There are many things that make this sport unique. The Spirit of the Game, the respect between you and your opponent, the community. It’s a giant family that once you’re a part of, you’re there forever. No one knows that more than Ireland Men’s Masters Captain Mark Earley.

On 20th April 2017, Mark’s wife Liane Deasy passed away in her sleep. She suffered from a condition called nocturnal epilepsy which was uncontrolled, meaning that the prescribed medicine she took was unable to prevent the seizures she had. According to Mark, 1 in 150 people with uncontrolled epilepsy can suffer Sudden Adult Death in Epilepsy (known as SUDEP).

Mark, known affectionately as Marko, is a well-known figure in the Ultimate community not just in Ireland, but across the globe. He’s played for 17 years and has met a number of his closest friends through our fair sport. Opening to me about his loss, he explained: ““She was my best friend, my soul mate and she made me a better person; she gave me a lot of strength and self-belief.

“She was a speech and language therapist who devoted all her time to others by day and by night. She did a lot of volunteer work, was always a spiritual person and left behind her a husband, a big family and a lot of friends. When we were coming together in the days after her death, obviously very grief stricken, it became clear, certainly to me, that celebrating her life in a much more positive fashion is better than wallowing inwards in ourselves.”

Marko and Liane together. Photo courtesy of Mark Earley.

Marko and Liane together. Photo courtesy of Mark Earley.

Despite his tragic loss, Marko decided to do what many others have done and find solace in Ultimate: “This tournament had been on my agenda for some time, although shorter than other teams as we got our bid so late.

“There was talk amongst my family and friends whether I should go or not. The support from the Ultimate community has been incredible, it’s a big family and I’ve spent years working with the community. I’m very passionate about my sport and I need to lean on it. And I’m getting it, I’m getting that support from the community back in spades. That gave me the strength to come here this week.”

While it would have been so easy to lock himself away and shut out the world, Marko wasn’t going to go down that route, and he owes it to one person: “In a strange way, I feel the strength and belief she gave me has stayed with and made the suffering that little bit easier.”

Instead, he took charge of his team, alongside co-captain Luan McKenna, and ensured that the team would happen and that he would play part of the experience. “My team has been incredible; the teams we’ve played against have been incredible. I’ve got friends from Australia, Germany, England, Ireland, France, Spain – all over the place, come up to me with little pats on the back, handshakes, hugs. It’s been beautiful and it’s just a small insight to what we have. It reminds me not to take it for granted.”

When listening to Marko’s story, I could only begin to try and imagine depths of what he’s going through. But, I could connect with a lot of it. The community in this sport is unlike any other. It takes you in and accepts you, it moulds you as a person and it stabilises you. It transcends past being a just a game, into a culture that only those in it can truly appreciate and understand. Marko’s words are a testament to this.

“I’m kind of very lucky at home to have had a big group of friends all my life. I’m very privileged to have had a good upbringing in terms of the love and affection I’ve had as a child growing up. I’ve been lucky to have that community at home, and I’m even more lucky to have the Ultimate community on top of that. It’s been pretty overwhelmingly positive. I remember going to Mixed Nationals maybe a month after Liane passed and the reception I got was incredible. It was just touching beyond belief.

“People deal with grief in very different ways. There has been grief in Irish Ultimate previously this year and people have their own personal lives that we might not know about on the field. But players were still able to give me their hearts and their minds. I got some letters, WhatsApp messages, Facebook posts from people I see maybe twice a year at tournaments and around. And I swear, through those first few lonely nights and weeks those messages are invaluable.

“For anyone that might read this, I want to say a massive thank you to everyone from all over the world who has supported to me. I can’t quantify how much that means to me.”

Marko speaks to people gathered to remember Liane in Royan earlier this week. Photo by Luan McKenna.

Marko speaks to people gathered to remember Liane in Royan earlier this week. Photo by Luan McKenna.

On Tuesday, Marko arranged a gathering on the cool, morning shore of Royan to celebrate his late spouse’s life, and opened it up to everyone and anyone at the tournament that may wish to reflect, share their positive energy or send their thoughts to those going through tough times. It was a gesture that really puts things in perspective and shows how much of a true gent Marko is; to allow the wider community to share such an intimate moment with him is touching.

This act may become something of a tradition for Marko and his friends, as he openly ruminates on how it came into fruition: “A month after she died, we went on a walk up to where we got engaged on Killiney Hill and spread some ashes there, as well as kayaking out the Dublin bay with about 40 or 50 of her closest friends and family.

“Then, almost naturally we ended up standing around in a semi-circle and played one of her favourite songs by Bobby McFerrin, ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’. It’s something that is going to stick with everyone that was there, it was beautiful.”

Then, one month later, it was repeated, with Marko joined by his second family. “I just put it up on Facebook, even though I wasn’t totally sure how people would react. People manage grief in their own way and there’s no doubt a lot of people here are dealing with some sort of issues, be it dealing with a loss of a loved one years ago or days ago.

“I don’t want to be someone pushing an agenda of positivity if they’re not there yet so I was kind of afraid putting it on that page that it would be taken the wrong way, but I was taken aback with the huge response it got. Over 40 people came from all over the world and joined us at the beach on Tuesday morning. I said a few words and tried to urge everyone to try find the positives in whatever negative situations they might be finding themselves in. We played the song, went for a swim together and let the whole thing wash over us, if you will excuse the pun.”

With the aim of using his story to reach out and help others, Marko feels he is helping keep Liane’s spirit alive. Before the tournament, he had a number of wristbands made with the message. ‘Be strong & be yourself’ printed on it. “I gave them to everyone I’ve played and to a lot of my close friends that I’ve come across during the week and they’re just a little reminder that if you ever find yourself in a little hole that you don’t think you can get out of, there’s always someone there to help you to be strong, and failing that, you’ve got where you are today by your own hard work.”

Each band signs off with #LianeUp, a small, but perfect embodiment of what his late wife represents. “I don’t know if it’s just an Irish phrase, but we say ‘man up’, to be strong, but we changed it to ‘Liane up’.

“Hopefully these bracelets will stick with people, so they can wear them or pin them up at home or somewhere else and it will remind them that I’m thinking of them and hopefully Liane, wherever she is, might be looking down on them too.”

Marko has been handing out 'Be strong & be yourself' wristbands. Here's the Irish Mixed team showing theirs off. Photo by Sinead O'Shiel Flemming.

Marko has been handing out ‘Be strong & be yourself’ wristbands. Here’s the Irish Mixed team showing theirs off. Photo by Sinead O’Shiel Flemming.

While we’ve highlighted the community factor of Ultimate being an amazing support, Marko also admits that the on-pitch battles have been a tonic for keeping his mind right.

“I’m quite good at turning a switch in terms of turning to competition and sport as a distraction. It has been a difficult week. She planned to come and watch some of it and we planned on going away after and that’s obviously not happening anymore so that’s difficult. In terms of captaining the team, I find that comes quite naturally, I’ve been doing it a long time and I’m quite comfortable with it.

“I really enjoy being someone who can rally people and try get the best out of a group of people and lead them. That’s been a lovely turn for me to be able to walk onto the pitch and not have to think. To be able to go and only think about the next cut, next throw and the team.”

But, off the pitch, although he has put on a brave face and powered through the week, Marko did courageously admit that he still, understandably, has his struggles with vulnerability: “There’s been downs too. I got to breakfast on Tuesday and just had to leave straight away. I couldn’t face anyone,” he admits. Thankfully, once again he knows he’s never truly alone with his battle.

“I’m staying in a room with Luan, who’s my co-captain and I’ve known him since I was 10, so he’s someone I can confide in, like having my brother in the room. We have a few chats every night and he’s another brilliant crutch for me.”

Marko’s frank honesty and his ability to look me in the eye and admit to his inner conflict is inspiring, his willingness to be open an honour to listen to. That feeling is only intensified as he explains:

“I’m an optimist and I feel I’m someone that tries to find the positive in everything and I just want to try get that message across that I think we’re all lucky to be here and we’ve all got our whole lives ahead of us. It sounds corny but just do what you want and be yourself, you’ve got to believe in yourself and whatever happens you can get through it. You’ve got family, you’ve got friends and if you don’t, reach out to somebody, or even just look me up on Facebook.

“At the moment, I’m really trying to learn to love myself and love everybody at the same time.”

If you can take anything at all from Marko’s words, let it be this. We’re all incredibly lucky to be part of a wide family of people who share similar values. Embrace it, look after one another, reach out. With all this positive energy flowing through the beach, it’s important we share it. And above all, be strong and be yourself.

By Aidan Kelly.