“Shake off the shackles of fear” John Mc Grath, Wicklow GAA

Beginning this series I wasn’t so sure what I was doing to be perfectly honest. I only knew these things: 1. I love Camogie, always have, always will. 2. I am a decent player but have the ability to become so much stronger. 3. Fear over takes me a lot of the time in important matches. 4. I am even more terrified than before, especially after my body has been pushed to the limit with chemo. Scared that I won’t regain my fitness, that I will feel sorry for myself during tough trainings and games, that I won’t reach the high expectation I have always set for myself. Would I be able to slot back into my old position? Have my team mates progressed in leaps and bounds and have left me in the dust? Should I just hang up my boots now and snuggle on the couch, where it is warm and safe and I won’t have to be pushed mentally and physically to the edge? Has my body been through too much? Can I actually do this? Has the self-pity and pity from others clouded my drive to challenge myself?

Then I think of the training sessions, the team bonding, the pure comradeship that can’t be found elsewhere, only when ye have your dirty boots on, showcasing your new collection of bruises and bloody fingers from when they got trapped between two hurls clashing. When I was in the midst of my chemo, I could attempt a half arsed walk here and there. Music blaring in my earphones, the increased heart rate would instantly jog memories of being on the pitch. I would imagine myself running, blocking, hooking. My heart rate would increase further, my hands would clench with the rush of adrenaline pouring through out my body, willing my legs to burst into a run, but unfortunately I just couldn’t. For that period of time my body would not obey my mind. I understood why, I accepted it but I vowed to myself that Sarah 2.0 would excel when she had her chance, her commitment would not be doubted and her drive relentless.

Fast forward three months, chemo is finished and I have gotten the ‘all clear’. I am getting stronger every day, still extremely tired but you know, I could start to try return to normalcy. Unfortunately normalcy at the moment scares me, scares me to the point that I can’t even make it to one training session. Different excuses get in the way, different reasons that I make up in my own head, and then I coax myself into believing the nonsense, justifying my terror for not returning back to the pitch.

I looked on at other people who have overcame the same situation I am currently in, but they seemed to fight through, reach their peak potential and continue to break that barrier. Why can’t I? Then I began to think, if I could chat to these people and get a little advice from them. I wanted to learn about their struggles and triumphs on their journey back to fitness, what drove them. I got the idea to do this series. If it helps me, I want it to help anyone out there in need of a little motivation. It can be applied to anything, even if it is just getting the energy and motivation to go out for a walk. I feel the advice these unsung heroes can give will be invaluable.

I didn’t know what to expect when I started this. Would they all think I was a wierdo and would they run as fast as they had trained for? I first started in my home county, Wicklow. John Mc Grath, native of Baltinglass and part of the Wicklow GAA Football team, quickly squashed any apprehension I had. Upon first contacting him he was extremely reciprocal, a massive sense of enthusiasm about him, and this was before I actually met him. Over a cup of tea, and me munching on carrots and hummus, what I predicted would be a chat about fitness, nutrition etc turned to a fantastic conversation about positivity and maintaining a bright outlook on any task you take on.

John was diagnosed with Burkitt’s Lymphoma on February 22nd 2011. He had a few symptoms leading up to his diagnosis, but nothing specific that would warrant a cause for concern. Suffering from a toothache, which the dentist ensured didn’t need to be extracted, and tender bones, were his biggest concerns leading up to his diagnosis. He remembers a friend poked him in the chest one night, and it hurt like hell, but Leukaemia was the last thing on his mind. Playing for Wicklow in the National Allianz League against Carlow and Leitrim he performed well, succeeding in kicking the ball over the bar multiple times.  It was the following game against London where he began to realise all was not right. Not long into the first half, unsure of his footing and feeling incapable of continuing on, he flagged to be taken off. He found out later that, as a natural mother’s intuition, his Mam knew all was not right.  She started to cry, asking “when have you ever seen John asking to be taken off?”. Suspecting glandular fever, he went to his local GP in Dublin where blood was taken and he was told results would return in one to two weeks. His appointment was at 10.30am but he got a call at about 14.30pm that very day to come back in. His GP, who John has nothing but praise for, was located just about 100m down from his new apartment he had just moved into with his girlfriend Carol. He informed John in a gentle and thorough manner of the suspected cause of his ailment. Receiving such devastating information on your own would have been awful, but Carol was home within twenty minutes of receiving the news and his family were up from Baltinglass within the hour. Being in his hospital bed at seven pm that evening was a surreal moment. The same bed would be his home for the next three months or so. From the start John felt positive, and knew this was a battle he was willing to put every inch of strength into. John hung tightly onto something his Baltinglass manager at the time told him. “My football manager at the time said something really good to me. It was in the first week. Everyone was finding it tough, saying it’s gonna be such a long process. He was just like, don’t look at it as four or five months, every day of treatment is a step closer to recovery. And that really stuck with me. I really loved that so I followed that suit.”

The following three months were ‘tough’. I could absolutely empathise with him as he described his side effects of the chemo; the sickness, weakness, general feeling of malaise. With the support of his family, friends and girlfriend he trucked through the couple of months. He was lucky that he recovered pretty quickly after each cycle, four in total, and didn’t get any infection during the period. “My recovery after each cycle was really quick. My immune system was fairly strong. I didn’t get any infections. I really listened to what they told me, not to eat crap, let people bring in stuff (that would be bad)”. I shuddered when I listened to him talk about his hospital stays, remembering the pure dread that would strike me as I entered each time, reluctantly ready for another battering. I admired how he dealt with the whole situation, having a similar opinion myself. “There’s always someone else worse off. You stand a much better chance of recovering when you are in better form. I do believe in psychology and a positive mind, that’s half the battle”. Throughout the few months he could only remember two bad days but firmly believed that “you have a much better chance of getting out the other side if you are positive about it”.

Hearing him speak of the idea of positivity and a healthy mental attitude really hit home with me. We both agreed that life is a lot more enjoyable if you can get past the “why me?” notion and use whatever time you possess to make the best of what could be a damning situation. At the end of the day nobody’s fate is certain, as a person in the fullest of health could walk across the road and be knocked down. So every day should be dealt with an air of optimism and a sprightly sense of enthusiasm as life throws everything it has at you. When you reach what some may perceive as the lowest point the only place you can go is up, but that is all completely up to yourself and how you mentally deal with it.

This lead to the next topic of conversation, how did he get back to full fitness and how long did it take? His response; “I was discharged May 24th and didn’t do much for three weeks afterwards, although I went out every day for a walk. I loved to walk. The feeling of fresh air when you have been in lockdown for months is amazing. It was probably three to four weeks until at the end of my walks I would run last 100m, 150m, 200m. I started heading to gym shortly after that, without anyone knowing. I was living in Dublin so that was possible. I went back training in mid- July”. I observed two things; first that he never had a doubt that he wanted to get right back onto the pitch and second that he was fully aware that it would be a gradual process. His sneaky gym sessions helped him gain the basic strength he had lost during his down time, allowing him feel a little more confident when he finally put on those football boots and got back to the pitch. At the start there was a relaxed feeling around him, his team mates hesitant to push him to his core. This understandably frustrated John, his love for the sport too great to be present as a side- line player. “I was worried. I had no interest in going back to training to be a bit part player. I wasn’t there to be a moral boost, but was there to play”. After a firm word with his team mates, he was soon treated as an equal, all qualms left in the carpark with the intention of playing pure football the only agenda on everyone’s mind. “The first hit I got at training was brilliant. It loosened everything. It made them see that I don’t like anyone taking pity on me”.

From there John went from strength to strength, gradually building his capabilities on the pitch to his very definite standards. He got his first piece of action in August, a mere two months or so after his discharge from hospital. “We played a friendly match the first weekend in august and I came on in that. That was one of the best feelings I have ever had. I was like a lamb in spring, just running around headless on the pitch”. I absolutely love that image, hearing him speak about it I could picture the rush, the excitement and determination he felt as he got that chance to prove himself and finally feel that sense of domination as he put the last few months completely behind him. A momentous feeling came afterwards as he was called back onto the Wicklow County team, feeling there was “a lot of trust coming from the management”.

How did he do it? How did he overcome any fears he had? When I asked him this, and explained my own fear and trepidation, he reprimanded me straight off saying; “I didn’t hear that word scared. I don’t like that ‘scared’. I don’t like the word fear”. From here we had such an enlightening conversation, well perhaps only for me, he was probably bored, wondering when I’ll shut up. He reassured me, saying it will be a slow process and not to rush myself, that it will take time and goal setting is the way to achieve what I want. He asked me my goals, something I never really thought of in depth. He told me to get a calendar, set out obtainable objectives, to write them down on paper and visualise them. “I am big into psychology and big into quotes. My wall at home is covered in quotes. If I am feeling lazy or shit I look at my phone or look at something. When you visualize something, it’s a lot easier to do it. I have so many post- its. It might be something as simple as ‘Stay in bed or get up and go for a run’. When I see it, it motivates me to do it”. So step one is getting a calendar. Thanks Karen, that Irish Farmer Calendar you got me for Christmas will come in handy. He told me to start with walks, then progress the next week with a small bit of interval running and build from that. It will take time, as chemotherapy literally breaks down your body so he told me that it still is too early to be at the capabilities my other team mates are at after weeks of intense training. He ensured the fitness will come back, once I set obtainable objectives and strive to complete them and constantly try better myself.

I told him that I was afraid I would never be good enough, that I could picture myself lagging and unable to reach a good standard again. His response was nothing short of fascinating. As I was listening to our conversation again on my phone in order to type it out, I replayed and replayed what he told me. With such articulation more suited for a podium leading a country to war he said “you need to shake off the shackles of fear”. I have never heard truer words in my twenty four years on this earth. He said “If it is to be, it is up to me”. These words will be forever edged into my memory, ready to be commanded to the frontline of my thought process when I need to dig strength to push my own boundaries. He introduced me to Declan Coyle, a training and development consultant responsible for the Green Platform Principles. Having never heard of him before John quickly tried to explain the idea, unable to properly put into words the positive influence it has had on his whole outlook on life. “Any negative thought you have, it’s just a trigger point to turn it to good. Before I got sick I would have moaned and groaned a little but now I think; if something is broke how I do fix it?”. It is a fantastic outlook; you can live in a cloud of negativity, straining your ability to lead a fulfilling life or else you can see challenges as an opportunity to show your strength, integrity and gallantry. He showed me many quotes he stores on his phone for moments he needs a pick me up, the quote junkie that he is. One that stuck out relating to the Green Platform was “negative thoughts and beliefs attract negative situations. Positive thoughts and beliefs attract positive situations. Am I living my fears on the red platform or living my dreams on the green platform”. We both agreed that after facing a literal life or death situation you have two options; face it or cower. What’s it going to be?

He instructed that I had a few objectives for the next couple of weeks. I now have a clear path, goals to reach. He told me “All of a sudden you’ll think I’m not just doing this cos I want to get back on the pitch. I’m doing it cos I enjoy it. I’m doing it cos I don’t want to be associated with sickness anymore”. Folks, that’s exactly it. We do this because we love it. We both agreed that the support from our teams was tremendous. The minute we step onto the pitch we are a family, physically fighting for each other, each player responsible for their team mate’s back, striving for a combined success. It is impossible to forget that off the pitch. As far as John is concerned he believes I am “fully fit and healthy and you can forget about it”, the sickness that is. With a fantastic spirit he ensured me I can do it, and the feeling when you get there will be amazing. He promised to send me on more information about positive attitude regarding matches, after I told him I often get nervous during important matches which at times can hinder my abilities. Telling me; “You always need something. If it’s not something in your own head to drive ya you always need something around ya to give you that first bolt”. Smiling ear to ear, there was a sense of elation about him as he told me he “can’t wait for my first match back. We’ll have to get the whole of Annacurra up”. He was no doubt remembering the unexplainable feeling he had when he played his first match.

So what have I learnt from my conversation with John? In three words; anything is possible. With the right drive and determination, there is literally nothing you can’t do. After telling him small changes I have made, such as changing my diet to cut out all animal protein, he told me he believes in doing “anything you think might get you 1% better”.  Whether it is dietary changes or pre warming on the pitch before any other players even arrive, John feels that if you think it is doing you good, even the slightest bit, well then it is a step in the right direction. He gave me the motivation to face my apprehension and finally go to training the following day. I woke up the next morning to an image that said “The only thing standing between you and your goal is the bullshit story you keep telling yourself as to why you can’t achieve it”. No nonsense about that. So I put my socks on, unsure what to expect and wondering if I was going to be carted back to St. James. It was tough, to the extent that my arm had even lost its strength to hold the hurl properly; something I literally never thought was possible. But look I did it, I tried my hardest where I could, knew my limitations and didn’t push myself beyond that. Now I know my base line and can only improve from there. I have a long road to go, but at least I am on it now and not pulled in on the hard shoulder, afraid to progress in fear of what is ahead of me. There are one hundred and sixty eight hours in a week, an hour here or there striving for your dream is nothing.

The fantastic thing about the advice John gave is that it can be applied to any situation. Whether you are currently in the midst of chemo and walking around the house once is your goal, then that is your objective. Alternatively if you are a pro athlete competing in a world championship the advice is equally valid. Each person has their own desired destination in life and it is up to you and only you to get there. It was a pleasure to meet John and wish him the absolute best in the future. Having a loaded fitness schedule there is no doubt he will continue to stay the top of his game for many years to come.

I meant to get a quick selfie with him but completely forgot so I will leave you with this instead:

no fear 2016




  1. Brilliant piece and an incredible man. I can imagine he was very inspiring but you are yourself. xx

  2. Great story Absolutely inspiring! I myself play Camogie and when diagnosed in 2011 worried about the what ifs, especially around returning to Camogie ! It was John who got me to where I am today, fair enough I’m didn’t return to playing county but I’m back playing with Aughrim.
    A friend once told me “the goal in life is not to live forever, but to create something that does”

  3. a really excellent read. Well done you are a great inspiration yourself!! And pretty proud of the bro too!

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