LOOKING AHEAD Cillian Melly is pictured prior to competing in the Men’s 200m Butterfly heats for Ireland at the European Short Course Swimming Championships in Scotland last December. Pic: Sportsfile
Cillian Melly has bounced back after breaking his neck five years ago
FOR some athletes not being able to train in their discipline throughout lockdown may have felt like the end of the world. For Cillian Melly, ten weeks out of the pool was a walk in the park.
Only four years ago the Breaffy man was involved in a serious surfing accident that not only threatened to cut short his promising swimming career, but also could have changed his life.
The year was 2015 and Melly was in sunny Spain for a surf lifesaving competition when he got catapulted from his board into a sandbank and ended up breaking his neck.
Although in extreme pain, it was only a few weeks after he got back to Ireland when he eventually found out the seriousness of the situation.
“Basically I was too far forward on the board and I nosedived it into a sandbank which catapulted me forward,” the 23 year-old told The Mayo News. “I was going so fast I couldn’t get my arms up in time to protect myself and my head dug into the sand before a wave carried my body over my head. It wasn’t a pretty sight.
“I was in awful lot of pain, but I was able to walk, but none of my team managers got me checked out in a hospital. They dropped the ball on that one.”
Melly returned home to Ireland soon after and went to his GP as the pain worsened, but was told that he did some ‘soft tissue damage’ on his neck and shoulders and was giving an assortium of medication to ease the pain.
Amazingly, he returned to training in the University of Limerick after that.
“I went back to training after two weeks and I swam for about a week,” he recalled. “It was around the time of the Rugby World Cup and I was watching a game on the Saturday when I started getting these really bad sharpening pains down my neck.
“I went to lie down to see if the pain settled and, about 20 minutes later, I was stuck to the bed and couldn’t move. It was like being electrocuted from the top of your neck down to the bottom of your toes and fingertips. It wasn’t pleasant.”
EVENTUALLY, with the help of his room-mate, he got himself out of bed and straight to Limerick University Hospital. Seven hours later he was eventually seen.
“It was the middle of the night before I was seen and by that stage the radiographers and senior doctors had gone home, so a junior doctor basically told me that nothing looks visibly wrong, but that he’d leave it with the radiographers in the morning and they’d ring me if there was anything wrong.
“You can’t really blame that doctor, he was probably on his 60th hour of the week. I was just unfortunate.”
Two days later, Melly had little to no movement in his body and no call had arrived from the hospital. At that stage he called his parents to pick him up and they brought him straight to Mayo University Hospital for an MRI.
The six months that followed would be the most arduous of his life.
“Pretty much immediately after that I was strapped to a spinal board and spent the next 11 or 12 days looking at the roof whilst waiting for a bed,” he said. “Eventually I was able to get a bed in the Mater in Dublin where I underwent surgery. They basically took out all the damaged bits and I now have a plate and four screws in my neck. I had to wear a neck brace for five or six months.”
That was September. Incredibly, Melly was back in the pool by the following March picking up where he’d left off.
Through sheer perseverance and resilience, he is now one of the top two swimmers in Ireland for the 200m Butterfly and is eyeing up an appearance at the Olympic Games.
He even uses his harrowing experience as a motivational trigger and believes he is much mentally tougher after the life-threatening incident.
“No one actually believes me when I tell them what happened,” he laughed. “But that’s it, and I look at it now as an obstacle in my career, and I use it as some sort of motivation, because everyone kind of wrote me off.
“It was easy for people to say, you know, ‘awful accident… he broke his neck…. He was such a good swimmer and now he’s finished’. So I felt like I had to prove a point and that I’m not done.
“So it prepared me to be a bit more mentally tough, and also to realise that a few weeks here and there, or a few months here and there, out of the pool is not going to make or break you.”