Saturday 1 October 2016

Leg Off, Game On a remarkable feat

Published 29/02/2016 | 02:30

Craig Dowling (centre) and Dave Saunders listen to a talk from Roy Keane prior to departing for the World Cup. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Craig Dowling (centre) and Dave Saunders listen to a talk from Roy Keane prior to departing for the World Cup. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

In as much as it's possible to judge a dog's emotions, Chisel, a nine-year-old golden Labrador, seems happy enough and he shuffles into the yard even though, when he looks down his nose, he'll see only one leg at the front where there should be two.

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Three years ago, Chisel chased a postman and was hit by a car shattering his front right leg which meant either a bill of €3,000 to reconstruct the leg, or one of €300 to amputate it. Craig Dowling, his owner, took the latter option.

Dowling was born with Fibular Hemimelia, which meant that the fibula bone in his lower leg didn't form and he reckons, at last count, he has had 19 different legs starting at the age of three. As a one-legged man, he'd be well placed to make the best decision for his three-legged dog.

"We thought that life as an amputee isn't too bad," he says of the options Chisel faced. "He's fine now, not a bother on him. And he still chases the postman."

Chisel only has a short cameo in the documentary 'Leg Off, Game On' to be screened on Wednesday night (11.30) on RTE One but, as a striker on the Irish Amputee football team, Dowling is among a group of remarkable characters which the documentary follows to the World Cup in Mexico.

Dedicating

It's a story about a group of athletes from differing backgrounds striving towards a goal and dedicating nine months of their lives towards getting there.

"It's not enough to say 'I'd like to play in the World Cup', or 'I like playing that game'," explains High Performance Coach Alan Heary in a room at UL where the team spend their training weekends.

"You've got to absolutely want it with every fibre in your body. And you've all done it before. You've all faced adversity where you've had to say 'I want to play football, even if I have to play it on crutches."

On his first day, midfielder Alan Wall expected "a few lads leaning on their crutches kicking the ball to each other" and was stunned at the intensity levels. A couple of years on and Heary's training drills are putting them through the wringer.

One involves the players lying flat on their stomachs and, when called, rising to their foot - as opposed to feet - and sprinting on their crutches to a marker; then there's the bleep test, agility drills and strength work.

All of which is done, before a ball is even introduced into the mix and in such an intense environment, the honeymoon period where everyone is consistently just happy to be there, doesn't last long.

"At first there was lots of 'well done' and a bit of mollycoddling but that goes pretty quickly," explains striker Mandy King, who will become the first female to play at an Amputee World Cup and is also a coach with the junior squad.

King first realised there was something wrong with her leg when she couldn't fasten boots over her calf and it turned out to be cancer.

After two weeks of chemotherapy, she was told it would have to be amputated.

But like several others, there is a remarkable openness about King in how she discusses the emotions around her situation and the direction which playing football has given her.

"If somebody told me now 'We're going to give you your leg back but you'll have your old life back', I'd say no," she adds without a hint of doubt.

It's a similar view held by Dave Saunders who had bone cancer when he was 11 and, in his first year in secondary school had to have his leg amputated above the knee, having already represented his county in athletics and played virtually every sport that was available to him as a child.

Like King, Saunders doesn't hold back in explaining his feelings because, he says, he held back for so long. "It (the football) has certainly helped me to be more comfortable with my disability. I would have been quite private about the fact that I was an amputee and if people didn't have to know, I wouldn't tell them," he said.

"I'd make a quick calculation - 'does this person need to know?' - and if they didn't I'd just say I hurt my knee playing football. I've done that thousands of times.

"But since meeting the rest of the lads and playing - it's not that you show it off or anything - but it's like 'this is the way I am' and you're proud of it. And I wouldn't change it either.

"I think it has totally shaped the way I am as a person as well. I don't think I'd be as rounded if I hadn't lost my leg."

The side is captained by team founder Simon Baker and coached by Christy McElligott, who at half-time in a warm-up match demands that the players "treat the ball like your missus and protect it". It is, as Baker puts it, "no place for violins" although, as the journey concludes Baker's emotions bubble over with pride at how far each of them have come - and his thoughts of retirement are put on hold.

Midfielder Wall - who was able-bodied until he fell off a 25 feet high wall, shattered his legs and subsequently lost one of his legs after contracting MRSA - dislocated his shoulder at the World Cup which meant he couldn't used his crutches and consequently required a wheelchair to get around. On the list of issues which have affected this team, it is pretty minor.

"I was out of training for nearly two months and the wheelchair was wrecking my head," adds Wall. "If I didn't have this team, my head would be all over the place. When people see our football, they always say 'I couldn't believe how fast you are' and ask us how we do this and that. I just say 'cut your leg off and find out'."

Irish Independent

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