‘The best day of my life’

Overcoming hurdles is what I do best — and foot surgery before my wedding day wasn’t going to stop me walking up the aisle, says Derval O’Rourke.

THIS year has had highs and lows. In March, I just missed a medal in the European indoor championships and my funding was drastically cut. The indoor winner later tested positive for drugs, so I’ll get a medal, but I’m awaiting its delivery.

My outdoor season ended abruptly in surgery, but, to counter the heartache, I got married, to an Olympic sailor, so our wedding was never going to be typical. As I’m a track athlete, we didn’t have much free time to look at venues and plan our big day. The wedding date had to suit the track and sailing seasons. Most people consider the weather, but our wedding day was dictated by racing schedules. I knew of three other international track athletes who were getting married on the same date, as September is the athletics off-season.

When I was younger, I never dreamt about my wedding. I dreamt big about running fast. I never had time to get upset about wedding invites or cakes, and, therefore, I can be a little baffled by people who do.

Thankfully, I have wonderful friends and family, some of whom are creative, so they were roped in to do all kinds of jobs, like the flowers, the cake, the photographs, designing the wedding invites, and driving me to the church.

In the lead-up to our wedding, the expectation for me to embrace the role of bride-to-be, and make it the focus for 2013, was difficult.

Peter would have been in shock if I had become 100% wedding-focused; he would have wondered what had happened to his fiancé, who loves to lift weights and race.

This year, there was also a European indoor title on the line and a world outdoor championships to contest. To say our wedding day was my number-one priority this year would just be a lie.

Most of the wedding preparations were dictated by my running or by Peter’s sailing. I found it hard to switch from thinking about running fast to how I’m going to look in a dress.

One wedding-dress fitting was a disaster. I went in after a really tough weight-lifting session.

I was in the middle of a heavy training phase and every session was exhausting. One of my bridesmaids, who is also my weights coach, came with me. I tried on the dress and was just disinterested.

All I could think about was how tired my legs were from lifting and about the running session I needed to do the next day.

The ladies in the shop were looking expectantly at me and all I could muster was that the dress was ‘grand’. My poor friend had to console the ladies, telling them the dress was beautiful, but I was having a bad day. It would have been hard to explain that the only place I wanted to be was under a duvet. At that moment, the dress was not even on my radar.

My outdoor season has been, to date, the toughest I have ever experienced. I’ve had other tough years, but never one that followed so much hope and promise.

I had a great indoor season and gave myself a super chance of breaking my Irish outdoor record in the world championships. I thought this was going to be my year.

Then, I started to feel pain in my achilles tendon and heel bone, in late March, but kept going for a couple of months. Feeling pain and still trying to train is something most elite athletes can relate to.

You are always pushing your body to the limit, while hoping not to break down. By June, I was struggling to put on shoes that touched the back of my foot.

To run over hurdles, I was taking painkillers before the session, and wrapping tape around my foot during the session. The issue came to a head in Ostrava when I tried to race. I ran straight into the first hurdle, because the pain was so bad in my foot I couldn’t get up on my toes and clear a hurdle.

That moment led me to the London office of Swedish surgeon, Dr Hakan Alfredsson, four weeks before my wedding. I found out that I had two options — to leave my Achilles alone and not run again, even recreationally, or have surgery and give myself a chance at running again. It was always going to be option two. The next issue was a date for the surgery. I requested that Dr Alfredsson do the surgery the next day. This would mean there was a chance I wouldn’t be able to walk on the day of the wedding. Peter was with me in London and I asked him if he thought it was crazy to have the surgery before the wedding, and he said I would be crazy not to have it; we decided the priority was getting my foot fixed. I’m not sure, if I was marrying anyone other than a fellow sportsperson, that they would have encouraged me to have the surgery so soon, if it meant hobbling, not walking, down the aisle on our wedding day.

The surgery took an hour and a half, under local anaesthetic. I was numb from the knee down — I had no pain, just lots of strange sensations and horrible noises. For most of the surgery, I chatted to the four nurses, though I was too scared to talk to Dr Alfredsson, in case I distracted him. As Dr Alfredsson was stitching me up, he said: “Well, you know, I think you will walk, maybe even without a limp, for your wedding.” I asked him about shoes, as I had bought the most amazing pair of Jimmy Choos, and he told me I could wear them if I cut out the back of them.

The nurses started laughing and told him no-one takes a pair of scissors to Jimmy Choos, even if they’ve had surgery.

I had a consultation with Dr Alfredsson the next day, to examine the wound and get advice about rehab. He told me he had phoned his wife, in Sweden, to tell her about the Irish girl with Jimmy Choos, and his wife had told him he was crazy to think Jimmy Choos should be cut.

The four weeks post-surgery were very tough, in terms of wedding preparation. Everything I needed to do was difficult, as I was on crutches and unable to drive. Despite the help of amazing people, no-one could do dress fittings in my place.

I cancelled all my appointments for two weeks after my surgery, and sat in my house trying to recover. I got really down about how my 2013 season had turned out. Before the surgery, I had never thought about what would happen afterwards, I had only thought about getting through the surgery. I found myself sitting in my house, unable to drive myself anywhere, and wondering if my career was done. Rather than getting excited about the wedding, I was very sad about my foot. I had a few big chats with Peter, about how I was feeling, because I was worried I wasn’t excited enough for our wedding. He said that I had just let someone cut my foot open, I may or may not be able to do what I love again, and, yes, I was allowed be as sad as I wanted, but that it would pass and that our wedding day would be great, no matter what.

As time passed, I began to make tiny bits of progress and everything started to feel a little better. I slowly went from being unable to put my foot on the ground, to walking on crutches, to walking slowly with a raised heel in my shoe. I had two extremely late and last-minute dress fittings, got the dress sorted, and started to feel excited.

A few days before the wedding, I was able to walk, most of the time, without crutches, which was a huge deal. I was still not able to get my foot into my adorable Jimmy Choos, but I was really happy, and grateful for the progress I was making.

The day of the wedding, I was careful, right up until the ceremony, not to stand too much. As my achilles tendon had been cut open and stitched back together, it had very little strength, so I wanted to conserve it for later in the night. There was one pair of very ugly shoes that I was able to wear, all the time, after my surgery. They had no back and a wedge heel — they didn’t aggravate my wound and the heel shortened my tendon, making walking, without pain, easier. I wore them under my dress, on my way to the church.

My sister, who was chief bridesmaid, brought the Jimmy Choos and had them waiting outside the church. Before myself and Dad headed up the aisle, I slipped them on and strolled up no problem, although Dad had to whisper to me to slow down. I guess I’m not used to that advice.

The Jimmy Choos got their moment to shine and I was back into the ugly, rehab shoes. The rest of the day flew and I never felt pain in my foot. I was so happy, having all our family and friends with us.

I spent loads of time on the dance floor, even with a dodgy foot. I totally, and utterly, underestimated how happy I would be for the whole day. I was so sad leading up to it, and so distracted with trying to run fast earlier in the year, that I never really considered the significance of the day, until it was upon me.

I can honestly say it was the best day of my life. It was better than all the times I’ve won medals or broken records.

By the end of the day, the two of us were the happiest we have ever been and all thoughts of getting back on track, rehab, and records were gone from my mind. However, it only took two days of our honeymoon for me to find myself back in the gym, with thoughts of racing in 2014.


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