Friday 19 January 2018

Windsurfing: Let's talk about saving lives

The Back Page

Eamonn Sweeney

I never knew Mikey Clancy. But I knew of him. I knew he was a young guy from Raheny who was trying to make it in the world of professional windsurfing, a world in which he was the only Irish competitor. I knew that he was regarded as a top prospect in the sport, he'd finished 25th in the world championship when he was just 19. I knew that he'd had to overcome a serious ankle injury which threatened to end his career but was back competing at the top level.

His father Michael kept me in touch with Mikey's progress. Mikey's ambition was to crack the world top ten and when he finished 13th in a world championship event in Denmark back in September, he seemed to be on course. His story was going to make a good piece for the column one of these days.

So when last week I saw that I had an email from Michael Clancy I was looking forward to seeing how Mikey was progressing. And then I opened it and discovered that Mikey Clancy was dead at the age of 22. He'd taken his own life in Dublin on January 6.

The death of a young person is always shocking. But that of Mikey Clancy is especially so because it seems to go against so many of the commonplace assumptions about people who commit suicide. We're inclined to think that people who kill themselves perhaps didn't have much in their lives. But Mikey Clancy had travelled the world to pursue his dreams in an extremely difficult sport.

Sometimes we suspect the deceased must have been of a nervous disposition. But I'm looking at photos of Mikey Clancy taking on big, big waves. Not many of us would fancy taking them on. This wasn't a fearful guy.

He wasn't a quitter either. The injury which kept him out of windsurfing for a year was treated by surgery in which the bones of his ankle were fused together. Doctors told him the resultant loss of flexibility meant his professional windsurfing career was over. But Mikey fought back and in Denmark proved he was better than ever.

The message is, I think, that there's no handy category into which those who commit suicide fall, no easy way of spotting them. If it can happen to a young man like Mikey Clancy, it can happen to anyone.

When I asked Michael Clancy for permission to write about Mikey, he gave it because he believes that suicide among young men has reached epidemic proportions and that highlighting it could save someone's life in the future. Michael believes that "it's a horrendous cultural thing that Ireland is developing, it really is. It seems to be getting worse rather than better."

I agree with him and I think most people would be aware that suicide is becoming a major problem in this country, particularly among young men. But the problem is not confined to young men. This month has also seen the inquest into the death of Paul O'Connor, the former Cork hurler who in September took his own life aged 49.

Paul O'Connor was someone else who didn't fit the bill as a suicide victim, he was a strong man, a leader who progressed from winning Cork senior titles with Na Piarsaigh and Fitzgibbon Cup medals with UCC to becoming a respected manager who steered the College to several Fitzgibbon triumphs.

Two years ago, 25-year-old Peter McNulty, a former All-Ireland minor medal winner with Laois, also committed suicide and his family bravely refused to sweep the truth under the carpet, something which helped confront the taboos surrounding the subject.

And it still seems scarcely credible that Darren Sutherland, the Olympic boxing hero who held such a place in the public affection, killed himself in London four years ago. In the ring Sutherland seemed utterly indomitable, brave, strong, supremely motivated. Yet he too found life sufficiently unbearable that the only option seemed to be the most drastic and irreversible act of all.

You can't really talk about the specifics of individual cases without knowing the people involved but these terrible deaths are only the tip of an increasingly sinister iceberg. The relevance for sport is not just that some of the dead have been outstanding sportsmen but that sport is one of the main areas where young men, the group most at risk, make contact with the wider society.

Involvement in sport tends to make a positive contribution to mental health. For one thing exercise is one of the best possible remedies for depression. Their outwardly healthy aspect means we're inclined to think of the guys on our local teams as being immune from doubt or fear or anguish. Yet appearances can deceive and that deception can have fatal results. The death of a young man like Mikey Clancy is a tragedy but it can have positive consequences if it makes us think about other people who may be at risk. Young men, for all their bonhomie and extroversion, can be oddly solitary creatures, reluctant to let anyone find out what's really going on in their heads. I know because I used to be one of them. But perhaps no-one knows a sportsman better than his team-mates or his coaches.

And if young men in particular are reluctant to talk about their feelings, their friends are often just as reluctant to probe them about those feelings even if they suspect something is wrong. Perhaps it's time for team-mates to have a word if they suspect one of their number isn't himself these days. If you're wrong, the worst that can happen is that he'll probably laugh the question off.

But maybe he's just been waiting for someone to ask so he can open up to them. Because what's killing a lot of men is that failure to talk, to seek help, to admit that they can't see a way out from their current difficulties. This is a country with a macho culture which makes it very hard for men to admit weakness. But we've got to change that. And I actually think we've become sufficiently aware of the problem of suicide that no-one is going to mock anybody who has the guts to admit that they're in a dark place.

Men have to talk about this and a sports club is a good spot to start the conversation. We've got to challenge the notion that, in the words of Michael Clancy, "it is almost like a click option on your phone. It's almost like press button A if you want to do one thing and press button B if you want to commit suicide. It's almost like a disposable thing."

Thirty years ago I went to the saddest funeral I've ever been at. The young man who'd killed himself wasn't really related to me, my aunt was married to his uncle. But I liked to think he was because he was something of a sporting hero, he'd scored a goal in an All-Ireland minor hurling semi-final and the winning point in a county minor football final. The weight of grief in the little country graveyard that day is something I've never forgotten. There is always something unnatural about parents burying a child in any case but the funeral of a suicide is an even more awful occasion. There have been too many of those funerals since then, too much grief, too much sorrow.

My heartfelt condolences go to Mikey Clancy's parents Michael and Bernie and his brother Seán. I'm sure yours do too. On his website he describes his mother and father as "the best parents you could ask for." I hope that's some consolation at this awful time.

I'm looking at a video of him from his website. He's gliding along a series of massive waves at Magheroarty Beach in Donegal as though it's the easiest thing in the world. The guy really had something special going on. I wish I'd been able to write about the next chapter in his career.

It would have been some story.

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