'I really miss my father' - former Kerry star Aidan O'Mahony to walk the Camino for a cause close to his heart
Garda, dance champ, fitness trainer, father, Aidan O'Mahony has been kept busy since retiring from football. Now the five-time Kerry All-Ireland winner is preparing to tackle the Camino, and all for a very worthy cause, he tells John Meagher
It is one of those universal truths that makes retirement from high-level sport all the harder to bear. Not only does the star have to step out of the limelight but his or her carefully honed body quickly begins to soften, to pad out, to weaken.
Saying goodbye to weight training and punishing cardio sessions and indulging in formerly eschewed treats like alcohol and take-aways quickly takes its toll and the inter-county GAA great who proudly sported those tight player-fit jerseys is having to reinvest in clothes that are a size or two larger.
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If that's the reality for many of the game's former icons, nobody told Aidan O'Mahony. At 39, the five-time Kerry All-Ireland winner is in the shape of his life. He has no fears of moobs and beer-bellies - instead, his torso looks like it's been sculpted specially for an appearance in the next X-Men movie. Have a look at his Twitter avatar if you think that's an exaggeration.
A community Garda based in Tralee, O'Mahony runs his own personal training business so it is little wonder that his body fat is so low and he cheerfully admits to being one of those strange people who can't get enough of the gym. "I'm in it a lot - it's something I always really enjoyed although my wife used to say that I worked out too much."
He is not working out quite as much now simply because there's a new arrival in the O'Mahony household. A daughter, Lilah, was born in March, and her sister, Lucia, is just two years old. "Sleep isn't what it used to be," O'Mahony quips, "but, you know, being a father is the best thing in the world."
If the two-time All Star defender needs no introduction to GAA aficionados, he is well known to the rest of the population too thanks to RTÉ's ever-popular Dancing with the Stars. He won the first series in 2017, making fans as he went along.
"Honestly, doing those dances was more nerve-wracking than any experience I had in Croke Park," he says. "When I was out on the field of play, I knew exactly what I was doing. With dancing, it was all a learning process and it really took me out of my comfort zone.
"But the whole experience was great. It was something different and you feel as though you can challenge yourself to do anything."
But there was the odd drawback, he notes, laughing: "Working as a Garda, they'd let you know about it on the street. There was plenty of slagging, but it was all good-natured."
Dancing with the Stars also helped O'Mahony navigate the business of retirement. Although he has continued to play with his club, Rathmore, he formally stepped away from the Kerry inter-county scene after the 2016 Championship.
"Of course you miss it," he says, "but you have to be philosophical about it. I got to play for a long time and I can say I played in nine All-Ireland finals. Every sports person has to know when the right time to step away is."
Starting a family with wife Denise has certainly kept his mind occupied as have extra-curricular activities like becoming an 'ambassador' for gambling giant Paddy Power.
And now, O'Mahony is doing something very close to his heart. He is helping to raise money for the charity, CRY - Cardiac Risk in the Young - by walking the Portuguese stretch of the fabled Camino de Santiago in September. He is inviting readers to join him - the accessible 107km course is walked over eight days and anyone interested in partaking is asked to raise €1,950.
"There's this idea out there that cardiac problems only affect old people," he says. "That's not the case at all and around the time I first started playing for Kerry, Cormac McAnallen died from it and it really brought our attention to the fact that anyone could be affected."
McAnallen was seen as one of the future stars of the game, having played a pivotal role in helping Tyrone win its first All-Ireland football title in 2003. But he died in his sleep in 2004 aged just 24. He had died of a previously undetected heart condition, sudden adult death syndrome.
"It hit us all really hard," O'Mahony recalls. "I would have been around the same age as he was when it happened. It was a real wake-up call."
Today, all inter-county players are tested but O'Mahony is concerned that the far larger proportion who play club GAA - and other sports - don't get the same checks. He says anyone who has a history of cardiac issues in their family should be checked out, no matter how fit they are.
"There was stupid talk around the time that Cormac died that he had been training too hard," he says. "It's got nothing whatsoever to do with that. But take action - don't leave it until it's too late."
Sudden cardiac death in young people is more common in this country than many might imagine. Approximately two people under the age of 35 die every week in Ireland from it. Conditions that cause it cannot be cured but if diagnosed, the risk of death can be significantly reduced and the best treatment for people at risk is expert assessment, including screening.
O'Mahony lost his own father to a heart attack, although he was 73 when he died. "I think about my father all the time," he says. "I really miss him not being around, especially now that I'm a father myself. He and my mam were together nearly 50 years, so it was a tough time for all of us when he passed away.
"[Heart disease] is something that affects all families," he adds. "But the figures can be reduced."
According to the Irish Heart Foundation, heart disease is Ireland's number one killer, causing a third of all deaths and one-in-five of all premature deaths. In the region of 10,000 people die from heart disease each year and the foundation says it is trying to reduce the number of premature deaths by 25pc by 2025.
The Gaelic football championship is well underway and it's the third since O'Mahony's retirement. He says there are still moments where he longs to pull on that famous green and gold jersey, but admits that the code is, increasingly, a young man's game. "It's become professional in all but name," he says. "There's a huge amount of work that has to be put in - not just in Kerry, but every county and in many of the top clubs too. It's very full-on and it has to be if you want any chance of success."
O'Mahony won his last All-Ireland medal in 2014 - which is also the last time Kerry were triumphant. Since then, it's all been about Dublin. The 'Jacks' are going for an unprecedented five-in-a-row this year and O'Mahony concedes that they are the team to beat.
"Look, they've been exceptional for a long time now and when you consider this year's championship you have to say that they are favourites to do it. But it won't be easy - there will be an awful lot of pressure on them this year to do something that no other county has done.
"They won't be tested in Leinster but there will be tough matches after that. [Dublin winning] is far from a done deal and I think there will be twists and turns."
O'Mahony was just a toddler when a county, his own, last chased five successive titles. That Kerry side are still considered to be one of the best ever and they were the odds-on favourites to overcome Offaly in the 1982 final. But their dreams were crushed thanks to a last-minute Seamus Darby goal, arguably the most storied in GAA history.
"It still hurts," O'Mahony says with a chuckle. "Maybe this will be the year that Kerry stop the Dubs doing it. I definitely think they [Kerry] will have a say in how the championship pans out." He points out that as the Kerry minor team are five-in-a-row champions, there's a rich seam of young talent coming through.
O'Mahony made his senior inter-county debut for Kerry in the 2003 league although he wasn't part of the team crushed by Tyrone in the All-Ireland semi-final that year. It was a game that RTÉ analyst and former Kerry star Pat Spillane memorably described as "puke football" in reference to the way Tyrone played and stifled the opposition's creativity.
Kerry were forced into significant changes and O'Mahony - already a teak tough defender at underage level - was hugely instrumental in the change in fortunes. He won his first All-Ireland in 2004, the year he made his championship debut.
"If you grow up in Kerry you dream about being in Croke Park and winning Sam [Maguire Cup] and I was no different and when you actually get to do it, it's the most amazing feeling. So much hard work goes into it and it isn't possible unless everyone in the squad pulls together so those All-Irelands feel like real collective achievements."
There may have been plenty of highs in the O'Mahony CV, but there have been lows too, and none more so than when he failed a drugs test after the 2009 All-Ireland final. He successfully proved that salbutamol, the substance detected, had come from an inhaler he used to help with his asthma. There was a limbo period of about six months and, in the end, he was completely exonerated, but memory of it still hurts.
"There was no support from the GAA whatsoever," he says. "I felt I was on my own." Many, including O'Mahony, were bothered by the fact that his name had been made public before the test result could be proved one way or another. "It was all over the papers - 'O'Mahony fails drugs test'. People leaped to conclusions straight away. They didn't even want to know about the asthma.
"I've had an inhaler for a long time and I knew that my conscience was clear but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't an anxious time and it had an impact on my family. Of course it did. Sometimes, it's harder for them."
O'Mahony is keen to pay tribute to his family for their support during his entire career. "It's all-consuming," he says. "You have to make a lot of sacrifices but those nearest and dearest to you do too."
Now that inter-county demands no longer eat up his time, he can enjoy the business of being father to two young girls. He says parenthood has "softened" him and the hard-bitten desire to win that characterised his Kerry days has faded.
Since becoming involved with CRY, he says he has become all too aware of his own mortality and that of his family. He says the experience of CRY founder Liam Herlihy has made him appreciate what he has on a day-to-day basis.
"Liam lost his daughter Niamh from sudden cardiac death just before her 21st birthday," he says. "It's so wrong - it goes against the natural order of things that you would outlive your child.
"But Liam has done so much to raise and bring the issue to prominence. We talk about 'heroes' all the time, in sport and in other fields, but for me, it's Liam who's a real hero."
The CRY Camino walk with Aidan O'Mahony takes place from September 7 to 14.
For more information, consult cry.ie
Photography by Domnick Walsh