This Dubai resident once lost the desire to live. Now he is a mental health advocate

Ten years after suffering a serious injury, Conor Clarke, head of strength and conditioning at GEMS Metropole School, has resurrected his career

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Conor Clarke, all set for the Hyrox World Championships in France. — Photos supplied

Published: Sunday June 2, 2024, 7:56 p.m.

Just a few years ago, Conor Clarke went to bed every night without the motivation to get up and look at the rising sun in the morning. The young Irishman had lost the will to live, having fallen into an emotional black hole after his career as a top-level athlete was cut short by a brutal knee injury.

Clarke was barely 20 years old when he had to undergo surgery to recover. But his dreams of continuing to progress in Gaelic football, a very popular sport in Ireland that derives elements from soccer and rugby, were over.

While the physical wounds eventually healed, the mental scars continued to scream in his head, reminding him of his unfulfilled dreams and pushing him into a state of despair.

Clarke even turned to alcohol to mask her depression. But timely intervention from family and friends helped prevent her life from spiraling out of control.

Surprisingly, the man who battled depression until not long ago is a mental health advocate in Dubai. His new role as Head of Strength and Conditioning at GEMS Metropole School has injected new life into him.

Having regained his appetite for life, Clarke also combines his work with Gaelic football.

Yes, you heard right. He’s back on the field, making those quick runs, throwing and kicking the ball to score points.

In what has been a stunning reversal of fortune, Clarke has now qualified for this month’s Hyrox World Championships (June 7-9) in France, her sport’s biggest event, just 10 years after collapsing in the field that left him in unbearable pain. and persistent mental trauma.

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So how did he resurrect his life?

In a candid interview with City TimesClarke talked about her worst fears and how she overcame them.

Q. Your story is the dream of Hollywood screenwriters. But first, tell us how you fell in love with Gaelic football.

It all started when I was four or five years old, playing Gaelic football for my local club, Omagh St Enda’s. I attended training every Saturday morning for an hour or two with my parents and, from then on, I fell in love with everything: the ball, the friendships, the place where we played and the people involved, from the coaches to the butlers. Since I was very little I wanted to win; I was competitive in everything I did.

Q. But your ambition to become a conquering athlete ended after the serious knee injury. How did it happen?

This was in 2014. During a Club Championship match (in Ireland), I picked up the ball from a teammate. Then, with no one around me – no opponents, no teammates – I planted my left foot to turn around. Unfortunately, while the rest of my body rotated, my left foot remained planted on the ground and did not rotate. The pressure on my knee became too much and I tore my ACL, MCL, MCL, and tore the meniscus on both sides. I was facing extensive knee surgery and a long recovery time, something I really didn’t want to endure.

Q. So, the injury ended your career and led you to fight depression…

It was a pretty dark time. It’s not something I’m proud of or something I can easily talk about. It makes me feel quite embarrassed thinking about it. I spent a lot of time alone, and even when I was in the company of family or friends, I still felt lonely. I used alcohol to mask what I felt. The scariest thing was that there were many nights when I went to bed, not really caring if I woke up the next day, without any regard for my family and friends, the people I would be leaving behind. It’s a very sad but honest reflection of where I was at mentally.

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Q. How long did it take you to overcome that difficult stage in your life?

I will never completely get over it; It’s not something you can just get rid of. Luckily, I was able to get help before it all became too much. I was prescribed medication that helped initially, but I didn’t want to take it for longer than I desperately needed to. With the help of a cognitive behavioral therapist, I was able to develop several coping mechanisms and strategies that I still use today to manage things.

Q. When did you move to Dubai?

It is already my sixth year in Dubai. I feel that the network of friends and “family” that I have created during that time is essential to me. I am now thriving and enjoying my life as it should be.

Q. Was moving to Dubai a life-changing decision for you?

The way things unfolded certainly changed my life for the better. I love my job. Every day I wake up I know that I am coming to influence the students I work with. I know that when I was their age I looked up to my teachers and coaches, so I hope they feel the same way about me.

Q. For someone who has been through a lot in life, it must be an emotionally satisfying time working with school students, inspiring them to overcome great obstacles…

Last week we had a PSHE drop down day and I was able to talk to all the Year 9 children about body image and mental health and give them a brief overview of my history and certain things they should pay attention to. help them avoid falling into the same habits I once had. It’s a nice feeling to be able to open up on a personal level with students, normalize the discussion about mental health.

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Q. We have seen several elite athletes lose meaning in life after career-ending injury setbacks. What would be your advice to them?

Talking to someone about what you’re going through is crucial. In my case, I felt ashamed and ashamed of my feelings, falling into the stereotype of ‘I’m a man, I shouldn’t feel this’, which in retrospect is absolutely ridiculous. Mental health affects us all and is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s like a broken bone; If we break a bone, we seek medical help immediately. Just because you can’t see a disease doesn’t mean you shouldn’t treat it.

Q. You are now back as a competitive athlete and will participate in the Hyrox World Championships. You will team up with fellow Dubai resident Adrian O’Gara in the doubles event. How important is it in terms of what you’ve been through in life?

I just want to make the most of my life. I know I can get through hard things, considering where I’ve been: at rock bottom. I feel lucky to still be here and be able to do what I’m doing. I know that one day my body won’t be able to do what I do on a daily basis now, so it’s important for me to try to do as much as I can now, both in my athletic career and my teaching career. I want to educate the athletes of the future and pass on all the little tips I can. Having a job as Head of Strength and Conditioning in (Dubai) is something I am really grateful for. It allows me to have a positive impact on others and gives me a sense of accomplishment and purpose.

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