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Living his best life

After coming close to death, Alan Kelly focuses on enjoyment over endurance, including the 'mortal sin' of bacon and eggs

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Alan Kelly (left) has worked with Pádraig Harrington for years and believes nobody is better equipped to lead the European team to Ryder Cup success

Alan Kelly (left) has worked with Pádraig Harrington for years and believes nobody is better equipped to lead the European team to Ryder Cup success

Alan Kelly (left) has worked with Pádraig Harrington for years and believes nobody is better equipped to lead the European team to Ryder Cup success

Walking through The Square in Tallaght last Christmas, Alan Kelly encountered a friend he hadn't seen in maybe a year. "Jesus AK," came the greeting, "not looking too bad for a fella who died 18 months ago!"

Given the last rites in April 2018, Kelly was back working three mornings a week in his clinic on the Old Bawn Road; back in a life of old, familiar rhythms that, somehow, felt profoundly new now.

After all, if someone in remission from three cancers doesn't experience a stark emotional recalibration, then it's surely a moot point if they're living at all. Kelly knows he has changed. Those three mornings of work have since fallen to the pitiless march of coronavirus, but small things splash vivid colour into his days. Simple things.

Via WhatsApp, he sends you a wall motto that's been doing the rounds. It reads: "Your grandparents were called to war. You're being called to sit on your couch. You can do this."

Life, of course, is never quite that simple for the cancer patient. Kelly has been feeling deeply unwell this week and is self-isolating at home. It's isn't Covid, he feels certain, but that doesn't diminish the fear of everything he now sees around him.

"I'm afraid!" he explained yesterday. "My support systems, all the out-patient clinics, are cancelled because Covid has taken over. For cancer patients, this is very worrying. Listen I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I'm 16 months on from my last chemo.

"But at the moment I'm miserable (sore throat, painful sinus), I'm grounded and vulnerable and a bit frightened. Because I can't afford to get it. Cancer patients like me are the most vulnerable.

"People fought around the clock to keep me alive. It took them everything they had. What would they say to me now?"

To Kelly, the physical cost of his illnesses finds easy balance today against a clear sharpening of perspective.

"When you've spent eight months on the broad of your back, a few weeks walking around Bushy Park shouldn't be much of a problem, not that I can do that now," he says.

Frightening

Cancer is frightening. Cancer in the midst of a global pandemic, doubly so. At his lowest ebb, he was hopelessly ill, tethered to a ventilator and, seemingly, mere hours from death. For a patient deep into their sixties, only the most intense focus and care of medical professionals kept him from slipping away.

In today's reeling world, could they have committed the same time and energy to save him? He considers the answer self-evident.

Once the go-to physical therapist for some of Ireland's greatest sports stars, Kelly has now taken to sealing himself almost hermetically away in his Templeogue apartment since the gravity of this crisis began to find traction.

And he knows you cannot plant your feet so close to the next life without changing.

Or, at least, brush against our child's Catechism interpretation of what it is that might exist beyond the white light.

"Kelly has always had a faith and says he was thankful of it as cancer came after him with such resolutely thuggish intent.

But when people suggest to him now that, without his own lifetime's devotion to physical fitness (he used to be a gym-six-times-a-week man), survival wouldn't have been possible, he is scornful of the view.

To him, the great debt he owes is to the medical profession. To the wisdom of the surgeons; to the kindness and empathy of every last hospital employee encountered during a journey that has profoundly reset his take on the lives we lead.

Of the comfort of prayer, he says flatly: "You have to cling on to something. We're all going to find out one day whether it's hocus pocus or not but, until that day, you have to have something. I'll never forget the moment I felt myself going and there was something unbelievably comforting about it.

"I didn't want to come back. You see, I had been in a lot of pain for the previous nine or ten months. I'd been really, really sick. And suddenly my body felt like I could float away. I didn't know what was out there, but it was this bright light, beautiful. I was ready!"

His journey through a prostate cancer that metastasized into other organs became just the prelude to a diagnosis for acute myeloid leukaemia delivered when, according to his consultant, Kelly was probably no more than a month from death.

To this day, he is filled with a sense of wonder by his survival, admitting with a grin: "I cannot believe I'm alive twenty years into the 21st century!"

But that wonder comes dusted with melancholy too. So many of those pre-occupied with his care 18 months ago have, themselves, been lost in the meantime.

"That's what really saddens me," he says. "So many of my friends, Dougie McCoy, Arthur Tanner, Andrew O'Donnell - the chairman of Thomas Davis - so many that were younger than me, gone.

"Andrew, my undertaker, he'd say to me, 'have no fear, we have everything organised'. I'd say to my kids, 'just go into Andrew in Fanagans…'. Four weeks before Christmas, Andrew had a heart attack. Gone."

This loss of friends has softened his conviction about so much he once held dear.

"Believe it or not, it's turned me a little bit away from all the wellness programmes, this obsession with health and fitness, all this mindfulness, all the yoga, the pilates," he says. "People are so busy trying to improve their lives, they've no time to actually live their lives anymore.

"They're up at five in the morning, doing their pilates or yoga. 'I'm taking my Vitamin C, Vitamin D, Vitamin E, I'm going to this class or that class…'

"I get more enjoyment out of reading history now, looking back. I'm eating things I hadn't eaten in 20 years. I'm having bacon and eggs for breakfast if that's how I feel. A mortal sin. I'm having bacon and cabbage, roast beef, apple tart and custard. Eating food I grew up on.

"Living in the now doesn't mean you have to abdicate responsibility from everything. It just means you're paying attention to what's happening now. Like I don't regret a second of the discipline of my past life. That was my career. I had to be fit and I had to be strong.

"And don't get me wrong, I still enjoy my fitness, I'm just not obsessed with it the way I was. Men get to a certain age where they shouldn't be taking their clothes off anyway (laughing)! I see them up in the gym, pumping the weights. It's not needed.

"A good walk around the park or down the pier, that's all you need. But I'd have people in their mid-60s, coming in to me, asking 'how's my posture?'

"If you're doing 35-40 minutes of walking every day and you're not drinking or smoking to excess, you're fine. You're not competing in sport. You don't need to stand in front of a mirror in your underpants!"

The absence of sport is one great, gaping hole in Kelly's life. He misses the GAA especially.

Quite apart from treating iconic players like Nicky English, DJ Carey, John Leahy, Tommy Dunne, Kieran McGeeney and Peter Canavan down the years, his involvement with Thomas Davis stretches back generations, straddling time spent on senior management teams, as a junior board delegate, on the adult games committee and the finance committee.

Yet he has begun to wonder about the Association too, about the squeeze it puts on young lives and our casual assumption that it is sustainable.

"When I look at the GAA and the demands that are put on players now, I'm baffled, stunned even, to think that highly educated, very intelligent young men enter a competition every year that they've no realistic chance of winning," he says.

"They commit unbelievably to it. They train around the clock.

"I honestly wonder how we expect the Longfords, Westmeaths, Leitrims, Wexfords and Wicklows to keep going. Right now, they're giving blood every bit as much as the big guns.

"Dublin have been phenomenal to win five-in-a-row with Jim Gavin, one of the greatest managers of all time. I know Jim well, I looked after him in '95.

Easier

"But it does make it that bit easier when you have the players. If you took Gavin, Mickey Harte, Jim McGuinness, James Horan and Kieran McGeeney and gave them the pick of Wicklow and Louth and, maybe, Offaly, would they win the All-Ireland?

"Same thing in hurling. Put Brian Cody into Antrim, what would happen? Nothing.

"McGeeney used to say to me that every county had good footballers, that if you got them fit, organised and disciplined, you'd give them a decent enough chance. But in all my years going to Croke Park, I've still never ever seen anybody bench-press the ball over the bar or squat the ball over the bar.

"I was reading where a prominent Kerry inter-county player was at a wedding over Christmas and couldn't have a drink. What is it coming to? I'm nervous the way the GAA is going because I see the rugby model and how the clubs were left behind when professionalism came in.

"And I read an interview with Paul Flynn (GPA Chief Executive) where he was talking positively about the possibility of semi-professionalism. Something he seems to have tracked back on a little since. The money being spent on preparing county teams today is ludicrous. It clearly cannot be sustained.

"I fully acknowledge that the world we live in today is different to when I was young. Guys are different. They're much hungrier. And a lot of those at the top level in the GAA would love a stab at semi-professionalism. They see the razzmatazz, the fanfare, the TV cameras, 84,000 crowds. Anyone looking in from the outside would probably assume they must be on huge money.

"So people are asking the question and the players are too intelligent not to be asking it too. 'Would semi-professionalism be sustainable?'

"But I think it would destroy the fabric of the GAA."

That said, the assumptions we make about the Association are, he acknowledges, rooted to the past. To a place that - for many - is no longer recognisable.

"In the past, you were born into a place - mostly rural - that you grew up in, went to school in, met your sweetheart in, somewhere you probably built a house on your father's plot of land," suggests Kelly. "And you lived in that house, reared your kids in it.

"But the kids can't wait to get out now. They're going to Waterford IT, to DCU, to Galway, to Limerick, to the UK. Nobody stays rural anymore. So the sense of place today is completely and utterly different."

Before coronavirus became the unyielding soundtrack to our lives, Kelly had a visit to his clinic from Pádraig Harrington.

Europe's Ryder Cup captain is one of his favourite people and someone he believes - assuming the bi-annual event goes ahead in Wisconsin next September - will deal well with the irrational scrutiny coming his way.

"The one great thing in Pádraig's favour is he's likeable," says Kelly. "He's the most natural, down-to-earth guy. But something else that will really stand to him is that there's nobody I know who has worked as hard as he's worked. Up at six in the morning, stretching. Pilates, weight-training, practicing.

"I'd see him coming into the clinic at quarter-to-nine. I remember one day it was lashing rain and I asked him, 'what are you doing after here?' His answer was that he was going over to Spawell to chip balls into a bucket, then up to Stackstown. He never stopped.

"He'd be back here in the afternoon and I'd do a bit more work on him. That was back in the '90s and he was driving an oul Triumph Acclaim. And he's the same guy today. Someone with an incredible work ethic, who isn't afraid to try something different. He's always been pushing the boundaries while looked after by my great friend, Dr Liam Hennessy.

"And Padraig's smart enough to surround himself with intelligent people. Because I don't doubt there'll be individuals trying to trip him up.

"It's a global event, watched by millions and millions and it's hard when you're under that kind of scrutiny.

"A pregnant pause in a room with 40 TV cameras can be interpreted as panic. So he needs to be careful."

Kelly is wary, he says, of the taste in modern sport for regiments of 'guru-style' figures, all implying some degree of certainty where little or none exists.

"If sport was an exact science," he says, "we'd all go to Trinity, study it and break Paddy Power. But it's not. That's the beauty of it.

"I mean, you're either receptive to psychology or you're not. I don't use the term sports psychology. Psychology is psychology, that's the bottom line. And you've to be very careful with it once you dabble with the mind.

"One thing that stood to me for years in the clinic was that I never really screwed the lid off that bottle. Because once you do that, you've got to deal with what comes out.

Enjoy

"And the problem today is that everybody seems to be some kind of mind coach or life coach or psychologist, all roughly into the same thing. But no matter what psychologist is in your corner, they're still not going to put the ball over the bar from the 45 for you.

"Everything is checked now. How far you ran. What your blood levels are. What your lactic count is.

"Holy God, imagine Babs Keating with a GPS on his back? And him playing in his bare feet! You'd wonder how Jimmy Keaveney ever succeeded, three stone overweight. Or Joe McNally, one of the best footballers I've ever seen. Big Joe, the pitbull of Bohernabreena. He played some absolutely unbelievable games.

"All these gurus want to be remembered now. But some of them are just snake-oil salesmen."

For Kelly himself, the immediate future carries some starkly simple imperatives.

"I used to set loads of goals," he says, "always very specific. Now? Three ambitions. One, stay alive until the summer at least. Two, don't be afraid to do what you enjoy. Three, learn a new skill.

"I want to learn to ballroom dance!"