they travelled around the continent, went to campsites and had their own group, which would usually include my team-mate Amy Tennant’s parents.
Others would invariably come round to the campsites and have dinner and drinks. It was really social and the motorhome definitely racked up a fair few miles!
Dad also racked up plenty of miles on the sporting fields in Ireland. Yet, he never blew his own trumpet on his own sporting achievements.
His friends who came over for the funeral recalled stories that left me wondering just exactly how good he was at Gaelic football, as well as at rugby and football.
He was so humble – I did talk to him about his career but not in great depth – while he holds a record in Gaelic football at the Hogan Cup which they say no one will ever achieve again. Dad had won two Hogan championship medals at two different schools, which no athlete had ever achieved.
He was later scouted by Celtic FC and even by an NFL team, as he had a great left boot on him.
After dad died, Martin O’Neill, the former Ireland soccer coach and manager at various English clubs, rang mum to pass on his condolences. During the chat he mentioned just how good dad was. Mum was like, ‘what on earth’s happening!’ But that was dad.
In the autumn, I stepped away from the GB women’s programme to begin with. It’s so intense and I didn’t think I could give myself to the whole programme.
I wasn’t there mentally for the recent games with Ireland and Spain. I carried on playing club hockey for Wimbledon and it was a great distraction for 70 minutes at the weekend.
The week he passed away, we played a big game against Surbiton. I didn’t know if I was going to play but mum said, ‘Well you’ve got to play, as I want to watch it!’
It was incredible. Everyone wore armbands in memory of my dad and then we beat Surbiton which was the cherry on top.
I’m now in a place where I can contribute to the programme. The Bisham Abbey staff have been incredible and there’s no pressure. It’s tough, though. I think about him all the time. But I want a purpose and a bit more of a routine to my life. I might get to a point where it gets too much but I know the programme will support my decisions.
Over these last weeks, to hear what he was like as a person, how much his friends looked up to him, the comments and stories, it’s been a cathartic listen. My calm nature on the pitch, mum said, was similar to dad’s.
To hear that means that I can now carry that through to him when I step onto the field.