Nikki Symmons - Ireland Hockey/Cricket
Interviews and article by Myak Homberger
Nikki Symmons is Irelands most capped athlete - which considering the amazing athletes to have come out of this country puts her in a league reserved for the very few. This is not a female record; it’s an athlete record that isn’t gender specific. A rich history of world class athletes with countless caps who have become household names in Ireland and around the world, and none of them, male and female, have more caps than Nikki Symmons. This is a feat that shouldn’t be overlooked or underplayed in its enormity.
However the journey to 215 caps hasn’t been plain sailing. For a start, there was a 1½ year gap between her first Irish cap and her second. Many an athlete would have given up with the feedback she was getting but she was focused on playing for Ireland again. “I determined to get better and to prove them wrong,” Nikki says about that period of her life.
From her second cap onwards she excelled and fast became a part of the starting line-up for two different sports. Yes, TWO different sports. Not content with representing her country at one sport, Nikki represented Ireland at Cricket as well as Hockey! This puts her into an even more select group of athletes in the world let alone Ireland, playing two sports for your country at international level. However, there came a time for her to choose her sport as both were incredibly demanding - no surprise there! Hockey was the winner and it gained a heroine in Nikki, albeit Cricket’s loss of a potential world class 20/20 player. “Representing Ireland is amazing,” she says.
Thousands of miles travelled around the world, triple figure caps for Ireland and recognition as a world class player saw Nikki fulfilling her dream as an international athlete. She talks with such passion about the sport she loves and admits that she is struggling to put the Hockey sticks down, despite the doctors having told her for four years to put them down….and just like that, in a matter of fact way, she mentions that she should have stopped playing four years ago on medical grounds.
At the Europeans Nikki had found herself flat on the ground on the pitch, completely locked and unable to move for fifteen minutes. Once the physiotherapist and doctor had managed to get her mobilised again, she sought specialist help and advice. At the age of 27, Nikki was diagnosed with osteoarthritis: “the doctor said I had full-on osteoarthritis and I needed to stop playing.” She says it in such a relaxed way it’s almost as if she’s telling me she has a sprained ankle. However, this is a condition that can be completely
debilitating - so how on earth does someone continue to play at such a level, training like that and representing their country internationally?
There are no dramatics when we talk about it in detail. The thing that impresses about Nikki is that she doesn’t use it as an excuse or a crutch to lean on, the very opposite. It’s
an obstacle that needs to be overcome and that’s how she does it. “I sometimes don’t do the hard impact training and instead do swimming,” she says explaining how she
has had to alter her regime to her condition. This is an athlete who loves her sport so much and doesn’t want to give up - it’s as if the passion and enthusiasm ooze out of every pore. Every now and then she says something in passing that hints at how serious it is and the immense impact it has on her daily life. “It hurts every day,” or “...at least once a month I wake up and I am stuck in bed, completely locked.” It takes a lot for me to remain unemotional whilst listening to her talk with such courage.
Nikki has continued to play for Ireland and passed the 200 cap mark in style. “That was pretty awesome,” she admits - and continued till 215 caps, a truly amazing achievement for any athlete, let alone one who for the last four years has had osteoarthritis.
So what is she doing going forward with it? She is slowing down her international duties but is very much keeping active. “If I slow down and stop moving it’s worse,” Nikki says. “I need to keep moving.” Not only this, but she has become an ambassador for Arthritis
Ireland to give something back and to give hope to those suffering. Off to start a Masters degree in Sports Administration in Switzerland, the first thing she has packed….her Hockey sticks. “I can’t let go!” she laughs - and when we speak again she has already been on the pitch training! “I know!” she says laughing at having been caught out.
On top of this she will be on TV in Ireland in the new year with a series called ‘Ireland’s fittest family,’ as well as working as a commentator for FIH (the governing body for Hockey worldwide). This is hardly someone who is slowing down, more like changing paths but still going full tilt and not letting something major like osteoarthritis get in the way of her pursuing her dreams and living life to the full.
Nikki has not allowed her condition to dictate her life, her outlook or who she is at all - she lives life to the full doing all of the above and more. She travels as much as possible, enjoying new places and challenges and loves to talk about them with such a spark, it’s contagious. We talk about the adventures we could have and scheme about things we could go and do in 2014, without a care in the world. You get caught up in her love of life - it’s fantastic to observe and experience and anyone that she encounters is touched in the same way and will possibly never be the same again. It is a testament to her character and it is impossible not to enjoy her bubbly, chatty nature and that zest for life that belies the secret that those who don’t know her are oblivious to.
Nikki is a remarkable example of the adage ‘you only live once’: from perseverance, to smiling, to not using things as an excuse, to being humble, to wringing every ounce out of life and to being an amazing athlete. As time has gone on and Nikki and I have chatted and seen each other, she has become someone I feel humbled to call a friend. It’s an honour to know people like this and have them in my life. For me and all of those she interacts with, we are all better for knowing Nikki Symmons the person, not only the athlete who stands on the shoulders of giants, but the person who has that ‘something’ many aspire to.