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Kate McCarthy: 5 Things I've Learned as an Athlete With a 'Metal Heart'

After multiple seizures and being diagnosed with a grade three heart blockage as a child, Kate McCarthy was told she would never be able to play elite sport. She proved them all wrong.

Despite having a pacemaker implanted and being told to give up on her athletic aspirations by doctors, Kate represented Australia in Touch Rugby and as a junior in Track and Field, and has represented Queensland in Cricket.

She now plays AFLW for the Brisbane Lions, making the inaugural AFL Women’s grand final and the 2017 All-Australian team.

In an exclusive blog for PickStar, Kate revealed the five things she has learnt as an elite athlete with a #metalheart.

Kate McCarthy writes for PickStar

1. Things can change very quickly.

I learnt this lesson very early on in my life. When I was just 4 I had my first seizure due to my heart blockage. At the time I was on a tennis court, practicing with my sister and my coach. One minute I was waiting in line for my turn, the next my coach was leaning over me asking if I could hear him. I had no idea what had just happened but I soon realised it was something significant. As I was so young and my seizures were fairly irregular, my cardiologist decided it was best to see what happened before intervening with a pacemaker.

One day when I was 12, this all changed again very quickly. I remember being in my year 7 classroom and suddenly feeling very faint, I knew what was about to happen. I woke up surrounded by my friends and teacher, I then had another seizure in the ambulance once it had arrived. I continued to have seizure after seizure that day, 8 in total. Less than 24 hours later I had a pacemaker implanted. At this stage I didn’t even know what a pacemaker did – I just knew I had been given a metal object in my chest.

2. I am not the only young person with a pacemaker.

Generally, the response I get when I tell someone I have a pacemaker is “my grandma/grandpa has one of those.”

I learned quickly that it was rare for someone of my age to have a pacemaker. Since tweeting before my first AFL game about my pacemaker, many young men and women have been in touch with me telling me about their own pacemaker or defibrillator. This has been one of the most positive experiences of my life. Many people contacted me saying they didn’t think they could do any form of exercise again and are going to consider whether they can now get back into doing what they love. I don’t know where I would be without sport and if my experience can help someone else, I find that extremely rewarding!

3. If you don’t agree with something, challenge it!

The only thing I was ever worried about when I got my pacemaker is whether I would still be able to play sport. At the time, I was told I could play all sports except for any full contact sports. I was never worried about this until I went down to my local AFL club for a training session and fell in love with the sport. The next week I had made an appointment to talk to my cardiologist about getting a clearance to play. Surprisingly he was more than okay for me to play the sport and didn’t see any issue with it. If I didn't question this, I would never have found the sport that gives me so much happiness.

As a female athlete, I think through your life you are told, whether it is directly or indirectly, that there are certain things you can’t do. The perfect example of this would be if two years ago a female AFL player said she wanted to play for her favourite AFL club at the highest level. Without challenging what we are told, nothing will ever change and we will never know whether our wildest dreams are within reach.

4. There will always be critics.

I remember after I tweeted about being the first person playing in the AFL with a pacemaker I got many positive responses, but as usual I got a few keyboard warriors that were quick to point out that I wasn’t playing AFL, I was playing AFLW. I also remember some of the responses I received after scoring one of my goals against Collingwood, a goal where I ran and had 5 bounces before kicking the goal, I have since been told that I have an awful bouncing technique. I guess my point here is, no matter what you do in your life there is one thing you can be absolutely sure of – you will never please everyone! The more I do as a person and an athlete the more I realise that at the end of the day you need to be happy with the person you are and the things you do and you can hold your head high. As long as you are happy with your choices and decision as a person, the other noise in the background isn’t important. Be happy with yourself, be your biggest fan, be proud of who you are and what you have achieved.

5. I am lucky I had a #metalheart when I ran out in Brisbane Lions colours for the first time.

With my condition, I have an extremely slow heart-rate. One exception to this would have been when I put my Brisbane Lions jersey for the first time at Casey Fields in Melbourne. While I was nervous, I don’t think at the time I realised how significant this moment would be in sporting history. Upon finishing the season and reflecting on this moment, I think it means more to me now that it ever has. For young girls growing up playing AFL this is now something that is complete normal and attainable for them. They can now say confidently that they want to be an AFL player and not one person will be able to say to them “you are a girl, you can’t do that.”

I will forever be the first female Brisbane Lions player to wear the number 9 jersey and to do that alongside 21 of my best friends who have shared so many amazing memories in 2017 is something that is a definite highlight of my life.

Kate McCarthy writes for PickStar

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