Northern Ireland lady overcomes adversity to become World Champion!

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An interview with Orla Smyth:

As we welcome a new year, when people use Christmas over indulgence to inspire them to lace up the trainers on a cold winter night; there isn’t a more perfect time to introduce you to our latest ‘Monthly Feature’, which is based around one of the provinces unsung heroes, Orla Smyth.  Orla is an inspirational athlete who has overcome adversity to become a decorated sporting star, who works tirelessly to promote transplant sport and organ donation.  If this doesn’t inspire you to get out there, nothing will!

As an 11 year old child, Orla Smyth was diagnosed with a degenerative kidney condition.  At such a young age she had no idea at the time of what was to come,“I sat in the hospital appointments and it went in one ear and out the other.  I know my mum probably took it all in but at that age I was just a normal kid doing things that normal kids do.”

The modest athlete describes herself as a normal child, but having represented her school at various sports and played soccer for Northern Ireland at Under 16 and Under 17 level, she was more than that – an up and coming star, all of this, at a time when she was dealing with an ongoing illness that would later mean a lengthly period away from the sports that she loved so much.

It was eleven years later, after a period of feeling tired and lethargic, that Orla found out that she would require dialysis and a kidney transplant.  Ironically, this devastating news came after the active, then student, had represented Queens University in a Gaelic Football match against UUJ.  It was at this time when Orla was forced to give up sport to concentrate on work (after qualifying as a Solicitor) and making sure that she was getting the necessary dialysis.  Orla went through her first transplant operation in 2004.  Unfortunately, this was unsuccessful: “I became very unwell and started on dialysis.  I had it every night for eight hours.  During the week was quite difficult because by the time I got home from work and had dinner, I only really had time for dialysis.  The weekends were a bit better because I could stay in bed a bit longer in the morning.  I was actually on dialysis on my honeymoon, which isn’t exactly how I expected to spend my honeymoon.”

In 2007, Orla went through a second operation, which went much better.  Approximately six months after the transplant, Orla tried her first run, a one mile jog to her local Tesco with her husband, Declan.  This is where the Belfast woman’s successful running career began, since then, she has competed in several British Transplant Games and World Transplant Games.  However, prior to excelling on foreign soil, Orla showed her potential in Belfast.  In 2011, she was the face of the Transplant Sport fundraising campaign at Deep River Rock Belfast City Marathon, which she went on to complete in 3:58:28; she recalls, “it was tough, a really hot day… but I think I could definitely do another one quicker!”

It was after this that Orla burst onto the world scene; in the last two World Transplant Games, Orla has won no less than twelve gold medals, as well as one silver medal.  In four British Transplant Games, she has won gold medals in every event that she has entered! (This was the 200m, 400m, 800m, 1500m and 3k). Over and above this stunning medal haul, Orla also holds World Transplant Record’s over 400m (68.31secs), 800m (2.35.00) and 1,500m (5.37.86).  Immediately after divulging her record times, Orla added, “I always feel a bit embarrassed with my ‘record times’ compared to real runners”.  However, this was something I was quick to quash;  having started running just four years earlier and over and above that, battled through such a serious condition – the unassuming, enthusiastic runner should replace ’embarrassed’ with PROUD!

The buzz of her first World Transplant Games experience is something that has stayed clear in Orla’s mind, “After the Games in Sweden in 2011, it felt unreal as I really had worked so hard to be fit to compete and get the records there, but the records and medals are just one thing about the games.  You meet so many amazing people that it’s a hard come down after them (the games) you really are in a bubble of positivity with people who really are living life to the full and being surrounded by people like this, who all have amazing stories and attitude to life, that when you come back to ‘the real world’ it takes a while to adjust again.”

After her success in 2011, it would have been easy for Orla to settle on her achievements and take a step back, but the ambitious and talented athlete built on her medal winning performances at the next World Transplant Games in South Africa; however, she paid the price for her determination and willingness to push herself through the pain barrier, when many would have given up.  Orla explained, “After South Africa, on the athletic front, I felt really relieved as I was carrying an injury and when the last race was over I knew I wouldn’t run again for few months (I got a stress fracture in left tibia after recovering from one in the right tibia) and to be honest I just felt like I really needed a break as I was exhausted; actually that’s when I really got in to yoga and it has been a life saver – mentally and physically!”

One thing is clear when speaking with Orla, no matter how much she achieves or how busy she is, she never forgets the reason why she is able to compete and enjoy sport again and the support that everyone has provided, “I think a lot about my donor and family when I am training and competing; especially when I am finding things really tough.  I know it’s never as tough as what they had to go through and I am just so eternally grateful for the chance I have been given to be well enough to take part in sport again.”

Away from the track and roads (and work!), Orla is involved in two very worthwhile organisations, assuming the roles of Secretary at Transplant Sport NI and Volunteer Champion at Volunteer Now; “I am secretary for TSNI, which is a charity completely run by volunteers.  We aim to promote the organ donation register through sport, by showing the difference that a transplant makes to peoples lives and hopefully encourage more people to become organ donors and sign the register.  We also want to offer transplant patients and those waiting on transplants opportunities to stay fit and active and try to keep themselves as healthy as possible, of course the social side of things too.  The charity is made up of people from all walks of life, all with the common bond of receiving a lifesaving transplant”

Whilst talking about Volunteer Now, the gratitude that Orla has for Volunteers is obvious, “I was delighted to be approached by Volunteer Now to become one of their Volunteer Champions; I have been lucky enough to have been given a second chance at life and I want to grab every opportunity that comes along.  I want to make a difference and anything that I can do to demonstrate to people, not only the real difference volunteers have made to my life, but also how much I personally get out of volunteering is too good an opportunity to pass.  The impact and positive influence that volunteers have had on my success is immeasurable.  Without their help and advice I wouldn’t be in the position I am at the moment and in reality sport would come to a standstill if it wasn’t for the amazing volunteers who give their time and expertise to sport both on and off the pitch.”

Considering her hectic schedule, it is surprising that the dedicated athlete has time to train, but Orla still manages to fit in eight or nine training sessions per week and puts this down to the help and support of her family and friends, “I do have a really busy job but my work are great and very flexible. Sometimes it is a challenge to fit everything in and anyone who trains a lot is no different. My husband, Declan, is as busy as me and very involved in sport (Gaelic football and he runs with City of Lisburn AC), our family is very understanding as well. However, being busy is not a chore.  I was used to having to be in one place for 8-9 hours a day when I was on dialysis, so I will never complain about being too busy.  I am just one of those people who likes to be busy, but it’s doing things I love!”

Talking with Orla, it’s hard to believe that without an organ donation, none of this would have ever been possible.  The enthusiastic and inspirational woman is incredibly grateful to have been offered a second chance, “all I can say is that I am here talking to you about running because someone signed the organ donor register and the amazing courage of her family to support that decision.  By being an organ donor you really are giving people a second chance at life and saving peoples lives.  The way I see it is that your organs are no use to you after you die, yet there are thousands of people waiting for an organ to stay alive.  Three people die everyday in the UK because there are not enough organs available and I just see that as such an unnecessary waste of life.  Most people support the idea of organ donation but they just never get round to registering or telling their family and loved ones (who will always have the final say) their wishes.  Put it this way, I never thought that I would be on the transplant list waiting for an organ, but every single day of my life I will be eternally grateful to my donor and her family who have enabled me to set new goals and work so hard to achieve them.  They have given me a passion for running and staying healthy, that I am not sure I would ever have had if I hadn’t have come through this – how can you thank anyone enough for that?”

Going into New Year, Orla has already got her sights firmly set on a new challenge, the 26extreme Mourne Way Marathon in June 2014, an event that she is “really looking forward to”.  As this is the first off-road marathon she has entered, thanks to her husband (Declan), who entered her as a Christmas gift, Orla is keen to use the opportunity to promote the organ donor register and how much it can change someones life.  She adds, “if it wasn’t for renal failure, I don’t think I would have ever contemplated a marathon”; now, with the help of her coach Eric Frizzell (City of Lisburn AC), friends, family and City of Lisburn AC club mates, the inspiring woman is gearing up for her second attempt at the distance.

None of this would ever have been possible without the help of a kind hearted person and their family who had signed the organ donor register.  More information on organ donation is available on the Northern Ireland Transplant Association website HERE.

Links to further information:  Donor Register and Transplant Sport Northern Ireland (facebook page).