Kennedy Cherrington means it when she says she has “a second chance at life”.
“I was basically told I was never going to see past the age of eight to 10,” the Parramatta Eels prop told the Herald.
But now Cherrington, born with a congenital heart defect, is the heartbeat of the Parramatta pack leading into their NRLW clash with St George Illawarra at CommBank Stadium on Sunday.
The odds say the 23-year-old shouldn’t be here.
Cherrington’s condition was supposed to be mild. Then a check-up at eight years old revealed her heart was already the size of an adult’s, and she was sent for emergency surgery.
“I remember it clear as day. It happened when I was eight, but it feels like it was yesterday. I remember walking through the doors, going into surgery, the gas, waking up in ICU. I was in ICU for a week,” Cherrington said.
Kennedy Cherrington is determined to bounce back from her third knee surgery with a World Cup to come.
“I had leaking valves. If you know the basic anatomy of the heart, my valves weren’t attached to my heart properly. I wasn’t getting oxygenated blood to the rest of my body.
“I was purple, I wasn’t energetic, I was just lethargic. With that, my heart enlarged to the size of an adult’s when I was an eight-year-old. I could have died of cardiac arrest at any time, because I was misdiagnosed.
“It was pretty severe trauma when I was young, but it’s shaped me into the person and athlete I am today.”
Which is one of the most promising front-rowers in the game, once the NRLW’s rookie of the year whose love of aggression was fuelled by the afternoons she spent tackling her three brothers in the backyard of their family home.
Cherrington wasn’t alone – her sister Reuben went some way towards levelling the playing field. Now the pair are both on Parramatta’s roster. They’ve come some way from watching cousins Anthony and Manaia Cherrington play in the NRL.
“There were no female pathways back then. I take this personally and I really want to respect the women who came before us. Now it’s our time to pave the way for my sister’s generation and the generations after her,” Cherrington said.
“My inspiration is to have that clear, direct pathway, exactly like the men. We’re definitely on the way. In the next five years, I can confidently say that we will be full-time athletes.
“It’s a common goal as a playing group, it’s not just my dream for us. It’s that shared goal. That’s the ultimate goal. Then we can put aside the work focuses, and we have that support off the field, so we can purely focus on footy.
Eels stars Tiana Penitani, Kennedy Cherrington and Taina Naividi after a game earlier this year.
“When that happens, we can bring in more viewers, we’re going to bring in money. We already do, and that’s with us working full-time and part-time. Imagine the level of footy we can push to when we solely focus on footy and are in that professional environment.”
Now the Eels prop is the oldest of five who is trying to balance rugby league, study, work as a teacher’s aid at South Sydney High, and charity work with Heart Kids.
Cherrington does it all with doubt in the back of her mind. Because by the age of 23, she has already undergone knee surgery three times.
The latest forced her to withdraw from State of Origin contention earlier this year, a price Cherrington says she had to pay as she targets a World Cup appearance for the Jillaroos at season’s end.
“I love my footy but it has been a lot mentally. I’m currently seeing a sports psych at the moment through Parramatta. It has been a lot, especially with my situation with injury, so it hasn’t been the best ride this year,” Cherrington said.
“When I was younger, I endured some pretty severe trauma. I was born with a congenital heart defect, so I’m just being open and talking about experiences I went through.
“I’m really wanting to be that pioneer to say it’s OK to speak up. You might not think it’s anything worth talking about, but it’s better out than in. We’ve got to break that stigma.”
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