Irish hockey international Grace O’Flanagan is encouraging as many people as possible to get involved with this year’s Pieta Darkness Into Light and “share the sunrise together”.
Saturday morning marks this year’s event, which has become a hugely important day on the Irish calendar and further afield, in the quest to raise as much money for suicide prevention and to help end the stigma against mental health problems.
The Irish international goalkeeper, who is an ambassador for this year’s event, insists she is looking forward to Saturday morning’s event and hopes for a massive number of participants, for what is a hugely important morning.
“It’s really exciting now,” O’Flanagan told Her Sport.
“I’m looking forward to Saturday morning. I’m thrilled to be a part of Darkness into Light. I’ve taken part before and its great to be an ambassador to help with getting people to sign up to Pieta’s Darkness Into Light, I think Saturday morning is going to, hopefully be, a record morning again.
“Last year people weren’t able to gather together like they used to for this event, it’ll be the same again this year , but I think it’s really positive to see everyone coming together when you see everyone on social media, all the people all over the world that get up for the crack of dawn to see the sunrise and to share support for those who are struggling and suffering from mental health problems, people who have been affected by suicide, and people just pulling together to raise funds to help end suicide, its a really positive event.”
Given the circumstances this year, crowds cannot gather to meet at the usual places to walk together. O’Flanagan, along with her fellow ambassadors have all shared their sunrise notes already, and she has encouraged everyone to follow suit and write and share their own personal note to help normalise the struggles people have endured this past year and in turn bring people together.
Speaking of the new initiative the World Cup silver medalist said: “I suppose what we’re encouraging people to do is to share a note of hope, because while we can’t gather together we want to share these messages of support, messages of hope that things will be brighter again.
“It’s been a very difficult year for people all over and what we’re really trying to do is just to get people to share their experiences, get people to share their support. You learn a lot from others but there’s just great strength in that unity when we all come together and share that hope together.”
The 32 year old is no stranger to dark days herself and she insists she pays as much attention to her mental health as she does her physical health. Having fought and overcame cancer which she was diagnosed with at just 26 years old, O’Flanagan knows exactly what it’s like to go through challenging times– and find light at the end of the tunnel. These experiences, paired with her medical background meant the talented net minder was the perfect fit to come on board with Darkness into Light and help raise awareness and try to get as many people as possible to row behind the initiative and urge people to understand that it’s ok not to be ok.
“I suppose I have a somewhat unique experience with mental health, with my medical education, qualifying as a doctor and in being an elite athlete it’s a huge part of every day for me.”
“I play close attention to my mental health– I look after it just as much as my physical health and my body, and that’s important for me, for my performance. It’s important for me for my job and I’ve also had insight into how dark things can go, again through my job, seeing people in crisis, you know, I just think its sad that all of us or most of us will know somebody who suffers with mental health problems, most of us will know somebody who’s been affected by suicide.
“One person lost is one too many, and sadly there’s still too many people lost every year so I think it’s important to get behind it and to speak out and end the stigma against mental health problems and to realise that it’s common, that people feel low and especially as an athlete I’ve had my down days and sometimes you can pull yourself out of it, and sometimes you need help and I think it’s important that we share that message.”
With the past year of strain and added challenged our nation has endured, with over a year of a global pandemic experienced, with friends and family unfortunately lost along the way and with the country locked down for so long, O’Flanagan agreed that this year’s Darkness Into Light “definitely has” an added element of significance. She added: “I suppose the last year or so has been a rollercoaster probably for most people, covid has definitely added extra challenges in that people have this extra worry, there’s a lot of isolation out there as well .. for me personally and with my teammates, looking towards the Olympics and the European Championships there has been a lot of uncertainty and you know there has been difficult times, it’s in pulling together where we found our strength and coming together and acknowledging that and speaking to each other and working through it together as a team has been important.”
The shot-stopper will be fondly remembered by most for her exploits in Cape Town in the World League round three when she was sprung from the bench after Ayeisha McFerran was sent to the sin bin and Ireland faced going down 2-0. In what was a must win game against India, her first piece of action was an India penalty stroke she would subsequently save and in turn lay the foundations for a late victorious comeback for O’ Flanagan and her Irish teammates– a ticket to the World Cup, a deserved reward for her moment of magic. Less than 18 months earlier, she had been diagnosed with cancer.
“I think it’s [sport] huge and I’ve been very fortunate to have been able to be training over the past while and to be able to see my teammates,” she said.
“I’m so grateful that I’ve had that and I think that’s been very difficult for people who haven’t been able to play their team sports, who haven’t been able to go to gyms over the last which might normally be a release for people.”
With the European Championships and the highly anticipated Tokyo Games soon approaching, O’ Flanagan and her teammates have been training hard, with high hopes heading into the tournaments. Speaking of the squad’s training and build up to the big days ahead, she said: ”Preparations are going well, it’s great that we’ve been able to play Great Britain over the last number of times which is our first kind of, international experience since the qualifiers and that’s huge because we’ve been lacking that over the last year like so many nations.”
“Our heads are down, we’re working hard , we’re training for the European’s first and then the Olympics, I think things are going well. Obviously we had a world cup silver medal in 2018 which was an unbelievable achievement, we’re definitely targeting the Quarter Finals in this but ,you know, I think it’s every athlete’s dream to medal at an Olympics so why not?”
With competition fierce as always for the highly coveted number one spot, O’Flanagan is confident the healthiness of good competition is going to have the goalie for Tokyo in tip top condition. Mentioning McFerran, Lizzie Murphy and herself, O’ Flanagan declared it as “tight competition” for whom are three “good friends”. She added how the both of them are “brilliant goalkeepers” and with them constantly pushing one another in training, whichever keepers are selected and whichever one competent in Tokyo, it will mean the Irish team will be “in a good position”.
Ahead of Saturday morning’s walk, the doctor gave one final message to the people of Ireland. She said: “ I’d just encourage everybody to sign up for Darkness into Light, support Pieta House and get out and share the sunrise together.”