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We must tackle deadly threat to young athletes

I HAVE no idea what Cathal Forde’s family are going through this week. I can only imagine the horror and the overwhelming pain.

Unfortunately, I know how his friends are feeling.

Last May 3, my friend Kieran Hegarty collapsed and died after hurling training at Shamrocks GAA Club, Cork.

There was no good reason why this should have happened. Kieran was as fit as a flea and into everything: hurling, football, soccer. Every night of the week he was on the way to some training session or match. I remember in college, him, and another friend more active than the rest of us, used to run up Carrantuohill – with backpacks on. If there was anybody I knew whose heart was destined to beat for a 120 years it was Kieran.

That often seems to be the way with sudden adult death. It affects the lean, the active, the brightest lights; the ones you think will shine forever.

I remember the sheer shock of finding out what had happened, then anger and a kind of helpless frustration. Could we not just go back a little in time? Tell him not to bother training. Take a rare night off.

In the aftermath the regrets mounted. Some years ago myself and Kieran were both out of work for a couple of months at the same time, so we used to go up to the field and puck around most afternoons. Sometimes he’d get tired before me. I put that down to my increasing fitness and the fact that he was probably spent from all the games he played with his three teams. In hindsight, maybe that was a sign something was wrong. Should I have noticed it? Should he?

So many thoughts swirl around. Such despair, and no way to fix what has gone wrong.

I’ll never again go for another puck around with Kieran, never go to a Cork hurling or a Cork City soccer match with him, never go for a quiet pint with him when I’m home, never listen to his eccentric yet somehow logical take on the world. Not a day goes by when I don’t think of him.

My grief, though, is nothing compared to his family’s. My shock is nothing compared to that of the lads who were in the dressing room when he collapsed.

The same way, the fellas at Kilburn Gaels must be stunned numb by what has happened. One moment, it’s a regular warm down after training, a bit of stretching, maybe some banter, and the next moment … well, it doesn’t get much worse than what happened next.

I didn’t know Cathal Forde but from what I’ve heard he was a modest, good-humoured, dependable guy. He was devoted to his girlfriend Shelia. He loved his sport. He worked away and hoped that one day in the not too distant future he could return home. Cathal was a unique lad but so many people hurling and footballing over here would share his traits and values. His tragedy is felt by everyone. It could have happened to anyone.

Now that Cathal Forde is gone, his life is being celebrated and rich tributes are being paid. This is absolutely as it should be. There is, however, another great tribute that can be paid to Cathal. That is: do everything possible to make sure this horror is not visited on other young people, on other families.

Heart screening is prohibitively expensive for sports organisations like the GAA; they could never pay for all of their members – of every grade and age – to get tested. But if individual clubs raise funds, and players contribute something towards their own screening, it is not too dear.

Even if someone wants to get tested themselves, the cost is in the region of £40-£60. A club can get a reduced group rate. So if you want to pay the most meaningful of tributes then get onto your club chairman or secretary. Even better, organise it yourself.

Screening and first aid training do yield results. A few weeks ago I interview Ed Donovan of Heartaid – they happened to screen the London inter-county hurlers and footballers on the day Fabrice Muamba collapsed at White Hart Lane. He told me that in Italy it is compulsory to screen everybody over 14 years old who plays a sport. As a result, their death-rate for SADS is down by 89%.

You will never eliminate something like this completely but you can certainly reduce the risk.

We live in health and safety-obsessed times, where you can’t buy milk that’s a day out of date but, every day, thousands of young people’s lives are at risk – and they don’t even know it. As far as I’m concerned there is no bigger issue in sport than this. How it is not a priority at Government level in Britain and Ireland is beyond me.

Your club could be stretched financially; barely able to pay affiliation fees. Your club could have wealthy benefactors and be able to bankroll accommodation and perks for star players.

Either way, this is the crucial issue of our times and this is where the money must be spent. Any costs, even if they have to come from the players’ pockets, needs to be put towards heart screening. The cost of not tackling this, of allowing the risks to remain at their current level, is unimaginably high.

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Ronan Early
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Ronan Early is Sports Editor and columnist with The Irish Post. Follow him on Twitter @RonanEarly

One comment on “We must tackle deadly threat to young athletes”

  1. Susan Hegarty

    Thanks for this post. I feel for Cathal Forde's family, and his friends - although I know also that his friends will be a great support for the family over time. Thanks, Ronan, also for your memories of Kieran.

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