Thursday 21 November 2019

I struggled to get up the stairs some days - Clarke

Galway's Shane Walsh and former Mayo boss James Horan
Galway's Shane Walsh and former Mayo boss James Horan

Marty Clarke is on the beach near his house and blowing hard.

In fact he's blowing much, much harder than a man of his age and background should be blowing. But that's the hand he's been dealt; he can only get on with it.

Addison's disease has no known cure and everything about it flies in the face of what you need from your body for top-level sport.

Still, he is chasing his dream of playing for Down again and chasing it hard. When the lungs are burning and his heart pounds, just one thought runs through his mind.

"That's what's in my head. 2016. Red and black."

It's not yet a year since he was diagnosed with the condition that sees your system attack its own adrenal glands.

He was still in Australia at the time and fighting for his future in the AFL but inexplicably his form, and his weight, plummeted worryingly.

"Before I got diagnosed I didn't know what it was," he recalls.

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"I was still playing professionally in Australia so I was trying to conserve all my energies for training and games.

"It was really strange for a young, fit fella in the space of two months to suddenly be struggling to get up the stairs some days."

Along with his health his chances of finding another club went through the floor as his bad form was mistaken for a bad attitude.

To that point he had known little other than being a highly-thought-of sportsman. Now everything was falling down around him.

"There were a couple of other clubs interested in me at the time because my performances for Collingwood reserves dropped off so dramatically it almost looked like 'this guy isn't trying anymore'.

"In that respect the interest went out the window very soon.

"My wife and I had talked about moving interstate to a new adventure within Australia and be playing there. But I don't blame them for not picking me.

"I could tell them this is the condition I have and next year when I'm on medication it'll be fine but it's too complicated for them. I have to understand where they are coming from too."

News of his return home, along with that of another prodigious talent in Caolan Mooney, sparked renewed hope in Down. And while Mooney has settled back in with the squad, Clarke's comeback has been much more low-key.

Back in 2010, he returned from the AFL where he was thought of as something of a sensation after making rapid progress in his time there.

Back here, he brought his side to within a point of the All-Ireland title but on this return this time around, his condition means he has eased himself back into club football with An Riocht, starting with a 20-minute cameo and working his way up to a full hour's football with the club.

All the while, he's been experimenting with his medicine levels and dosage.

Finding the right balance and being able to play is a challenge. Clarke has found just one elite-level athlete who has coped with the disease and competed. Canadian gymnast Nathan Gafuik has been to three Olympic Games.

"I was relieved (to be diagnosed) to be honest because I had lost a lot of weight and I just wanted to get to the bottom of it.

"I was sick and tired of feeling the way I was so then once we got it and I (knew) how to deal with it, it was just a matter of accepting it and moving on.

"I don't really look back with any regrets or 'why me' or bitterness because it's not a positive energy to carry through. I'm just thankful it wasn't something more sinister."

This summer, he'll form part of Newstalk's team of analysts for the championship. Down can still be a top-eight side, he reckons, and he'll enjoy the role, but he's only keeping the seat warm.

He's gotten clearance to take his various medicines without falling foul of any doping guidelines until 2019.

All things being well, he'll have his hand up for Down selection for next year. An inter-county comeback would open another remarkable chapter in a remarkable career.

Everything between now and then will be dedicated to that moment.

"2016. Red and black."

Irish Independent

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