Fiona O’Sullivan had it all mapped out: play for one more season, move to France, get married and start a family. But the tragic death of her fiancé crushed that dream.
Life is often what happens while you are busy making plans, although the sudden passing of Devougn Lamont after he collapsed in a basketball game was no ordinary stumbling block – it was a descent into darkness.
He was a professional basketball player in France, she was a professional footballer in England. They were a couple for over 10 years and ready to commit the rest of their lives to each other.
The timing of an unexpected death can never feel right, but O’Sullivan was in a good place when it happened. Marking her debut for Notts County Ladies with a last-minute goal against Arsenal, it was almost as if the stars were aligning for her.
Then her dream disappeared like a wisp of smoke. That was last August and she continues to pick up the pieces from its wreckage.
“It’s still really tough, to be honest,” says O’Sullivan. “Now, it’s more real, when before it was more of a shock. Now it’s like starting my life over again. I have really tough days, I have good days, and I’m just trying to appreciate the situation that I have.
“Last season was supposed to be my last season. I was going to retire and we were going to start a family. Obviously those plans completely changed and I had to reevaluate things and decide what to do next. I still haven’t quite figured that out yet.”
O’Sullivan has rushed directly from a training session to give this interview, yet maintains a coolness that gives away her Californian upbringing.
Exuding confidence, there are no signs that she has been through a life-altering tragedy. We find a seat in a quiet corner of the café and she puts down her handbag, removes a pair of sunglasses, and begins to open up about life, death and football.
She has plenty of fascinating tales to share, such as the one about her father, Aidan, who left Bantry in west Cork and was en route to a new life on a farm in Brazil with a friend when he suddenly decided to turn right at the Mexican border, ended up in San Francisco, and met the love of his life.
Smiling at the memory, O'Sullivan then tells of her own eureka moment when discovering that her boyfriend's email to the Football Association of Ireland alerting them to her eligibility had been received positively and her international career was about to start.
Having followed Lamont to Mexico – one of his many stops in a globetrotting basketball career – O’Sullivan was at a crossroads in her life. She knew that she was in love, but she didn’t know what direction to take next after graduating from the University of San Francisco with a major in international politics.
That was when her boyfriend intervened and sent the email “behind her back”. It changed everything. Suddenly, she was preparing for an Ireland training camp in Indiana and a move to Europe, which would see her embrace the travel bug with stints in Sweden, Germany, France, and, now, England.
Six years on and the 5ft 10in forward is a key player in Sue Ronan’s Ireland team. Self-assurance has also followed thanks to a flair for learning new languages and entrepreneurship with her successful coaching camps in California. But she’s back at square one all over again.
“It’s life and you do have to get on with it. But I feel like things keep getting pulled out from under me just once I seem to get going,” says O’Sullivan.
“I was the lead scorer in the German Bundesliga and then my mom passed away. Then I came back in the second half of the season and tore my cruciate ligament.
“Then I came back and did really well, got the move to Notts County, scored my first goal, and then my fiancé passed away. I’ve been so fortunate in so many ways.”
She rolls out of bed each morning, faces the world and smiles even though the aches of loss jab at the pit of her stomach. That requires the kind of mental resolve that almost seems insulting to ascribe to someone for simply playing a game. Yet playing a game is what O’Sullivan does. When it was once her vocation, it is now her escape. It is where she can take solace from physical pain as it numbs the emotional torment – for 90 minutes at least.
The football has been going well. Last Sunday, she represented Ireland for the first time in her native California in a 3-0 friendly loss to the United States, which came shortly after helping Notts County into the FA Women’s Cup Final at Wembley.
A powerful striker with good close control, O’Sullivan won’t be short of offers if she decides to move on this year. But her next big target is the upcoming UEFA European Championship qualifiers, where she feels a successful outcome would perfectly cap off her time in Europe and, possibly, her playing career.
Back to making plans, she’s accepting that life goes on. And she doesn’t know it yet, but her tenacity in starting again means more than any goal scored ever will.