Aine O’Donovan: That was the only thing that was important to me in that moment in time as sport was my life to be honest

Thu, Jun 21 2018

O'Donovan is involved with Cork City Women's setup. Credit: Steve Alfred

Aine O’Donovan is a liaison officer for Cork City Women’s football club, a mentor for ICAN (Irish Childrens Arthritis Network), a full time student at CIT, a young lady who is living with Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA), a sports fanatic and an F.A.I Cup winner as well.

A very busy schedule and lifestyle with every day bringing new challenges and experiences but that is something that Aine is well used to at this stage and has been since she was a child.

At school, Aine played every sport that was on offer and if given the chance would have come up with her own new sport if it meant she would have even more time to be immersed in sport with the little bit of time that she had left.

“In primary school, I was the girl who was playing soccer or gaa with the lads at lunch time, it didn’t bother me that I was the only girl playing either”, Aine told Extratime.ie.

“I used to play camogie, soccer with the girls in Bandon and as there was no ladies GAA team there at the time I played with the boys teams. In school, I was playing camogie, basketball, and for the 1st year and junior teams in the school. Hockey and soccer I was able to keep playing in school and played them as much as I could every year.

“When I was younger then I was playing tennis, badminton and athletics but they just kept clashing with soccer so I decided to stop them as my love for soccer was there from a very young age.”

With sport comes bumps and bruises and as a thirteen year old first year student following one particular game Aine’s right arm swelled up completely. With the amount of games she was used to playing she immediately just put it down to one of multiple cuts and bruises she had picked up along the way and had grown accustomed to as part of the competitive nature of sport and the increasing number of games she was now involved in.

“I personally thought it was a sports injury because at the time I was playing for school and my local club Bandon so I had a hectic schedule”, Aine recalled about this particular injury.

“After serval physio trips it was ruled out that it was a sports injury so I had to get blood tests with the doctor as he was the first person to mention arthritis to me. Bloods were taken and came back.

“That started my regular trips up and down to Crumlin Children’s Hospital for nearly 7 years. I remember sitting there, once I got told by Dr Orla Killen that I had Junior Idiopathic Arthritis bursting into tears. This was when I was diagnosed for the first time and I just went into complete shock.

“There was so many thoughts going through my head and at the same time the tears kept coming. I somehow managed to get it out of me to ask her could I play sport again. That’s the only thing that was important to me in that moment in time as sport was my life to be honest”

A huge thing to have to accept for anyone at any age but for a thirteen year old who has invested so much time, effort and passion into sport and then to have this taken away in one short conversation when her sporting career and enjoyment is only really getting started is a conversation and memory that will stay with her for the rest of her life.

“When I questioned the doctors in Crumlin about sport they said I could keep going but I would have to cut back”, Aine recalling the impact that the diagnosis would begin to have in a very short space of time.

 “In school I stopped playing basketball and camogie. This was purely because it was my thumb where my arthritis started so they wanted to keep the pressure off that joint.

“I kept playing for the school soccer and hockey teams but I had to explain to the coaches about my diagnosis. They understood that some days all I could give was 10 minutes and other maybe 30.

“Outside of school I took the year out playing soccer as this was strong advice I got from my coach at the time which was Niall O Regan and to be honest it was a great thing. I played in goal so I wouldn’t have been able to play any more in goals due to the impact of it.

“Niall told me to start looking at my options with coaching etc which I did and it’s something I am so grateful to him for because I have loved every minute of it since and something I would have never even thought of when I was first told I would no longer be able to participate fully in sports.

“I remember in 6th year playing my last game for the school in a cup final, I was the captain and all I could last was 10 minutes a half, I physically couldn’t give anymore. That was hard for me but winning it helped ease that pain a bit.”

The impact of Aine’s diagnosis on her sporting life was huge but her school life and daily routine would also see lots of changes and adjustments from early on as well as her family life at home.

“At the time, my school friends and peers were so nice to me. I saw myself as this different person to them because of what I now knew I had but they never saw me as anyone different.

“My family then were so good to me as well because every week I needed to be brought to and from hospital in Cork and then we had the long trips to Dublin as well. They would always send a text on appointment days and still do today wishing me the best of luck each time”.

The positive outlook and steely determination on display by Aine whilst sharing her story is very admirable and amazingly she is still very much involved in sport, her passion and love for the game was so strong that once she had her condition under control and managed she began to seek other opportunities and identify how she could stay involved and contribute to sport as much as she possibly could.

“With Bandon AFC I now do a lot of coaching. I coach the academy on a Saturday morning then I coach the u14 boys team, the under 16 girls team and I also coach and manage the under 12 girls team.

“I then have Cork City Ladies and my role here is working as a liaison officer for the girls as well so I am really involved with the game still on all levels which I love.

“I honestly don’t see myself leaving sport to be honest as sport gives you the good and the bad just like my arthritis does and I think sport has taught me that from a young age.

“Sport has been there for me and has been a huge part of my life for as long as I can remember and if I didn’t have that I’d be lost. Even this year I was on crutches for 13 weeks but I went to all of the games. I did everything just as normal with the girls and the boys.”

In recent years as well as continuing to share and pass on her knowledge and skills around the game of football, ICAN(Irish Childrens Arthritis Network have also benefitted from Aine’s positive outlook and her ambition to create awareness for others that may be dealing with the same condition or a similar situation.

“I am a mentor for a great charity that became my new support network over 3 years ago now, Aine explained about ICAN.

“ICAN stands for Irish Children’s Arthritis Network. They are a charity that works with children and teenagers who have rheumatic conditions. The thing I love about ICAN is we also are able to bring along our siblings to their days and events.

“I love this because a lot of the time families are tied to when they can and can’t go to events because of the child’s condition but they do really great days for families all over Ireland. The objective of ICAN is to provide a national support network for children with arthritis and their families through the provision of factual, practical and emotional support.

It aims to pull together the wider community of affected children in Ireland as well as raise public awareness of childhood arthritis. ICAN’s biggest event of the year is there Live Laugh and Learn day. Each year they take it to a different county. On these days all the children who have JIA and their siblings are mixed doing activities such as swimming, rock climbing, drumming etc.

“We have a teen group chat then where the younger teens can ask me for advice on anything they want or even if a parent texts me about something I would respond to them in the best way I can.

“ICAN has given me something that I never thought I would have which was meeting so many people in the same boat as me, a child with Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis. Knowing that we are not alone is a massive thing for us all and that we are all in this journey together no matter what.”

An amazing journey both on and off the field of play for Aine O’Donovan. Still only twenty two years of age and she is now busier than she has ever been in the world of sports all be it in a support and coaching role rather than on the field of play and also with ICAN as an ambassador for those in the same situation as herself with Junior Idiopathic Arthritis.

Positivity, support, an ability to ask for help and an open mind towards change are some of the words of advice that Aine would give young people with the same condition and importantly towards parents as well.

“The best thing I ever did was talk about my arthritis openly to people” explained Aine.

“At first it’s scary but there are times in life that you are going to need help so if people are aware of the condition this makes asking for help so much easier.”

A lot of the teens have done this and instead of competing they are now coaching and teaching younger children swimming or gymnastics. It’s hard to do this and accept it but you have to stand up for yourself in hospitals.

“In consultation with your doctors, together, you can put the best treatment plan in place for yourself. This is a tip for parents of a younger child and then for a teen, make sure to have questions wrote out before going into your appointments as once you are in there you forget everything and will have to wait until your next appointment to find out the answer.

With the college year and exams just finished and the underage leagues over for the summer as well, for now Aine will lend her support to the Cork City Ladies from the side line as they look to challenge for the Women’s National League and also the Cork City men’s team as they do battle with Dundalk for the top prize. No doubt she will have one eye towards next season already though with her underage squads at Bandon AFC.