Lily O'Hara's 'Give it Some Wellie' - Front Row Club

Lily O’Hara’s ‘Give it Some Wellie’

There was no opportunity for women to play beyond touch rugby in PE.

I grew up in Wales and played a little rugby in 2013 when I was in sixth form. It was no-contact, just touch and tag rugby at school. There was no women’s team in school back then, so although I was introduced to touch rugby in PE, there was no opportunity for women to play beyond that.

When I got to my first year at Roehampton University, I didn’t just want to play netball, I wanted to do something a bit different. I knew there was a women’s rugby team and I decided to join with my friend Ellie Jones. It was a small team, and I found all of the girls really welcoming. I discovered early on that I love the physicality of it, the contact element, and I loved getting dirty – never minded any mud!

It was honestly rugby that made my whole uni experience. The people I met and the friends I made, I’m still friends with them all six years later. I loved the fact that I got to mix with people that I would never have usually mixed with. The friendships you make in rugby are unexpected but so precious. All different shapes and sizes; you never feel out of place. Whoever you are, there is a place for you in that sport. It really helped with my confidence, as I wouldn’t say I’m shy but I initially was a little scared when I started uni and it certainly brought me out of my shell. Feeling like you had an identity through rugby – people respected you once they knew you were a part of the rugby team.

The other good thing was the social aspect. We’d go out three times a week with the rugby girls and we had the most ridiculous, hilarious times! The difference with rugby to other sports is the attitude you need to have and type of person you have to be. You need to trust each other, you have to be a family. There’s rarely bitchiness in my experience as you’ve constantly got each others’ backs. It doesn’t work without everyone. In football, Cristiano Ronaldo could score a goal and win a game on his own but in rugby you couldn’t just win with Emily Scarrett, despite all her speed and kicking skill.

After university I knew I wanted to keep playing because I loved the sport so much, so I joined Barnes Women along with Ellie Jones. I kept my nickname ‘Wellie’ as in Welsh Ellie, as there’s sooo many Ellies in rugby!

The away match against Sutton & Epsom stands out for me as I’ll never forget the date; 4th February 2018. It was a week after I had been told that I’d passed the first stage of county trials to play for Surrey.

My vision went blurry and I felt dizzy.

It was a physical game and we lost by a lot. I drove to the shop after the game to pick up some dinner and it was then that I first felt strange. My vision went blurry and I felt dizzy. I left the shop and it was trying to get back to my car that I went into full panic mode. I rang everyone I could think of to come and get me. Luckily I lived nearby in Twickenham and my housemates came to fetch me. I got home and my housemate Sam, who’s a physio, did a couple of nerve tests on both sides of my body to see what I could feel. He decided to call an ambulance.

I remember feeling panicked, stressed, and a little drunk which scared me but I continued to nervously giggle through it. I honestly had no idea what was going on with me, I’d never left like that in my life before. The ambulance crew knew something was wrong, so I was taken to West Middlesex Hospital.

In the hospital I had a CT scan, then an MRI where they saw the bleed. There was a clot which was blocking blood flow to my brain. They told my family: “This is serious, we need to get her to St George’s Hospital ASAP to remove the blood clot”. My auntie Deb came in the ambulance with me and refused to leave my side, which made me feel a lot better though I was unable to communicate this with her or even give her a thumbs up as I was numb.

At this point my two aunties, dad and sister had turned up. When my sister first saw me in a hospital bed, she was so worried about me that she had a panic attack and required attention from nurses at the hospital, which was quite funny given I was the one having a stroke! I remember thinking “She’s got my top on, she never asked!”, which I obviously couldn’t say as my speech had gone by then.

I also remember not connecting the dots and realising that a bleed meant I was having a stroke, and I was feeling guilty that I was making such a fuss over a bleed and found myself hoping something was actually wrong. At St George’s I had one more scan then I was wheeled into theatre to undergo a four-hour operation to remove the clot. After the operation they induced me into a coma for a day to let my brain heal. When I woke up all my family were around me. I remember speaking to them and they all breathed a sigh of relief as that meant I was okay and there was no brain damage. I was still me.

I was later told that the operation came with a 50/50 chance of survival, but because it had been eight hours since the stroke it was too late to administer medicine to dissolve the clot. My family had to consent to the operation as they knew it was what I would’ve wanted, the alternative would’ve been almost certain disability. So my family spent a long four hours waiting to hear if I’d made it.

Though they breathed that sigh of relief when I woke up, I still wasn’t out of the woods. As I was only 21 years old they didn’t know what had caused the clot — a hole in the heart, the pill or even my first love, rugby. Luckily I made an incredible recovery as it was never expected that I would recover 100 per cent. From being totally numb on my left side including sight and unable to move properly, to back to my old self after just three months of rehab.

I decided to put £2000 of the money raised back into the club to start an Injured Players Fund

Even though I’d recovered and I was so pleased that I had done, I was missing my rugby family and I wasn’t ready to let go of rugby yet. I decided to have a go at coaching and got my level 2 coaching qualification which was funded with some of the money raised from Barnes Rugby Club, organised by the loving club chairman, Michael ‘Rhino’ Whitfield. They raised around £10,000 to support my recovery. It was incredible. This is what I mean by rugby family. Due to the unexpected speed of my recovery, I decided to put £2000 of the money raised back into the club to start an Injured Players Fund to help other Barnes players cope with any injury.

At the time of my stroke, I worked at Harlequins Rugby Club as a Front of House Assistant, and with the amazing support of the club and in particular HR, I was able to make a phased return to work. When I fully returned to work I started a new role in-house with the Foundation, which is the charitable arm of the club, where I can now help others.

My love of rugby has not at all diminished because of my injury

My love of rugby has not at all diminished because of my injury, and I’m really pleased to still feel a part of the Barnes family. I am still training with the team, within restraints of the pandemic, and hope to be back playing again someday.

Lily O’Hara

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