Soccer star Rianna's back on top following her injury woes
Rianna Jarrett told Pádraig Byrne about her comeback
Everyone loves a good sporting comeback story. Well, in many ways, the story of Wexford's own Rianna Jarrett could compete with any of the sporting epics we see played out on the big screen.
Coming back from the brink, suffering horrendous injuries at a tender age, she finished last season with an unprecedented treble with Wexford Youths and also claimed the Women's National League player of the year award, placing her among Ireland's elite footballing talents.
From Croke Avenue in Wexford town, Rianna's footballing drive very much comes from her family. The daughter of Doreen from Bernadette Place, with Jamaican blood on her father David's side, she grew up kicking ball with her twin brother Jordan and later younger brother Connolly.
'My Mam was born in Wexford and she moved to England for a while, where she met my Dad. We lived over there for a while, but I'm a townie through and through,' Rianna laughed.
While she always had a ball at her feet, her first experience of organised soccer came with North End, despite not having a girls' team for her to play with.
'I started out with the boys' team with my brother Jordan and my cousin Robin Dempsey,' she recalls. 'Initially there was no girls' team and I had to play with the boys. I didn't mind though. In fact I was probably devastated when I had to stop playing with them!'
Rianna's talent on the pitch quickly became apparent. Having played briefly for Curracloe, it was after playing with the Wexford League team in the FAI Senior Cup that she started out on a new project at Wexford Youths.
'The Youths had kind of started up at the end of that summer and I got the call,' she said. 'It was a completely new process. You could see that we had the best players from around Wexford and surrounding counties, but it was tough at the start. The league was only new and we got a few hidings off some of the Dublin teams. But we grew in confidence as a group. There was a real work ethic and by the end of our third season we had won a trophy.'
While there have been plenty of highs over the years, Rianna has also gone through some lows that are uncommon for a player of just 24 years of age. In footballing terms, the mere mention of an ACL injury can be enough to make even the toughest player shudder. It has the potential to be career ending and the recovery can be a difficult process. Rianna has come up against this particular foe on three occasions, just as she was carving out a name for herself and breaking into the Irish international setup.
'I've done my ACL three times in the space of four or five years,' she explains. 'Every time it happened, I was away with the Irish team. The first one was in April of 2013. Then there was January of 2015 and the most recent was March of 2016.'
The dates etched into Rianna's mind, she faced a mammoth task to return to the level she had been at.
'The first time, it was a new experience,' she said, putting it mildly. 'I knew people who had done it before. My family and friends were really fantastic and the FAI paid for everything, so I didn't have to worry about bills or anything like that.'
'The second one was probably the hardest physically,' she said. 'I had just come back from a semester in college in America and I was probably as fit and strong as I've ever been. It was just really frustrating to find myself back in that place again.'
'The third time was definitely the hardest mentally,' she recalled. 'Obviously, because I had been there before, I knew exactly what I was facing. I was upset because I knew what was ahead.'
It was at this stage that Rianna hit her lowest point and, albeit briefly, contemplated hanging up her boots aged just 21.
'There was probably a two-week period in the middle of my recovery where I didn't know whether I wanted to come back,' she confesses. 'I didn't know whether I wanted to try get back to playing at an international level or back to the Youths or at all. That didn't last too long though. Once I started to see some results again, there was no doubt in my mind whatsoever that this was what I wanted to do.'
A triumphant return to the Wexford Youths setup followed. Having missed the best part of four years of her young career, Rianna returned with renewed vigour, having sat on the sidelines as her club-mates enjoyed National League title wins, FAI Cup finals and Champions League campaigns.
Last year, she played a vital part as her team claimed a fantastic treble - the FAI Cup, the Shield and retaining the National Women's League for a record fourth time. When asked to pinpoint the success enjoyed by the Youths, she says it comes down to a number of elements.
'There a few factors,' she said. 'There's always been a quality of players and good management here, even though the management team has gone through some changes in recent years. There is a core group that were there from the start and anyone who has come in has bought into and added to that. We get on just as well off the pitch and we're always willing to fight for each other, which is important. We're always learning from our mistakes and striving to be better.'
Following her return to form with the Youths, the call eventually came for Rianna to return to the international setup back in June.
'I was invited back into the setup for two World Cup qualifiers,' she said. 'I didn't expect to get the call that soon. It was a double-header against Norway and just to run out on that pitch in an Ireland team jersey again after everything was amazing.'
However, Rianna by no means felt that she had returned to claim her rightful place in the Ireland team. Far from it.
'To be honest, I felt like that was only the start of the process,' she said. 'I wasn't as fit as I should have been for that level. As the season progressed with the club though, I got fitter and stronger and I started scoring a few more goals. There was a realisation that I could get back to and improve on the level I was playing at before the injuries.'
As if scooping three trophies with her teammates wasn't enough, Rianna also collected some personal silverware as last season concluded, picking up the 2018 Women's National League Player of the year.
'It was a fantastic night,' she said of collecting the trophy. 'There were two other Youths girls nominated going into it - Kylie Murphy and Lauren Dwyer - and it could've gone to any one of us. But for me it really topped off what was a great season. To finish the season without any major injury for me was the main thing, but this really topped it off.'
Flying high on last season's success and already deep into pre-season once again with the Youths, Rianna is firmly focused on the coming season, continued success with the Youths and becoming a mainstay in the Irish international setup. At the point of doing this interview, she is waiting for a lift from work at Equifax straight to training where she is due to take part in a practice game against the men's team. While she says her employers are very understanding and supportive and getting time off to take part in training camps with Ireland is never an issue, she does harbour dreams of going pro and plying her trade across the Irish sea.
'Obviously I'd love to go abroad and play,' she said. 'If the opportunity came along and was right for me and right for the club, then I'd jump at it. But firstly, I need to get into a position where I don't get injured again. That's what I'm focusing on at the minute. Then I want to not just get back into the Irish team, but make sure I'm a regular starter and score some goals. If talks were to open after that, then I'd be open to a move. But I'm taking everything one step at a time at the moment.'
With the Wexford Youths women's' season kicking off at home to UCD Waves on March 9, there seems to be a real focus on continued success at Ferrycarrig Park. Far from sitting back and congratulating themselves on a historic treble last year, those celebrations seem banished to memory and there seems to be a real hunger for more.
In terms of targets, Rianna says: 'Like any season, obviously winning the league again would be the big one. We want to make a proper stab at the Champions League this year as well and not just take part, but qualify and show that we can compete at that level. From my own point of view I want to build on my fitness levels and hopefully hit the ground running.'
Having recovered so well from the setbacks that she's endured, there is a renewed sense of optimism surrounding Rianna Jarrett. Having already displayed major perseverance and determination, and still only aged 24, one imagines that the trophies scooped last season won't be the only ones that find their way into the hands of the woman from Croke Avenue.
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