This Dubai resident once lost the desire to live; now he is a mental health advocate

10 years after suffering a serious injury, Conor Clarke, the Head of Strength and Conditioning at GEMS Metropole School, has resurrected his career

Conor Clarke all set for the Hyrox World Championships in France. — Supplied photos

Rituraj Borkakoty

Published: Sun 2 Jun 2024, 7:56 PM

Last updated: Mon 3 Jun 2024, 7:32 AM

It was only a few years ago that Conor Clarke went to bed every night without having the motivation to get up and gaze at the rising sun in the morning. The young Irishman had lost the zeal for life, having fallen into an emotional black hole after his career as a top-level athlete was cut short by a brutal knee injury.

Clarke was barely 20 when he had to go under the knife to get back on his feet. But his dreams of progressing further in Gaelic football, a hugely popular sport in Ireland that derives elements from football and rugby, were over.


While the physical wounds did eventually heal, the mental scars continued to scream in his head, reminding him of his unfulfilled dreams, and pushing him into a state of despair.

Clarke even turned to alcohol to mask his depression. But a timely intervention from family and friends helped him stop his life from spiralling out of control.

Now remarkably, the man who battled depression until not so long ago, is a mental health advocate in Dubai. His new role as the Head of Strength and Conditioning at GEMS Metropole School has injected him with new life.

Having regained the appetite for life, Clarke is also now juggling his job and Gaelic football.

Yes, you heard it right. He is back on the field, making those darting runs, hurling and kicking the ball to score points.

In what has been an astonishing turnaround in fortunes, Clarke has now qualified for this month’s Hyrox World Championships (June 7-9) in France, the biggest event in his sport — just 10 years after collapsing on the pitch that left him in excruciating pain and lingering mental trauma.

So how did he resurrect his life?

In a candid interview with City Times, Clarke opened up about his worst fears and how he overcame them.

Q. Your story is the stuff of dreams for Hollywood scriptwriters. But first, tell us about how you fell in love with Gaelic football.

It all started at the age of four or five, playing Gaelic Football with my local club Omagh St Enda’s. I would attend training every Saturday morning for an hour or two with my parents, and from there, I just fell in love with everything about it: the ball, the friendships, where we played, and the people involved, from the coaches to the stewards. From a very early age, I wanted to win; I was competitive in everything I did.

Q. But your ambition to become an all-conquering athlete was over after the serious knee injury. How did it happen?

This was in 2014. During a Club Championship game (in Ireland), I collected the ball from a teammate. Then, with nobody around me – no opposition, no teammates– I planted my left foot to turn around. Unfortunately, as the rest of my body turned, my left foot remained planted in the ground and didn’t turn. The pressure on my knee became too much and I ruptured my ACL, my LCL, and my MCL, and tore the meniscus on both sides. I was facing extensive knee surgery and a long recovery time —something I really did not want to endure.

Q. So the injury did end your career, leading to your battle with depression…

It was a pretty dark time. It’s not something I’m proud of, or can talk about easily. It makes me feel quite embarrassed thinking about it. I spent a lot of time alone, and even when I was in the company of family or friends, I still felt lonely. I used alcohol to mask what I was feeling. The scariest part was that there were many nights I would go to bed, not really caring if I woke up the next day, without any consideration for my family and friends, the people who I would be leaving behind. It’s a very sad but honest reflection of where I was mentally.

Q. How long did it take to overcome that very difficult phase in your life?

I’ll never fully get over it; it’s not something you can just be cleared of. Luckily, I was able to get help before it all became too much. I was prescribed medication that helped me initially, but I didn’t want to be taking those for any longer than I desperately needed to. With the help of a cognitive behavioural therapist, I was able to develop various coping mechanisms and strategies that I still use today to manage things.

Q. When did you move to Dubai?

It’s my sixth year in Dubai now. I feel that the network of friends and ‘family’ I have built up in that time is critical to me. I am now thriving and enjoying my life as I should be.

Q. Was moving to Dubai a life-changing decision?

The way things have panned out, it’s certainly changed my life for the better. I love my job. Every day I wake up now, I know that I’m coming in to influence the students I’m working with. I know that when I was their age, I looked up to my teachers and coaches, so I hope that they feel the same about me.

Q. For someone who has gone through a lot in life, it must be an emotionally fulfilling moment to work with school students, to inspire them to overcome great odds…

Just last week, we had a PSHE drop-down day, and I was able to speak with all the Year 9 boys on body image and mental health and give them a bit of a snapshot into my history and certain things to watch out for to help them avoid falling into the same habits that I once had. It’s a nice feeling being able to open up on a personal level to the students, to normalize the discussion on mental health.

Q. We have seen several elite athletes who lose their sense of life after career-ending injury setbacks. What would be your advice to them?

Speaking to someone about what you are going through is crucial. In my case, I felt embarrassed and ashamed of my feelings, falling under the stereotype of ‘I’m a man, I shouldn’t be feeling this,’ which in hindsight is absolutely ridiculous. Mental health affects us all, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It's like a broken bone; if we break a bone, we seek medical help right away. Just because you can’t see an illness doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be dealt with.

Q. Now you are back as a competitive athlete, going for the Hyrox World Championships. You will be partnering with fellow Dubai resident Adrian O’Gara in the doubles event. How important is it in terms of what you have gone through in life?

I just want to make the most of my life. I know I can overcome difficult things, considering where I've been—at rock bottom. I feel lucky that I’m still here and able to do what I am doing. I know that one day my body will not be able to do what I’m doing daily now, so it’s important to me to try and do as much as I can now, both in my athletic career and my teaching career. I want to educate the athletes of the future and pass on any little nuggets of advice that I can. To have a job such as Head of Strength and Conditioning in (Dubai) is something I am really grateful for. It allows me to make a positive impact on others and gives me a sense of fulfilment and purpose.


Rituraj Borkakoty

Published: Sun 2 Jun 2024, 7:56 PM

Last updated: Mon 3 Jun 2024, 7:32 AM

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