MATT MAHONEY – PERSEVERANCE IS EVERYTHING
Nineteenth century Scottish politician Walter Elliot once said, “Perseverance is not a long race. It is many short races one after the other.” I have a feeling that Exeter-based charity worker and Touch Rugby extraordinaire Matt Mahoney might be inclined to agree. Having battled against physical injuries and illnesses that have completely altered the trajectory of his life, he is better placed than many to talk about the process of overcoming fear, pain and limitation, one day at a time.
Originally from Sussex, Matt grew up a promising sportsman. An active and skilled all-rounder, he particularly excelled in rugby and skiing and went about making plans to pursue one or both as future career paths. He looked up to the likes of Rory Underwood, Dean Richards, Micky Skinner, Wade Dooley and Richard Hill and he also dreamed of one day emulating the bravery and achievements of Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards and Hermann ‘The Herminator’ Maeir.
This sporting promise continued throughout his school years and through to university but, in what proved to be a cruel plot twist in his life story, Matt sustained a routine shoulder injury in the first game of the rugby season playing against Macclesfield. He was gutted to be told by the doctor afterwards that he would be out for six to eight weeks. However, four months down the line, he knew that something was really wrong and that his shoulder wasn’t healing properly. Little did he know the life-altering journey that was to follow.
BEGINNING OF A PAINFUL JOURNEY
It turned out that he had popped his acromioclavicular joint out of place and sustained terrible damage within his shoulder area. Later surgical exploration would find that he essentially had no cartilage or padding within his shoulder joint whatsoever. Just bone on bone.
So serious was the pain and the damage to the joint that, at the age of twenty-one, Matt was left not only unable to play rugby but unable, at times, to lift a fork to his mouth or write anything with a pen due to the limited movement and severe discomfort.
Weeks turned in to months and months turned into years as Matt continued to battle with his body and forge a successful management career for himself. However, at some stage, his body started to shut down. This initial injury had seemingly set off some sort of auto-immune reaction in his body, which also triggered sudden and severe chronic fatigue. His body was basically unable to fend off illness or repair itself from damage leaving Matt vulnerable and susceptible to ill health.
At its most serious, Matt’s auto-immune condition left him house-bound and forced him into medical retirement from his career before the age of thirty. At several points in this process, he also suffered the frightening and painful process of his feet turning black due to vasculitis. Moreover, he went on to have two hip operations (after he tore through his hip joints twice) and a total of three shoulder operations – each more invasive and painful than the last.
All of this before the age of thirty and, as a result, he couldn’t work and couldn’t exercise.. His dreams had been dashed. He was unable to leave the house a lot of the time. To all intents and purposes, his life as he had imagined it was over. By this point it was eight years since his first shoulder injury and, not only was he not playing rugby again but he was unable to run, or even walk most of the time.
As he journeyed through the physical and mental daily grind, he started to gain some focus and started to come to terms with some of his limitations. Matt commented,
“Pain management became a massive thing for me. Because of my compromised immune system and difficulties with chronic pain, my pain receptors were firing off left, right and centre pretty much every day. I started to learn how meditation and mindfulness could help living with it and bring some of it under control. I also learned to go to a ‘small space’ in my mind where I could get rid of as many other factors and distractions as possible to cope with the pain. It was incredibly tough though because exercise had been something I would do to cope with stress and I could no longer exercise at all. I sort of had to be re-wired as a person really.”
His long-term rehabilitation journey started when he joined the Disabled Golf Society and started to gradually play small amounts of golf as regularly as he could manage, using a buggy. This offered Matt simple wins like being outside more, having a new skill to focus on and distracting him from pain.
To Matt’s surprise, his body coped fairly well with this increase in physical activity and, after a couple of years, he started small amounts of strength training to test his body and see what it could deal with. He reflected,
“It was totally trial and error. Some days I would feel on top of the world and others I would be wiped out and overcome with pain. There were definitely many ‘one step forwards, two steps back’ experiences. A few times, it even felt like I have gone back past square one! I had to learn to be thankful for the things that I could do but also not to be destroyed by the many things that I could no longer do. I had to accept my limitations.”
As his capacity slowly increased, Matt started going along to touch rugby as often as possible, joining the Exeter Eagle Owls team in 2016. His aim was to test his own movement and fitness as well as to enjoy the social and emotional benefits of playing team sport again. He had missed that side of sport as much as the physical aspects.
Over the course of several years, he has gradually pushed the boundaries of his own ability and capacity, culminating in him returning to work, as well as becoming a trustee of a local charity in his spare time (he works for the Trussell Trust – a national charity network of food banks) and also being invited to take part in regional and then national trials in 2018. The process of trying out for England selection was particularly gruelling (as you’d expect), with two solid days of strenuous physical activity. This would have been previously impossible for Matt and the anxiety and doubt that he felt in his own ability to cope with the strain nearly stopped him from attending the trial completely.
FROM SURVIVING TO THRIVING
Good job it didn’t though because, not only did he get through the tough process but, in 2018, he was selected for the England Touch Rugby squad. Just pause for a second and think about how astonishing that is. From not being able to get out of the house several years ago to being selected in an elite national sporting squad. It is nothing short of remarkable.
“I have had to constantly reassess and reconsider my personal goals. I have had to shift my mindset from deficit to surplus. From surviving to thriving. From being house-bound, to being on the plane to the Touch Rugby World Cup in Malaysia earlier this year.”
So, what of his World Cup experience then? Touch Rugby is a fiercely competitive six-a-side game and Matt plays for England Men’s 35’s in the position of specialist Winger. England had only ever won two medals in the history of the competition and, after losing their semi-final game against eventual winners Australia, they were disappointed to lose their bronze-medal match against Cook Islands to place fourth overall in the tournament.
“I guess it is a good thing to come away disappointed in fourth place. That shows the hunger and potential of our team. We tested ourselves against the very best in the world, played seven games in five days and in intense heat too. It was up to 52 degrees at times and with 80% humidity, it would have been physically gruelling for anyone, let alone someone with the ongoing health issues and pain that I do.”
“We had decided before the tournament started that we wanted to place primary value on enjoyment. As well as being competitive and wanting to win, we wanted to make some good memories and have something to be proud of when we returned home.”
ADAPT AND OVERCOME
Matt certainly did that, picking up the MVP (Most Valuable Player) award for the England team in the process. Scoring important tries, making vital defensive contributions and overcoming his daily battle with pain to perform at the highest level clearly impressed the Head Coach of the England Team. Matt commented,
“If someone had told me even two years ago that I would be awarded MVP for England in the Touch Rugby World Cup I would have laughed at them. It was simply inconceivable. Despite missing out on a medal, the experience was incredible. I wouldn’t trade a piece of metal for the amazing experience and my superb team mates.”
When I asked Matt about what this sporting journey has meant to him, he thought for a second and stated,
“Having lost a lot of things in my life, I am grateful every time I step on the grass – be that training with Exeter or running out against New Zealand in the World Cup. I enjoy every moment as much as I can as it could always be the last time. As well as a desire to have fun every time I play, I can’t switch off my competitive edge. That doesn’t go away. I’m fiercely competitive but competition doesn’t come above enjoyment for me.”
It is said that some of the most precious things in the natural world are formed under intense heat or pressure. Gold, for example is purified under intense heat to make it valuable. And diamonds are formed by the extreme compression of carbon. Matt Mahoney is a human example of this same concept. He has been to the depths of both mental and physical health but, with the help of others, his faith and his own steely determination not to give up and not to give in to his diagnoses, he has pushed through and persevered.
In the process, he has ventured down the road less travelled. He probably wouldn’t have chosen it if he knew what lay ahead, but he has taken every step with humility, grace and bravery. Forget MVP of the England Touch Rugby Team. Try MVP full stop.
Matt particularly wanted to thank some of the companies and organisations who have either sponsored him or helped him in other ways during his England Touch Rugby journey. So, thanks goes to Liam Clarke from Sports Massage Therapy Exeter, Predator Rugby, Dartmoor Brewery, Smith’s Wines & Spirits, Susmans Biltong, Sussex Cars and Exeter Touch Rugby Club for the incredible and varied support.
Matt’s next goal is to be selected for the European Championships in 2020. If anyone wants to support Matt in his journey towards this goal, follow him and get in touch @virtualmahoney on Twitter.
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye
Photos by Joff Alexander-Frye and supplied by Matt Mahoney